That week’s assignment for my favorite class last semester was Talitha LeFlouria’s new book Chained in Silence: Black Women and Convict Labor in the New South (Justice, Power, and Politics), a very important but extremely difficult book that calls attention to the specificities of black women’s experience in the chain gangs in the American South in the late 19th to early 20th century. The women LeFlouria studied were subject to unimaginable horror. Reading the book was difficult, and our class discussion that week was largely therapeutic as my colleagues and I worked through our reactions to reading about the terrible things the women endured. That week, more than ever, I forced myself to confront the toll my work and scholarly interests were taking on me. I study contemporary black women writers, primarily in and from Africa, although I would really like my focus to be more cross-Diasporic. As a student of postcolonial and contemporary black literature, an overwhelming portion of the material I work with and will have to re-visit over the course of my career is challenging. It encompasses the stories of people I know and love. It includes my own story and those of people who look like me. These works cast a revealing light on painful experiences and the long history of subjection, trauma, and dehumanization that black and brown people have lived through around the world.
Last semester, I was one of four teaching assistants for my university’s Introduction to Africana Studies course, which was a large class of over 100 students – an abnormally large enrollment. This year in particular, I have been trying to think through and grapple with the fact that I have willingly chosen a career in which I will have to interact regularly with difficult materials. I will have to read, re-read, and teach works that encapsulate and re-awaken my own rage. While I was grading midterms, I noticed that one of my young black students answered an essay prompt using the pronouns “we,” “us,” and “our.” "Our community." "Our history." "Us." "We." That essay made me emotional; it reminded me why I was drawn to academic work and to my particular research focus. My work is survival work. I chose it because I am fully convinced of the significance, beauty, and resilience of black and brown people around the world. I am committed to scholarship and discourse that centers our stories and experiences – the good and the bad. I don’t know that the work will get any easier. Actually, I hope it doesn’t; I don’t want to be de-sensitized to what the literature portrays. I still very much want to continue, as much as possible, to serve as a megaphone that amplifies the stories that black writers have shared, are sharing, and will share. I am intent on continuing to teach this material, because representation matters and our students need to interact with the stories that black writers offer. But, alongside my determination to work with the painful material, I am committing to care.
I have to be patient with myself – any reaction I have to the texts I’m reading is valid. I need to remember that and build time to check in with myself. I also have to build time to check out, throw myself into my relationships and my love for really bad TV shows (first black 'Bachelorette,' anyone?). This semester in particular, I’ve gained strength from my professors who have demonstrated their commitment to mentoring and caring for me. I am leaning heavily into my friendships with my black colleagues. We have begun a habit of checking in on each other and getting together occasionally (sometimes with a piano involved) in a way that gives me pure joy. I have decided that part of the task of preventing my work from completely depleting my soul is to build myself up in other places. I feel no guilt about that; and I remain fully committed both to my work and to my right to step away from it, if only for a brief moment.