Black Woman Gone Bougie & Other Grad School Fears

My grad school acceptance felt like a fairytale. I imagined myself as a little girl, a Black braided Rapunzel in reverse, looking upon that big white tower in front of me with wide eyes and ambition. I see myself tossing my braids to the highest window of the tower, pulling myself up, right foot over left, with fervor. I trek, moving closer and closer to the top, closer and closer to my goals and accomplishments.

Suddenly, my fairytale becomes a nightmare. The tower is no longer a shining white symbol of potential, but instead feels so pristine, so untouchable, so unlike myself. My foot gets tangled in my mass of braids and I am stuck. I peer up to the top of the tower and see white faces sneering and look down to see the townspeople, my people cheering me on in tattered rags. My thoughts swing between letting myself go in hopes that the townsfolk will catch me, and continuing the climb to fulfill my own goals. The back and forth of this graduate school “to go or not to go” decision has been taxing, frightening, and revealing.

My desire to pursue a PhD (Sidenote: Can I be really real with y’all? I still get confused about which letters in that title to capitalize. Omg.) began in undergrad. After being exposed to Black queer feminist ideology in college and flexing words like “intersectional” and “decolonizing” in college, my education became a means of self-exploration and redefinition. I now had the vocabulary to articulate what I had felt for years, and was surrounded by people that challenged me every day to tackle my own biases and privileges. Much of my learning was done outside of the classroom, but there are a multitude of professors that gave me the language and the space I needed to voice myself, whether it was on paper or through my spoken words.

When I reflect on my college experience, there was a very clear cut between academics and action for me. During my senior year, I became heavily involved in student activism (while never calling myself an activist because as my friend Miesha Bell says “I haven’t received enough death threats to consider myself one.”) and became exposed to the student activism/community activism dichotomy. Our highway shutdowns and sit-ins against racism on campus were making waves, but had little to no impact on the greater New Brunswick community. In retrospect, our actions feel naive and misguided, with many of us encouraging the New Brunswick community to engage with us knowing that after four years, we would ultimately leave and move on with our lives. Many of us had the same route: learning the same big words that could easily be applied to our oppression, grabbing organizing strategies that we were exposed to through our studies of the Black Power movement, reminiscing on the ways in which our university had marginalized us, then pushing back. What always felt like the missing link between our education and activism was mentorship. The majority of my interactions with professors were centered around their success climbing the ivory tower, and were hardly ever about any sort of community building or action around the same concepts they were theorizing (with the exception of Charlotte Bunch and Cheryl Clarke who were most certainly ’bout that life).

I think about how that disconnect translates to my future ambitions, continuing to work with the radical organizing collective Assata’s Daughters but beginning my pursuit of a graduate degree. Deep within me, there is a fear that the desire to prove myself to academia will swallow me whole, causing me to lose sight of the importance of community engagement. It becomes so easy to distance yourself from groundwork if you convince yourself that writing about it is enough, like I’ve seen so many scholars do. This is not to discredit those that do not have the capacity to organize, but to call to attention the reality of how harmful theorizing without practice can be.

When I am asked why I want to go to grad school my first answer is almost always “to student on white people” but my second answer is that I want to make academia accessible to those who can gain the most benefit. Much of the discussion in academic writing is insular, leaving no space or accessibility through language for those who have not spent years reading and theorizing about the same topics. When I consider the most influential intellectuals in my life, a majority of them broke down difficult concepts in ways that I was able to digest and build on. I have witnessed so many academics of color fall victim to abstract ideologies and multi-syllabic words to prove themselves worthy of being in higher education, and wonder if they ever at one point caught themselves slipping or simply blinked and found themselves in that predicament. Losing sight of my goals is perhaps one of my biggest fears about graduate school.

I fear my own imposter syndrome, I fear becoming straight up bougie, and I fear losing touch with reality but what scares me the most is the pervasive structure that my fear is rooted in. I fear that my pursuits won’t dismantle the ivory tower and will leave me in an in-between place of climbing and falling. In my doubts, I cling to images of Brittany Cooper and Angela Davis, who still radicalize and theorize with grace and badassery. I remember that I have a support system of loved ones who will give me a much needed reality check. I continue the fluctuation between fear and motivation, until I decide to just jump in the water and do the damn thing.

3 Comments

  • ronvave April 1, 2016 at 2:18 am

    Keep climbing Rapunzel.

    Reply
  • rosarioejimenez April 2, 2016 at 2:48 am

    I told you once last year at Rutgers very briefly about how Great I thought your writing was in the mist of giving you something to give to Kenya at the livi dining hall lolz (If you recall) I didn’t emphasize my appreciation too much then cause I’m a shy person, BUT I’ve honestly been reading and admiring your stuff from afar. Caught up in all my thoughts and feels tonight, I decided to see if you recently posted, and I’m glad I came across this! This was a pleasure to read and I want to THANK YOU for being so personal in your writing. In a wierd way, this has helped me.

    Reply
    • fullamusub April 12, 2016 at 2:48 pm

      This is so sweet, thank you so much! I’m grateful that my writing has meant something to you.

      Reply

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