Les Gray is a recent PhD graduate from University of Maryland College Park in Theatre and Performance Studies. Their research focuses on Black cultural production and its relationship to trauma and terror ranging from blues dancing to police brutality videos. Their dissertation outlines performances of spectacular Black pain as well as considering the potential for joy, healing, and solidarity. Les is deeply invested in what it means to be ethical cultural producers and will continue to pursue and create scholarship related to performance, Blackness, and disability as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Missouri.
by Les Gray (they/them)
For three years of my high school life, I attended a small, “exclusive”, all-girls boarding school in the South. It was a place where wealthy girls, those girls who will never have too much, met folks like me attending on scholarship. And we were treated the same. Until we weren’t. Some kids could emerge from cheating scandals unscathed. Some would be kicked out for drinking at a party off campus. I learned that your money and your whiteness could protect you in a way that education couldn’t. This is relevant for later.
There was a woman. I will call her Ms. Peggy. She was a lovely person who, as best as I knew her, seemed quite alacritous in her position as a Black woman serving white girls. We had these breaks during the class day. Cookie Breaks. A daily routine wherein Ms. Peggy or another one of the Black folks that worked behind the scenes would bring out fresh cookies of various kinds. Folks graduated, went to Ivies, moved on, got jobs that can afford them 3 bedroom apartments in big cities without roommates.
But Ms. Peggy stayed there, grew old, and died. And there was a great public lament in the community. She had come into contact with so many people during their formative years. People spoke about her kindness. Her ability to bring them their most freshest, favoritest cookie that $25,000 dollars could buy. So much talk of these cookies and their connection to white joy.
Some small scandal has erupted around the school and its response to Black lives being snuffed out at extraordinary rates. Some students and alumnae were incensed that the school – before posting an empathetic or coalition building, “We see you. We hear you,” statement – had posted a statement from local police.
Which pissed off the white girls who had grown to become (mostly well-intentioned) white women. Talks were had. Letters were generated and generic admin responses received. I wanted to be invested in this cause but all I could think about were those cookies.
This school has always already been more invested in the Black bodies that serve them food than the ones they are admitting to be educated.
Maybe this is why I worked harder on becoming a better educator than a baker. I was obviously preparing for my funeral.
I think what bothers me is not the actions of the school but the outrage of the students. They had no idea where they were or who they were among. It was only after they left that their racial education may have begun. Mine started around the time I was thrust up against that sharp white background when a older white student flaunted the fact that she could say nigger to my face with no repercussions.
Part of me wants change to happen for those high schoolers. For Black and POC to be hired to support Black and Brown girls in their growth. For their education to be multifaceted and enriching. But let’s be fair. That school was like Hogwarts; they were there to produce elite white women in the same way that the wizarding world was not set up to produce scholars of math or theatre.
I don’t want things to change because I want them to have a sense of the higher education worlds they are walking into. There are few and far between minortarian faculty and the ones that are present are notoriously overburdened with emotional labor. They are the diversity hire among a long line of white supremacy hires. It is so strange to have graduated at this particular moment in time and be moving on to a wonderful, supportive opportunity that is a post-doc. Especially just having thrown myself into the sea of stories, lives, and deaths of Black women and men in this country within the context of my dissertation only to come back up again drowning.
As a person who is Black, chronically ill, and not cis, I knew the world I would walk into would always be hard. I have small reserves for social media shutdowns when I see folks perpetuating the same white supremacist narratives played out time and time again. A nice man responded to my criticism saying that I could just go back to my life being a racist and “playing the looser victim.” And I, in my moment of taking the obvious high road told him that I would indeed, continue to play the role of looser victim. With a doctorate.
I am not Michelle Obama and sometimes my respectability politics take leave of me and I go lower. I know that this is messed up and elitist and a card that I should have not have pulled but we all know this game is rigged. Despite the fact that I can throw out that I have a terminal degree, my regalia is not bulletproof. My tam will not protect my eyes from tear gas. If I get pulled over, no one will ask to see my license, registration, and publications. No one will stop and think that I was once not a looser, that I was fucking precious to someone and my existence was not inconsequential.
How do I tell that to my colleagues that are celebrating my achievements as I grieve so many losses?
How do I teach that to my students, those girls emerging from schools like mine?
I struggle a lot with this concept of being enough and not in a neoliberal imposter syndrome kind of enough; I have things to say that I feel are important. But in the larger scheme of things, will they be enough to keep my names in people’s mouths? Will my illnesses indict me before a cop that murdered me is charged? Will 3 letters behind my name ever be enough or should I settle to live in the wake of now not just being a nigger, but a Dr. Nigger?
How do I convince you that I am enough? Because I am tired of reiterating to folks, academically and otherwise, that our suffering has lasted too long; we’ve had enough.
I feel like I am setting myself up for my funeral. The funeral that happens after we have burned down the things my ancestors built for free on stolen land. With gasoline or with words in books. At this point, I don’t really care.
And at that funeral. No one better talk about any fucking cookies.
- Where You Show Out Is Where I Show Out: On Micro Macro Aggressions – WOC Guest Post
- Black Women Faculty at HBCUs – WOC Guest Post
- When a Cup of Coffee Means More Than a Cup of Coffee: Mentoring as a Woman of Color – WOC Guest Post
- Too Big, Too Brown, and Too Much – WOC Guest Post
- The Power of Privilege: a Mexican Ecologist in Academia in the USA? – WOC Guest Post