By W. D. Herstun. W. D. Herstun is a graduate student in Writing & Digital Communication with a background in research and history. She reads everything and studies anything but is currently fascinated by surrealism’s various manifestations. If there is an area of focus then its the study of power and beauty and their representations in art, politics, and language. When not in the books, she is writing, daydreaming, messing around on SM, or spending quality time with her cats. See more of W.D. Herstun’s work at The Herstun Writer. Follow W.D. at @herstunwild.
(I’m delighted to post this work, submitted in response to my call on Twitter for posts from Black scholars about their experience of the academy. While W.D. and I talked about possible edits, I made no changes to this piece. I feel that its wisdom shines from exactly the way that it is written and I don’t want to change a word.)
(This is entirely my own experience and cannot reflect the experience of all or even a majority of Black students. But I am going to attempt to keep it real about myself because it is frustrating. Perhaps sharing will provide an outlet.)
I am currently a graduate student and I would love to spend some years sequestered in study, discovery, and processing. Therefore, I am embittered by the current state of academia. Lol. Fair disclaimer.
Here is a conglomeration of thoughts on why Black people do not join the academy without a thesis or any topic sentences or any of that nonsense. Stream of consciousness if you will:
What language are y’all speaking in the academy? Where are the rules? It is ridiculously arbitrary and half of it makes no dang sense.
I want to learn. But I don’t want to be beaten down emotionally and spiritually at every turn, edited to nothing, and drained by bullshit. Then you won’t guarantee me anything. Woooow. Can any programs link up with immediate professorships? I have to pay my bills. Will the program accommodate my side hustle if I get accepted? — some are. I’m watching them a little harder. Bc man. Even with the full funding… Can. I. Eat? These books great but they not edible.
And personally, I have a visceral reaction to the pay. Are u kidding me? People built most the buildings around here without pay because they looked like me and now u also want to justify me building shit for u with my mind without pay?!? (Because you personally weren’t around when the building that your family photo is nicely mounted in was built?!! Or bc u didn’t know about the burial grounds!?! You didn’t realize the university took state funds and hard-earned Black tax paying dollars during segregation to build this 60 year old building???? Funny. My granny told me. She making you look like a simp right now. And so on. (PLEASE police my language somewhere else liberal white people and not here, not today.))
But there is funding.
What. Funding. Where? You mean what they pay the university for me to work there and meet standards that no one has actually set up front. My mama told me when I was little not to sign no contracts for things what don’t specify up front and with clarity what they require. Teaching, assisting with research, spearheading my own… All amid intense competition with White people.
It takes a very SPECIAL Black person to be able to deal with the BS.
Then God forbid you disagree with the wrong White person. It’s all next level shit in the academy too. So it’s not like when ur dealing with Joe with the confederate flag. He’s easy. As a matter of fact, part of the reason you learned about the world was to learn how to deal with Joe. He been around forever. Lowkey, we are besties. As long as he just talkin’ shit and watching Fox and not actually riding into the night. We laugh sometimes. But don’t tell the liberals. They think Joe is shit. Because he is shit. But his shit is easier and less draining to charm or fight.
Nooooooo. 19-year old Cody is “open-minded”. He respects your intellect, supposedly. BLM Cody. But you disagreed with him and he don’t like that. (How dare you suggest that there is no such thing as neutrality? After all you have read? Extremist!) There are certain RULES. So now you’re threatening af. And you halfway wondering if this dude is about to hunt you down after class. He is definitely going to talk about how affirmative action is ruining the academy later. Sweet. And every time you try to bring something up around Cody, it will be patronize, penalize, dismiss. Something like, “I’m talking over you forever now Keisha and it doesn’t matter if that’s your name. Or if you brought the evidence written in ancient-mystery-white-man-
speak exactly as directed wrapped in the magic of methodological whatever….”
[A Daily Thought: Firefighters make ok money and they have hours that allow for flexible study. It’s just discouraging af.]
And then you get up there and not only are you facing thousands of years of White man thinkspeak, and Cody trying to figure out why they allow dreadlocks in the program (so unprofessional, amirite?) but u ALSO have the literal White man in the room trying to remind you that you don’t know shit. But it’s not personal!! No. No one knows shit. But him.
You try to ask questions the way you understand things… And they laugh at you. (In undergrad it was particularly disturbing because they were also dressed alike, including the professor. Truly replays like a horror story.)
I started undergrad as a kid. I am an adult student now, though by no means the oldest student in my classroom, even in my 30s. It is so neat to hear what everyone else has to say and not just jack ass 19-year-old Cody. (One of the more spectacular elements of the program I am currently in.)
Even with that, I fight not to react to White male belittlement and provocation in the academy like I have fought no where else. I also served in the military. I was able to find bonds with the White men in the military. Their lives or careers were often in my hands, and they found that I was more than capable of handling that. Mostly, in exchange for this discovery, I was rewarded with acceptance. Or, hatred. Lol. Never going to please everyone when you want to do something with your life. The biggest reward was that they let me study. As a matter fact, I think they found my obsession with learning entertaining. My White leadership in the military took me into their homes so that I could take special trips to museums, they answered my questions, gave me books, took me out to teach me about hunting, fishing, camping. They were mostly officers and the clear delineation between officer and enlisted makes White people comfortable. And comfortable White people are safe White people. Even if I was ‘smart as a whip’, I was enlisted. And the military makes no apologies for its good ole boy club. I have learned to appreciate the honesty.
I love learning. Developing courses and teaching people sounds fun. But why would I ever think that is something someone would want me to do?? Most the educated Black people we know get treated like crap. Cornel West and Angela Davis are literally the prototypes. Please google their careers. And understand that a young Black person with a little sense and a little time watching folks get rich in the 90s probably shifted their dreams.
Furthermore, the Black community doesn’t even support scholars like that! Because it’s basically poverty for at least ten years and we were already poor ten years before we ever left home in the first place. Outside of families that have scholarship in their veins, Black parents and communities are more supportive of more immediate goals. Business. Entertainment. STABILITY. My mom knows that the academy will be closely tied to activism for me and she has never encouraged that. She and my father wanted a pediatrician when they said doctor.
I have been assigning myself reading lists with corresponding experiments that mixed all the subjects so I could understand since I was 8. But I want to reiterate, why would I ever think that the academy wanted me?! Since being in graduate school, I have begun to think that maybe I am an independent scholar of sorts… My learning process started early, I spent my life reading stuff by myself, then writing it down and in that process breaking it down. Then trying to make something I wrote separately look like what I read… Then reimagining it in a way that I could talk about it around the ppl I talk to. You know… ppl. The waitress. The bartender. The lady in line at the airport. Before the pandemic… I just moved around the world talking to people, listening, reading, writing, re-writing, then reading something new, and starting again.
There have been a lot of unseen benefits to that learning pattern that I didn’t fully fathom until coming back to school as an adult. Nobody ever made me choose a subject. I picked whatever I wanted to study. I am an expert at nothing. I have dabbled in and found love for most subjects. No one told me what was wrong or right. I just read a lot on all the sides of every issue I could find. And then I would try to find ways to ask at least 30 people I didn’t know what they thought about a concept I had read about. The more I did this, the more I learned to vary my ask pool by socioeconomic status, race, geographic origin, sexuality, and nationality. That process taught me that I will never be able to adequately adjust for all of these variables, they are too wide. So I would adjust. I would set a daily hypothesis, then cross it out when I came back in, and spend the night reading some more. It became a pattern as easy as night and day. I ask. They tell. Then, I listen, remember, go home and take notes. Sometimes I found out really fascinating things. And sometimes nothing at all. There were no grades. And I did all my science experiments on my budget and about things that I found interesting.
It isn’t that people never told me that I was smart. It is more that being smart meant that I should I be able to figure everything out on my own. So why didn’t I have a college degree? And why was I failing classes? Why was my GPA so low? Am I an idiot? Why am I here? What is the point of school? (I think a lot of people come back to making money or serving populations, but I wanted to learn. To feel like I understood what was going on. )
So I stopped going. I would show up to classes on the first day… like, I’d stop in on every class the chemistry department offered in the first week of school, collect loan money from the bursar and immediately ditch school. And go try to do everything I could on my own. And I had fun. These are some of the best memories I have in a hard time. I found work in retail and spent my considerable free time reading through the libraries on campus one at a time. Which is not to suggest that in 10 years I came remotely close to finishing, but I gave it a hearty effort. Sometimes I would sit in the back of class and write down all the names of people that were mentioned. I learned that even if you can’t understand your professor, you can google those names. And their research will pop up and lots of other interpretations. It’s much easier to work from there sometimes. And people put more effort into making books digestible, and slides. YouTube changed my independent research career because there is another way to find it if you are willing to look.
I found out I love biology, plants are fascinating, animals even more so. Subjects I thought I would never understand eventually started to open and speak a language I could at least ask questions in: physics, computer programming, animation. Subjects I failed repeatedly in college classrooms, I found myself learning the rudiments of at home.
These were things I did unconsciously. Because I really wanted to learn, and be as smart as everyone swore that I was. The times were still so hard. I learned painfully slow it felt like, and I failed more than I passed. I skipped more than I appeared at. My favorite library had the most amazing view from the top floor. And no one ever went, except around finals. I missed final exams, midterms, quizzes, and appointments reading books and watching the sun rise and set out of that window. When my money was super low, the custodian even let me sleep in a study room on the sixth floor whenever I needed to. I loved helping him dust and hearing stories about his family in the town my school was in. His father’s father worked for the university too. I think I failed African history three times during that period. I was determined to learn about Black skinned people but me and the professor, Timothy, could never quite get on the same page.
I just kept thinking to myself, why do people keep telling me I am so smart? So that they don’t have to answer my questions? Or help me? What boundaries or boxes do I need to fit in so that people will help me? Who do I need to be in order to be liked? Accepted? Do i need to be liked and accepted to ask for and receive help? It certainly felt like it. But I can’t be sure. The only thing I remember saying to myself is that at this pace, at this point, I just do not understand. And I will not understand.
A lot of the kids in my class were killing it. They looked well put together, punctual, and ready. A lot of other kids were cheating. But, I was really wanting to know what was happening. I wanted to look up at the board and understand. Or at least be able to communicate what I didn’t understand. What is wrong with me? And why can’t I tell anyone what is happening?
Eventually, I happened across a Black professor in history and she basically adopted me. I will call her Diane, and she reminded me of my granny. She made me come to class. She told me she didn’t care if I looked homeless or my clothes didn’t fit. Then she gave me essays on commercialism, consumerism, and capitalism. She told me that if I turned in something late, she was going to grade it, make me re-do it, and still flunk me. We fought that day, because I did not feel that was fair. But she then assigned me an essay to read by next class period on why fairness is a myth. In the same breath, I didn’t have a computer like the other kids and I was embarrassed. She canceled the use of all electronics in her class. She made us all write and read and talk. She even handed out tape recorders. And so I started renting a laptop so that I could leave class with my tape recorder and write outside in sun while I waited around. After a while of showing up to her class consistently and turning in my work… She started giving me all these cool events to go to. Things that involved talks, and live demonstrations, and spoken word that extended various theories she introduced me to. Since I didn’t have parking on campus, I would stay all day. In a roundabout way, I found my other classes again.
Diane set down with me one day and asked me how I taught myself things. She listened carefully, then told me to reverse my process. It’s such an important point in my life that I will never forget, and she can probably hardly remember. She said hear it and don’t worry about understanding it the first time. Write it down or record it. Break it down for myself verbally, make it make real sense, then spit it back out in higher-level writing. She made me eat. Then we would look up trade routes for our favorite foodstuffs and discuss why they changed over the years. And I stopped sleeping at the library. In my other classes I met other professors. I remember in particular a self-professed fat feminist PhD that taught my women’s studies classes. Her hair was rainbow different days of the week and she is the only reason I know that feminism is something women died working toward. There was also a young, White rebel in the philosophy department. He helped me work my way through some of the toughest passages in philosophy without ever making me feel dumb or questioning why I wanted to know. He would meet me in office hours with a piece of chalk and we would draw all the concepts all over the chalkboards in the Philosophy lecture hall. When I understood I felt so light, and fun. I realized that learning was my freedom. I never felt more free than after the hundredth time trying and what felt like months of torture, I could sit, read, and understand Kant, Nietzsche, and Marx in my own way. He also gave me essays and excerpts from every person of color that he could find that had graduated with a PhD in Philosophy in America in the last 40 years. I spent my remaining time on campus being fertilized by Women’s Studies, Philosophy, and History.
And I blossomed. I did enough to graduate. Which essentially meant making straight A’s or very close in my remaining classes. I pulled my GPA up from the depths of despair to achieve the 2.0 necessary. I fought through the last non-traditional student semesters surrounded by 19-year-old, dressed just alike, iMac/iPad, ‘I’m-gonna-own-daddys-
business’ Codys. I ditched the laptop and the shame about it. I wrote everything by hand and recorded my lectures if they moved too fast. Then, I would sit outside the class and listen to lecture again in headphones until I understood my questions.
I still didn’t get my undergraduate degree for another four years.
Administrative people kept saying something about a ‘residency requirement’. I was confused because I completed all of my undergraduate coursework at one school.
How y’all gonna tell me that I’m so smart but I can’t understand something that basic?! I called and emailed and still didn’t understand. It was reminiscent of my entire experience in undergraduate.
The problem was my military service. I had earned an associate degree while living in Arizona, but made no attempt to transfer back any credits. I still was required to fill out paperwork to appeal a residency requirement flag that declares graduating seniors must take their last 30 continuous hours at the university. I had only taken 27 hours when I returned, so to avoid the appeal, I needed to take another class.
Let me repeat, despite having 120+ credit hours and a 2.0 GPA and years of torture all at one university, I needed an appeal board to consider whether I could graduate
… I didn’t graduate from undergraduate until COVID hit.
There were so many times I tried… but I just didn’t know what to appeal to or for. So I just kept using Galileo and the libraries every chance I got. But when COVID hit, my position as a contractor was suddenly questionable. I immediately started job hunting and found a job in my field and was hired. My offer letter was rescinded because my background check returned no undergraduate degree. I felt that blow like someone had punched me in the face. That job was supposed to secure a home for my family.
Never the victim, I changed gears and found an interesting graduate school program that I would never have been able to afford without the GI Bill or some well-planned hustling. I did not think they would accept me. Again. Why would anyone think I was smart with my GPA? The staff at my current school actually had to wait for my appeal to my undergraduate institution to confirm I graduated to accept me.
I went back to my undergraduate institution with my proverbial guns blazing and MADE THEM GET SOMEONE WHO SPOKE MY LANGUAGE WELL ENOUGH FOR ME TO UNDERSTAND. (Or if they would write it down, refer me to a manual of some sort or a by-law longer than two lines… I can read very well, I will get it. These things weren’t available. Just a flag with a ‘residency requirement’ note.)
A lot of the bravery I drew from to make those demands of the staff came from my service in the military. No one raised me to talk to White people ‘any kind of way’. That is supremely dangerous. (Remember, keep the White people comfortable.)
Think about that for a minute. Why don’t you have more Black scholars? Ohhhh, you’re so smart. But if this institution of White people or funded by White people doesn’t sign off on you, we can’t take here. Same skills? Same experience? Same work ethic? No matter. You must submit to our brand of torture, whatever that may be, in order to prove your intelligence or worth. The tragic magic of credentialing.
At the end of the day, I graduated a PWI. Even took a few reference-level relationships with me. And got into grad school. It’s fun too. Great fun. But my professors look half-tortured and I’m not convinced they have time to study or money to live comfortably. And, especially because of COVID, most of them seem pretty sequestered behind the tall walls of the academy. I wonder how much time they spend talkint to people. I am also disturbed by the lack of time for my questions. I think that may be a life thing though. I always have so many questions.
That was my story.
But this is a conglomeration of thoughts so I will touch on a couple more examples quickly. Universities say they are needing of Black people, then treat the smartest and bravest among us like crap. Cornel WEST. Angela DAVIS. You would think that they would have tenure and freedom of appointment over a department or something…There are so many Black scholars in the academy being openly disrespected by the academy regularly. Not just by administration, faculty, and staff but also the students. I watched Diane deal with student reactions to her classroom rules, and they were disgusting. It was a disgrace. She held so strong and she was so assertive but, not all of us are built like that. I wanted to cry for her some days. Do White faculty know what their Black peers face? What do they do to support them? How do universities hold White people accountable for racism?
They don’t. Which means that I now get to bear that cross too, in addition to feeling slow and ill-equipped.
And ANOTHER thing… Grades and the system of competition established in the university suck. It feels so counterproductive to my learning style to feel as though I am better at things than other people. It feels unfair. I know what my classmates are going through outside of class. It feels like none of the universities that I have been to have cared about organizing to better the lives of the students so that they can come to class, learn, create, and disseminate. What is the purpose of academia? What are we here to do? What are we changing? And what systems of power are we sustaining?
I am not the only ‘smart Black person’ that I know who struggles. There is a friend of mine named Jasmine that could come and teach political and economic theory to my professors right now.
But she wouldn’t sound like them. And they probably wouldn’t like that. It would make them uncomfortable.
So. I used to think that Black scholars and artists lived and died in obscurity because of discrimination or lack of opportunities… But maybe they did it because they realized it would be the only way to truly find peace. The only way to live with and among the communities that inspired their journey through and to knowledge in the first place. I make things for my mama, and my grandmama, and my grandmama’s grandmama. I learn things for my father, my grandfather, and my grandfather’s grandfather. And they have always stood outside of your way of knowing… Why should I not do the same?
(When the pandemic is over, can we have philosophy in the park? Will anyone ever attempt to teach a math or science class that makes sense? Or a history or english class with some rhythm, passion, and a beat? That would be silly, huh? Ridiculous.)
But IDK, I am just one Black person. Though, I am absolutely sure that I am not the only one to ask, what language are White people at the academy speaking? They must only be talking to each other. That’s all that I can gather from it.
[I still keep thinking: Firefighters do not have it bad. I am just saying. I think the ethics are covered and everything. Nice break room to read in. People might like answering questions if I have that uniform. I could set my chalk board up near the bunk area and start writing out some new hypotheses…]
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