How to Get to the Other End of a Dark Tunnel

People often ask me why I research black men and not black women. The answer to that is long and complicated, but it boils down to doing the work of what would be so close to my own life day in and day out, would be to live that life twice. I am so grateful and blessed by so much in my life, but there are many parts outside my control that do not need to be repeated.

It has been a painful year. It has been filled with tears and raging anger that bubbles up at times when it threatens to swalllow me whole. It has been a year of seeing some I love come undone by the news headlines and the carefully planned stripping away of black bodies, black presence, and black voice. They silence those who say what they don’t want to hear, and dead people certainly don’t tell their stories. I’ve inherited most of the calm, contemplative strength of my mother. It’s sometimes all that keeps me together, but I can’t quite press it down sometimes because I don’t do politness for the sake of other people’s comfort anymore.

I’d find myself in the midst of large groups of happy people and force myself to smile, because I felt like I should. White comfort often leads to black isolation, and I decided I would rather be silent in those situations than branded. But some labels are worn better and braver than others.

monachopsis: the subtle but persistent feeling of being out of place

I have this thing about me that draws me to spaces and places that weren’t created for me. But I go there anyway because as token and as invisible as those places beg me to be, I can’t be erased. No, I was here. I leave my mark in the ways that I find how. You can’t forget something or someone that refuses to be forgotten, and to play by those rules.

Interviewing the eight young men for my case study opened up wounds that have never quite healed. It reminded me of the pain I feel deep in my heart when I think about my students I left for the ivory towers of a Cambridge graduate degree. There are a lot of days that felt hollow about that, but there would always come a reminder in the form of friend’s writing or conversation or an article that shook me back to the reality that the work I am doing is necessary. Not because I have convinced myself of this, but because in the journey of liberation, there needs to be liberatory practices within academia as well.

I have been encouraged in this journey too by amazing mentors, from my tutors and professors in undergraduate to Hliary, who was the supervisor I needed here. Hilary took a bright-eyed but cautious woman in October and helped her get to July without making compromises on her research. I remember one conversation we had after I had written an especially theoretically worded section of my second essay. She looked at me and talked about how sometimes when people come from a disadvantaged background and find themselves in places such as this, they are seduced into the rhetoric of the ivory towers that writing must be a particular way, but in reality that writing only does the job of shutting others out of academia. Oftentimes it was the ones who the research claimed to be for, but she eloquently spoke to me about the type of research that is done with the communities the research is about and not about them. The type of research that begins conversations that includes everyone. She never used my name, but I knew all of what she was saying was for me, and I have never appreciated her more. At an education conference in Chicago, a black male academic reminded a room full of aspiring academics of colour that when you make compromises when you want to be a compassionate researcher, working within communities and putting their trust and relationship with you as your top priority, you never stop making those compromises. He told the story of how he took hip-hop out of his final dissertation and even though it won many prizes, he felt it would have been even better–and more him–with it. Being in academia as a black woman is an act of resistance in itself. Being a black woman in academia who is there to make a statement that genius has many faces and mannerisms is revolutionary.

When I began editing my thesis, I told the people I gave it to look over that I would not compromise on the findings. I refused to cut the part of my work that came from the participants themselves. I had made a promise to them to tell their story as honestly as I could, and I would keep that promise.

How do you get to the other end of a dark tunnel with your head and your heart intact? The answer is you don’t. At least not by yourself. I thank God every day for flows of survivance, and for friends here and abroad who make me smile and laugh and dance. And they don’t know it, but those eight boys saved my academic soul. As they found ways to survive outside of a desire to forge identites in relation to the white dominant discourse, I was encouraged to continue finding my own. I didn’t just write this thesis for them, I wrote it with them…their lives guiding the pen and hugging me until the final words hit the page.

I feel grateful, again, for the chance to share their stories, and await a time when they don’t need me as a medium. But this…this job of being an ally, I can do, because I have survived and refuse to do anything but thrive, with and for communities of my people, and communities of love.

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