For a while now, I had not been sleeping. Trayvon, then Michael Brown and Eric Garner, followed by Freddy, Sandra—and so many others—all had shaken something in me and I have been grappling a lot lately with what it all means. What is my responsibility as a black woman who considers herself an ardent advocate of children of color? How do I channel my rage?
There’s been an energy here on campus, one I’ve never experienced and would have least of all expected to experience in State College— a predominantly white, rural college town nestled in the middle of nowhere Pennsylvania, which envelopes itself in the moniker, “Happy Valley”; ‘we don’t have/talk/deal/confront/acknowledge those type of problems here. Last December, I had been demonstrating at the die-ins, journaling like my life depended on it, praying, and talking to my friends at length about our academic identities as black folk who give a damn but feel powerless/ineffective at our respective institutions.
I have had a vision where State College as a community not only assesses its relationship to law enforcement and the community of color, but also lays down an infrastructure that ensures bridges between multiple groups, and documents a plan to move our community forward. I went in to talk to mentors and we’ve had deep discussions of what this action could mean if we unify these voices; I left terrified. I’m just very scared as to what going down this path would mean for me in terms of my safety, my sanity, my academic obligations, and my future prospects as a candidate seeking a tenure-track position at a research-intensive institution. Would I be potentially killing my career (and years worth of expensive, grueling graduate schooling) before it even starts by stirring up trouble? Would potential departments see me more as a liability, a nuisance, rather than valuable member of their academic community because all I want to do is question an institution’s commitment to inclusion? Am I even strong enough to take on and commit this type of work?
I constantly struggle to answer these questions. But really, what good is learning obscure academic theories when black and brown children are literally dying (in every sense of the word) in the streets? I feel awakened to dream big and DO BIG. However, I’ve also been instructed by well-positioned tenured black faculty to “learn the system, infiltrate it” and “not to let your afro show just yet”. But it’s been hard to temper my outrage, my urgency and my demands for structural change in this moment in history where the cries for humanizing black and brown bodies is reaching a fevered pitch. I want my “afro” on full display.
A few months ago, Penn State had the privilege of hosting Dr. Michael Eric Dyson during the 30th Annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Commemoration Event in January 2015. Hearing his passion, his highly analytical critiques and performantive aesthetic while discussing complex issues, I couldn’t help but to ask him how black academics vying for positions in the ‘ivory tower’ negotiate the feeling that academics just isn’t enough.
His response was thought provoking and gave me pause: activism is a division of labor. Just as much as we need people demonstrating and physically disrupting and causing discomfort, we need thoughtful, informed and well-articulated documentation of our struggles. Words, our words, have un-estimated value in provoking minds, challenging status quo and leaving a historical trail of counter-narratives. He spoke of the importance of having access to students of color as well as whites at the university level and the power of pushing their thinking. My work as a scholar, a blackademic so to speak, is just as useful to the cause as physically laying my body down. He also went on to praise the talent it required to find just the right words express thoughts and insight—talents that shouldn’t be taken for granted.
In the months since nervously asking Dr. Dyson my question, I have sought out ways to do just that. This piece will be the first, and hopefully not the last, of many attempts to be the counter-narrative, to use my voice, my words so that I can speak my truth, my troubles, and my hope for my community in State College, and at large. #blacklivesmatter #blackthoughtmagnifies.
Wideline Seraphin is a PhD candidate in the Language, Culture, and Society program within department of Curriculum and Instruction at The Pennsylvania State University. She is as an ebony tower resident pontificating on how much book smarts really matter. Follow her on Twitter: @MsBlackemic