Sinking Into Discomfort
It’s been a while since I’ve graduated from high school, but I never forget something my Economics teacher said one day: when you’re feeling comfortable, that means it’s time to move. I took this to heart to some extent, getting up and moving — on — when things became too settled, too routine, too rote.
Now that I am experiencing a few structural difficulties in my Ph.D program, I began thinking about the opposite version of the phrase: what do you do when things are uncomfortable?
My first inclination ranges from “I should leave” to “I should stop trying to do things beyond what my program proscribes.” My thoughts veer from “They accepted me, knowing what I do, so keep doing it” to “I should have gone to [insert university] that was the better fit.”
This discomfort sleeps beside me at night. It accompanies me to seminars. It rides in the backseat of my car.
I constantly wonder, what am I doing, and why?
But my research dwells in discomfort and uncertainty. It troubles things. It asks questions that complicate “recognized truths.” It cuts across traditional disciplines, picking up and using what is useful and discarding what is not. It disrupts traditional spatializations of geography. It speaks multiple languages and metalanguages.
In short, doing the work of Black history, and particularly Black women’s history, is inherently discomfortable, discomfiting, and disruptive. That I am a Black woman of the diaspora embodying the legacy of the transatlantic slave trade (my light skin speaks to the rape of black women / my heritage speaks to the migrations of black peoples in the Americas) studying black histories and literatures means that nothing is never going to be comfortable.
I am critical of the word/concept of “agency” in the historiography of black peoples.
It fits into the need for people to find progressive narratives and narratives of progress in history.
It’s a weird thing to reclaim and recover people who were already people.
It’s even weirder to approach this kind of history with the assumption that Black people were not rational beings (h/t Annette Gordon-Reed and Erica Armstrong Dunbar’s talk today) — that slavery is one blanket experience, and to find “agency” means to find “heroes.” To find “heroes” allows you to comfortably insert yourself into the past.
(and the need for “heroes” can exist in the histories of other marginalized groups)
Why can’t we leave things troubled? What is the fear of discomfort?
Why must silence be awkward and why the rush to fill it?
Someone recently tweeted (and I’m paraphrasing) about grad seminars rarely offering us the opportunity to sit with texts in class. We’re supposed to read 50–100 pages a week in each of the courses we take, and be ready to discuss, interrogate, and dissect the readings.
Next set of texts.
Move it along.
Rinse. Wash. Repeat.
In the grad seminar, there’s seemingly little room for discomfort. Participation requirements in the syllabi demand you fill up the 160 minutes with proof that you’ve read and understood at least a sliver of the arguments.
To feel troubled by the readings. To trouble the readings. To sit in trouble — there’s no room for that.
There’s this perplexing notion that discomfort, trouble, anxiety means you’re working hard and grad students must push through it or be seen as troubled, and therefore unready and unprepared for this community (academe).
But actually troubling the work? Sitting in the discomfort of the research and of your place in the process ? No bueno— so what, then I ask, is this work supposed to be doing?
I don’t have all of the answers, but I sure as hell am going to try to answer them through my work. Which forces me to contend with the limits of comfort in this profession and to engage with the discomfort of my present in order to fully understand the discomfort of the past.