Women’s History Month talk at the DuSable Museum of African American History: “Always Keep the Records” – Ora Mobley Sweeting

IN CONVERSATION: ALWAYS KEEP THE RECORDS

Thursday March 29
6:00 PM  –  7:30 PM

 

Join the DuSable Museum and Angela Tate in a discussion on the archival activism of Ora Mobley Sweeting, an educator and poet who was active in Harlem from the 50s-80s. Sweeting’s life exemplifies the ways in which black women intervene in the margins of black politics and intellectual histories of blackness—a black feminist praxis with a long lineage reaching back to Harriet Jacobs and Anna Julia Cooper, and to black women across the Atlantic World.

Date: March 29, 2018 6:00pm-7:30pm

Location: DuSable Museum of African American History

Admission: FREE

RSVP here!

Sitting in Discomfort

Sinking Into Discomfort

I.

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.

II.

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?

III.

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.

IV.

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.

Am I Too Ambitious?

As I work to piece together a historiography of slavery and material culture in the early modern Atlantic World, I feel like I’m right back where I was when writing my paper on Pan-Africanism at the World’s Fairs, where the dearth of secondary sources left me floundering for ways to support my arguments.

One of my primary reasons for pursuing a Ph.D was access. Access to resources far, far out of my reach and access to funding to allow my ability to access these resources. But when I look at the questions I ask, I feel things are even further from my grasp.

I am loath to believe that my ideas are revolutionary and groundbreaking, nor that no one is already working on the types of questions and arguments I pose. Nevertheless, I have been, and currently am, aggravated by the realization that I have to do extra work to draw the support for my work out of sources both tapped and untapped. On one hand, I have come to recognize this is the nature of doing scholarship that focuses on the “margins” of history (a thing I questioned this quarter was why we perpetuate the narrative of the Great White Men of history by starting with their texts and then make interventions with indigenous history, African-American history, women’s history, etc? Why can’t we start with the margins?). On the other, I’m frequently dissatisfied.

Which is why I wonder if I’m too ambitious…And again, asking: what is the overall purpose of grad school?

Should I be doing this extra work as a mere doctoral student?

Is it best for me to stay on the well-grooved path for my chosen field?

And if innovative, groundbreaking, and revolutionary work is supposed to be saved for your TT R1 position, and your only “job” right now is to complete coursework, pass your comps, and complete and defend your dissertation, how does this square with the terrible TT job market?

Sit Down…Be Humble?

Kendrick Lamar Humble

Current events raise the question about the role and function of a history Ph.D student.

Are we acolytes, supposed to absorb from our foremothers and forefathers before spreading our wings to fly from the nest?

Are we proto-scholars, supposed to use this time as an incubation period, where our existing research is refined and defined to lend support to more seasoned scholars?

Or are we emerging academics, supposed to be crafting a voice to speak out and often about how our research touches the scholarly and public communities?

I ask this after reading a question about how grad students (and history grad students in particular) should respond to current events; if people without their doctorates, a full C.V. of papers and conference panels, without a renowned expertise in specific topics have the right (or gumption) to form an opinion in a public space.

Perhaps it’s the public historian in me (shared authority and all that jazz), or being an older student whose background is in art and its public expression, but the finger wags and long-winded ways to say “sit down…be humble” from advanced students bugged the hell out of me.

I struggled often over the past year, and definitely this summer, with what I’m “supposed” to be doing or what I’m “allowed” to do as a student.

Since I work simultaneously with completing my degree, the dichotomy between academia and the workforce gives me whiplash. The process of applying for a job, of working your way up the ladder, hinges on knowing your stuff. In the museum field especially, I’m expected to enter a position for a specific function and to perform at a particular level of autonomy and experience. I was just hired as a manager of a historic site and I am expected to take the reins because my resume says I am capable of leadership.

However, it seems the opposite is expected in the college system? I had an advisor accuse me of thinking I knew everything, which is why they didn’t want to mentor me. An accusation that shocked me, because I don’t think I know everything, I just know what I want to achieve and why, and sought someone who would help me find more productive ways to reach success!

And above all things, I just want to know WHY? What is this process? What is its expected outcome? How is success defined in or by this process? What are my limits in the process and why? How far can I push things?

But I digress.

If, as a graduate student, I am expected to be #1…well…hold onto your hula hoops, as my aunt says. That’s just not me!

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