How I’ve grown during my second year of graduate school

Summertime, and the living is easy.

Hey. It’s been a while. I’ve been away from my blog, trying to figure some things out about myself. I have let myself go in more ways than one, and am in the process of (re)injecting some discipline back into my life. It’s hard. I often want to give up, and find that an amorphous life, while undesirable, is certainly easier. But then I get frustrated with a formless, shapeless, shiftless life and fly into a fit of trying to do too much, only to slip even further into a voided life. I’m on my way, though, and that’s all that matters.

A few weeks ago, I wrote this post outlining some of the ways that I’ve seen improvements (linear progress narratives are often unhelpful, but whatever). I’m posting it now, because if I don’t post it soon, I never will. I hesitated to post it mainly because I’m not sure if what I’ve written is true. When doing this kind of introspective work, it’s often easy to give oneself too much or not enough credit, to inject a human bias into the act of self-analysis, and to therefore yield imprecise conclusions. But then I think about how very unscientific the act of introspection is and I begin to not care about whether or not I’m “right” in these soul audits I do at the close of every semester. Nevertheless, here it is: myself laid bare, once again, to you.

Feelings of isolation & low self-confidence: The first year was hard in its own ways. For one, my first year was exceptionally isolating. I have never felt more alone than in February and May 2018, when I entered into two grim depressive states, triggered mainly by feelings of isolation. I sequestered myself, avoiding people who would likely have cared to see me improve had they known the state I was in. I’ve been told that this is one of the ways that depression and anxiety feed off on another. The one encourages you to make yourself scarce, to go inside, mainly out of fear that other people will continue to misunderstand you, or to misread you. The other responds to this fear by continually imploring the inner you to seek help, to reach out. The more you isolate yourself, the more you find yourself incapable of ending your self-imposed immurement. Your biggest obstacle are the walls you yourself erect. They indeed protect you from further harm, but deprive you of access to help.

My second year of grad school has not been so isolating, and I give thanks to God for this. The friendships I’ve made during my first year (I had the strange feeling that I did not have many friends during my first year, which I have since found to be untrue) I’ve worked to solidify. I admit that some of my friendships have fallen through the cracks, but not because I have ended them purposefully; a two-sided neglect has caused them not to decay, but to tarnish – and tarnish can typically be buffed off or removed. I’ve also made new friends, for whom I am thankful. I am not the best at expressing my emotions and feelings of gratitude to other people, but I do hope that in all my interactions with my friends – new and old — they come to know how grateful I am to have them, in whatever way possible, in my life.

Nevertheless, I have found myself asking a lot more frequently just how I can be a good friend and, more pressingly, how my friends can be good friends to me. This has forced me to engage at times in unpleasant conversations which are nearly always prefaced on something that a friend or peer has done to me which I didn’t appreciate, or more vaguely, how someone’s actions, even if untargeted, have ultimately made me feel a certain way. The latter is obviously subjective and the result of a kind of acute sensitivity and self-consciousness which I’ve yet to take apart, although I feel I’ve made significant strides. Nevertheless, someone’s capacity to wield a skill that I can only dream of possessing does have an impact on my sense of self, and it does me no good to pretend like it doesn’t, or to attempt to do the completely counterintuitive thing of wishing to possess someone’s else’s ability to not wish to possess other people’s abilities (I believe this is called the cobra effect, when the tools you employ to fix your problems only succeed in making them worse.) I’m still trying to figure out the place of envy in my life, since it is something I have been wrestling with since I was a child. And the weird thing is that I have never felt myself to be an enviable person, although I am certain that I possess things which other people want. This ultimately plays out in friendships when I find myself surrounded by great people who all seem to be doing something exceptional and career-advancing or are committed to some sort of personal development project, all of which fills me with an unsettling mixture of pride (because I am, somewhere, proud of my friends, and proud to be their friend) and envy (because I want to also feel accomplished, and to feel as if my friends are proud to be my friend). Yet, I’ve never really felt accomplished for anything I’ve done. I have a hard time balancing a predisposition for id-fueled egotism (the result of a deep-rooted self-consciousness, no doubt) and an unnecessarily punitive self-denial (guilt is what keeps this flame alive).  At times, I find that I envy people’s ability to feel pride in their accomplishments, which is something I find fleeting; it’s a kind of “oh, that’s cool” and a bit of a giddy smile, but it quickly gets sucked up by the daily minutia of grocery shopping and reading for seminar.

It is indeed unflattering to acknowledge that I’m an envious person, but lying to myself in order to make believe that I’m not is equally unflattering. Self-deceit is unbecoming.

I’m working on it, though. I’ve found it’s useful to be thankful and congratulatory first, and to avoid sulking in the presence of the other person. This is generally perceived as rude and selfish, and I understand why, although I wouldn’t feel that way if someone were in the same position towards my own accomplishments, namely because I’ve been there before. Nevertheless, people do not always react as I do, and I have to remind people that my moral/emotional compass is by no means universal, or even normal.

Sense of intellectual self-worth: My first year of grad school, I felt like an outsider.  I didn’t feel like I didn’t belong at Yale, but I definitely felt the need to prove how I did belong, as if my department had gambled on me and I was not performing to their unspoken expectations. My issues with my department ran deep, and I wanted at times to leave Yale, or to leave the comp lit department, although I had few other alternatives. The French department at Yale seems intellectually and socially toxic, and therefore I wouldn’t be much better off, even if I would be doubling in Af-Am with the majority of my friends. And I am committed to the project of comparative literature, and therefore wouldn’t “give up” my Francophone African and Caribbean lit in order to be in the English department. Also, I do not quit things. I tend to be more committed to my protean and adaptive potential than I am in my actual self-preservation (this is a very dangerous quality), and therefore, at the end of last year when I was briefly looking into transferring to a school I felt would actually want me there, I gave it up and decided to focus on myself. I highlighted the root of my problem as a feeling of inadequacy in response to the basis of my research, and then spent the summer reading profusely in order to flesh out some of the glaring gaps in my fields. I read Pap Ndiaye’s La Condition noire in order to provide myself with a methodological background for understanding the specifically French experience of Blackness, and then applied his methodologies for thinking of the French experience of blackness under the auspices of the silent history of French slavery, the salvationist ideologies of French colonialism and the general unspeakability of racial politics under French republicanism to a number of French-language novels and nonfiction texts exploring the Black condition. I read Isabelle Boni-Claverie’s Trop noire pour être française and Patrick Lopes’ Nous les Noirs de France in order to familiarize myself with the languages by which actual French Black people understand their conditions, eschewing the often Americanist lens through which we theorize the global Black condition. I familiarized myself with some of the earliest accounts of Black people from the French empire living in France, reading Cheikh Hamidou Kane’s L’Aventure ambiguë, Ousmane Socé’s Mirages de Paris and Ousmane Sembène’s Le Docker Noir in order to begin thinking about a genealogy of Black writing in France. By the end of the summer, I felt as if I actually knew something about what it means to be French and Black in way I didn’t have before the summer. And I felt proud of my knowledge, as if I was slowly but surely becoming an “expert” of sorts. Don’t get me wrong, I still don’t think I know “how it feels”  to be Black and French; the phenomenological experience of French Blackness is something I, as an African-American growing up in the American Empire, will never experience. But I do feel confident is saying “This is how French Black people have rhetorically and discursively come to understand themselves as a specific political community,” without relying unnecessarily on African-American scholars or writers to explicate a blackness which is almost always underlined as African-American, a Blackness which can illuminate, but never entirely encapsulate the Blackness the French nation imposes onto people like Fodé Sylla, Fatou Diome and Harlem Désir. Now I had only read maybe 10 books on this topic, with the other twenty or so books being seminal texts in my fields or controversial texts that it seemed everyone had read, but the impact was still meaningful. I felt less like a student absorbing information from his professor, and more like a researcher trying to uncover the truth that’s out there, in the world.

Boni-Claverie went on to make a documentary from her book. I haven’t seen it though, but I loved the book.

That bridge in my life was really meaningful and shaped the way I approached my second year. I felt more confident in my reading and critical abilities, and more willing to push back on the comments of professors based on my own knowledge of the text. I also learned to balance what could quickly bleed into arrogance and to take time to let other people contribute their readings, to learn from how other people interpret the text and to incorporate their methods into my own methodologies. In general, I’ve found this second year of graduate school to be my more intellectually productive year.

Thinking back to my first year, I remember sitting in my Keywords in Critical Theory class and feeling as if I had read the wrong text. It was the first week, and we were talking about Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment. To this day, I cannot tell you what that text is about. I had read it somewhat in a daze, finding myself more and more frustrated as I read, not really absorbing anything. When I got to class, I found that most of the people talking (which was really only about 5 people) were talking about it with such deftness and detail that I felt rather stupid for not “getting it.” I wasn’t aware that the other 25 people in the room also had no idea what they had just read, barely being able to define what a “dialectic” was. And I thank the professors for breaking down the text into digestible sections, for if we had carried on pretending like this text was legible to us all, I would have likely dropped the class out of frustration and feelings of insufficiency. Mind you, I had written in my application that I was coming to Yale to specifically study critical theory, and thus reading Adorno and Horkheimer for the first day of class and not getting it was rather discouraging.

Upon reflection, there are a number of things I would “correct” if the me of June 2019 were in the shoes of the me of August 2017. First, I would remind myself that not all texts will “reveal” themselves to me, and that sometimes a text has to be thoroughly massaged in order to really get to its “meat.” At the same time, I would tell myself that there is no “one reading” of a text, and that I should preoccupy myself with pulling something from the text, as opposed to the thing itself. Thirdly, it’s okay to not understand a text, or to find its claims dubious. Finally, not everyone is arriving at a text with the same background. Many of the people in that room were quite familiar with Adorno and Horkheimer’s work from previous study, either in graduate school, undergrad or unguided reading, and therefore would have been far better equipped to “explicate” the text than me. These all seem like commonsense ideas, but the anxious mind does not care about common sense. I’ve said this fitty-leven times before, and need not rehash it.

It won’t kill you: I feel like most of my friends can somewhat accurately deduce my childhood from maybe spending thirty minutes with me. For one, nearly everyone perceives me as an only child, and in a way I am; my siblings were raised in a different generation from me, with them being Millennials born in the 1980s and myself being a very cuspy Gen Z-er born in 1995. I barely remember the 2000s, and my siblings were all grown and out of the house during my most formative years. This means I was raised with principally my mother and father in the house, and therefore manifest a weird array of “only child” and “youngest child” vibes which I myself cannot really detect.

I mention this because being raised without much of my siblings’ presence, and in the aftermath of their generation has made me into a rather fearful and maladjusted adult. My parents (mainly my mother) sheltered me from a lot, and instead of being like a lot of kids who eventually rebelled, I trusted her fear of the outside world. I did find it frustrating that she did not let me go to my friends’ house after school, or that I was expected to call her around 4pm to ensure her that I got home from school (meaning I couldn’t really dilly-dally in town on the way home) but in general I was a kind of model child that stayed at home, did his homework, got good grades, and did not generally venture outdoors to spaces where my parents (mainly my mother) couldn’t watch over me. This has given my adulthood a profound fear of the outside world, a kind of anxiety I now carry in the tissues of my body. And I don’t blame my parents, because they were only doing what they thought was right in a world of school bus-stop kidnappings, school shootings and police brutality against young black boys like myself. But I’m dealing with the repercussions of it now in small and big ways. I could go into greater detail, but I’m not really sure it’s necessary. I probably should work these issues out with a therapist first before I maladroitly hash them out for you all to read (and judge.)

This year in particular, I’ve been operating under a new MO: it won’t kill you. This affects social things like making a comment in class as well as gastronomical things, like the sudden end to my prohibition on mushrooms and olives. The childhood fear I had of potentially dangerous and unknown things is holding me back, and I think it’s mainly to blame for the psychosomatic issues I was having during my time in Senegal. In a way, I don’t think I was emotionally prepared for that trip, and I paid for it. I’m not sure how I could have prepared myself, and I’m glad I went, although my time there was indeed a time marked by a desire for a “return to normalcy.”

I’m feeling empowered by this new mantra, though. It’s not an invitation to indulge in reckless or self-destructive behavior, but it’s a soft way of pushing my boundaries and expanding the rather small world I live in. It’s a means of coax (a softer way of saying “forcing”) a bit of growth and development in the places I most pressingly need it, in hopes that, hopefully, this small sheltered world of mine will be more accommodating.

4 thoughts on “How I’ve grown during my second year of graduate school”

  1. This is such a touching piece, Xavier! I wish I had the courage to write a Rousseauian confession like this. Except for the expertise in French blackness, I think virtually everything else is also true of me. I feel really lucky to have read this and thanks for sharing! Bo

    1. Wow, thank you so much for this response. It means a lot that someone who has moved through the same spaces as me can resonate with my experience.

      1. One rarely sees the vulnerable side of people on social media nowadays, or anywhere in public, the so-called duck syndrome (especially rampant in the Ivies) , maintaining an elegant posture above but paddling like crazy under the water. So that’s why I find your piece so touching and refreshing. 🙂

        Btw, I read this book review by Christopher Lebron (a JHU professor, author of The Making of Black Lives Matter: A Brief History of an Idea. You’ve probably read it already) a couple of months ago. The first two paragraphs just moved me to tears. I think it might be of interest to you, if you haven’t read it yet. All best, Bo

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