I’m currently a graduate student at Yale University, and quickly learning what it means to be an academic. The journey has been rough, with lots of ups and downs, although I am certain that every trial and tribulation will be worthwhile in the end. This is a collection of writings over the course of my studies which deal direction with the life of being a student, and how I am managing to make it in an often hostile, albeit rewarding, environment.
Let’s go back to 2015. I had just finished taking the French language courses at Swarthmore. This means that I was able to hold the most basic of conversations in French, often with generous assistance from my professors. My knowledge of French literature, French culture, French politics, anything really, was limited to whatever my instructors had taught us in class. And because my instructors taught only in French, my knowledge was really centered around what little I could actually understand. It was in the summer of 2015 that I first decided I would study abroad in Senegal during my junior spring. In order to prepare myself, I prepared an independent course of study with my advisor on West African literature, with an emphasis on Senegalese literature. I’ll link the syllabus here.
Prior to this independent study, I read my first novel in
French outside of class, which was Ousmane Sembène’s Xala. As to be
expected, I did not understand much of what I was reading. I found I was
getting frustrated with my inability to make sense of the plot, mainly because
I didn’t know what half of the words meant. I had the bare fundamentals of
French grammar, so I could roughly tell you how the sentence was working, but I
couldn’t really tell you what the verb meant, and therefore the sentence was partially
void of meaning. I kept reading, expecting that with time I would improve, but
I can’t say that this happened. However, I went into the independent study
knowing that, because this was the first time I’d be reading novels in French,
I decided to take notes and consult my advisor on the best course of action. I
have since committed what she’s told me and what I’ve learned to memory, and
cannot really report what I learned then to you, since it’s been assimilated
into my general approach to literature more broadly. Nevertheless, it’s four
years later and I’m reading French novels every week, often at the same pace
and with the same degree of rigor with which I read an English novel. And I’m
here now to give you some tips on how to do this.
Let’s set the stage: the year is 2013. I am 18 years old, fresh out of undergrad and
feeling excited, albeit uncontrollably anxious, to be “independent” and in
college. Like many of my friends, I had joined the poetry group at Swarthmore.
Unbeknownst to me, the poetry group was mainly frequented by competitive slam and
spoken word poets – and this was a kind of writing that I had never
experienced. In high school, I had read the likes of Gwendolyn Brooks, Sylvia
Plath TS Eliot and have wanted to be an esoteric “page” poet like them, weaving
into my confessional works a kind of opacity which would protect me from the
otherwise inscrutable vulnerability of my work. I had enjoyed my work so much,
and have published on some blogs and in my high school literary magazine, even,
that I had decided to join the group, although I knew I
would not really be understood. Now, I don’t want to make it out like I was the
best poet in the world. In fact, I thought I was quite bad and have much room
to improve. But nevertheless, I like what I as writing, I liked how strange and
discomfiting my work was. But I found that people would blankly stare at me
when I would share my work. Not knowing what to make of this, I turned inwards
and grew afraid that I was being misunderstood. I slowly stopped going to the
club meetings, fearing further misunderstanding.
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
This is a presentation script prepared for Christopher Miller’s course Slavery and its Aftermath in French and Francophone Literature.
L’esclave vieil homme et le molosse is a novel written by Martinican author and 1992 Prix Goncourt winner Patrick Chamoiseau, published originally by Gallimard in 1997. The novel tells the story of an old man who, under the spell of a mythical ailment known only as the décharge, flees captivity into the woods surrounding his master’s plantation. He is thereafter chased by the Master and his mastiff, the rest of the novel recounting the triptych of these three characters’ inevitable boundedness to one another. While there is so much to be said about this short text, my presentation today will attempt to situate Chamoiseau’s novel within a political and aesthetic discourse on history in relation to Martinique’s curious position within the French nationalist archipelago. When we read a novel like L’esclave vieil homme, we are not only reading a novel about a past which has been, within the French cultural and national memory, willfully repressed and unquestionably overlooked, but we are also, in our act of reading, contributing to a counternarrative, a counter-history which brings into questions contextualizes, resists and defies the dominant narrative, that thing which we call History with a capital H. My presentation will look exactly at the question of L’esclave vieil homme as a literary object which attempts to reconfigure the ways we ought to think about French History with a capital H as a historical imposition which subjects of les vieillescolonies in particular must endure. In doing so, I draw broad strokes around the complexities and intricacies of a particularly ultramarin possibility for postcolonialism, given that colonialism in the Antilles and Reunion never formally ended.
Calvin Warren, Ontological Terror: Blackness, Nihilism and Emancipation, Duke University Press, 2018
Calvin Warren’s book Ontological Terror opens with an anecdote. Invited to “meditate on [the] globalized sadism” of antiblackness at a conference at which he anticipated “a festival of humanism in which presenters would share their solutions to the problem of antiblackness (if they acknowledged antiblackness),” Warren’s presentation is met with outright hostility from a crowd typically used to the “’yes we can!’ rhetoric and unbounded optimism” of what he defines as the Black humanist tradition. Early on in Ontological Terror, Warren cleaves himself from what he understands to be the mainstream of Black thinkers, philosophers and social critics by ascribing himself to a heavily Heideggerian camp of what can ostensibly be labeled “Afro-nihilism.” I do not offer this label glibly, in order to signal at the Afropessimist work which hums throughout Ontological Terror; I do so to highlight a specific agenda which is at the center of this short albeit sweeping text. Warren posits, in his response to the outrage of his critique of humanism, of the falsity and impossibility of social reform for what he perceives to be the hearthstone of Western (“world”) civilization – antiblackness, – that the source of the Black intellectual malaise in response to continued violence against Black people is precisely a Black intellectual indebtedness to humanism and postmetaphysics as frameworks wherein Black subjectivity can be isolated and liberated from the bondage of antiblackness. Warren does not posit a posthuman framework, insofar that the affix post may insinuate a departure from a previously established framework, but argues for a kind of antihumanism, an “ontological revolution” which departs from a European intellectual milieu which has been assimilated into a Black cultural perspective and moves towards a framework which can expose the “nothing” of Black being. Or, at least, this is what I read Ontological Terror to be doing. In order to redeem what in many ways is a troubling and disturbing text, I offer this absolutory reading, in hopes that my own interventions, from my intellectual and personal subject position, can situate a text like Ontological Terror. In many ways, this is not possible within our current academic, philosophical and cultural context – how exactly can we approach a humanistic study of Black life if we assume that Black people are in fact not human subjects?
What’s in a text? A year ago, I wrote a post called why read? whose content and ruminations continue to shape my perspectives on grad school. In this post are the first grumblings of a profound feeling of dread that grows between me and the primary act of my profession – the task of reading. Although I barely broach the notion in that post, beneath the surface, you can pick out a discourse of what I shall call bibliophobia, or the fear of books. In writing this short piece, I hope to delve further into a series of logical and affective knots in my character, with the (perhaps naïve) hope that their exposition will in some way make these knots, these nodes of discomfort, a bit easier to undo.
While reading, I am struck by two feelings. The first is the will to understand what is being read. This goes beyond the basic skills of reading comprehension that are massaged into us as children, the analytical detective work of exposing what a text says. In many ways, this is related to my predisposition to a kind of obsessive and paranoiac anxiety, for all texts say something, but most texts say things to me which they do not seem to say to others. When reading a novel like Une vie de boy, I’m fascinated by questions of textuality, interiority and the diary form in ways which many critics seem to overlook. Within the academic profession, this is a positive factor; I am filling a gap in the scholarship of this particular novel with my own reading. Yet, it is the very idea that few people have looked at Une vie de boy from this perspective which frightens me. I find that I am frightened by the idea of my own unique reading, primarily because I am disturbed with the concept of misreading. I do not want to be wrong, although I resist the idea of a dominant reading.
It is no surprise that I am my greatest enemy. I’m impulsive, I am not very organized, and I am self-defeating. Yet, beneath it all, I believe, is a great potential. It is perhaps this potential, this possibility for greatness, that fuels the seasickness of my ego; a constant vacillation between a tremendous ambition and an ever-present feeling of dread.
It’s a week into the semester and I’m feeling a bit drained. I have not done a good job of anticipating the tidal wave which is the school year. This summer, as I have already said, was mild and calm. I spent time collecting myself, getting things in order, and taking stock of a tumultuous year. Yet, the semester has begun and I feel already partially undone. Whatever tidying and sealing I did this summer has already started to fray at the edges and untie itself. This much is to be expected, but not at so rapid a pace. A summer spent reading and trying to inhabit the spirit of the “specialist,” to feel knowledgeable about a certain topic or corpus; one week has thrown an entire three months into question. Yet, I refuse to let graduate school rob me of my charisma and of my sense of power.
I haven’t been writing as much as I’d like. Last semester was definitely not what I had anticipated, and got in the way of this blog for reasons I regret. At the same time, I stopped posting my blog posts on Facebook, mostly because I was underwhelmed by the reaction to my writing, although I cannot expect people, regardless of how much support they give and how little I seem to be moved by what should be powerful, to fawn over every little sentence I produce. Yet still, while I enjoyed and profited much from my first semester of graduate school, I am remorseful for letting this blog, and my writing in general, fall by the wayside.
This year I am committing myself to being more productive in my writing, in however way I possibly can. A lot of writing this blog is just “practice,” a flexing of the muscles in order to see if I can force the web of thoughts and signifiers flying around my head to yield a meaningful message to, say, a stranger, although I’m sure if you are reading this, at this point in my life, I know you, and know you probably quite well. I have mentioned elsewhere (here) that I have this secret desire to be famous. This feeling bothers me primarily because it doesn’t match the image of myself which I have created, inside of which I try to live; a stoic, elegant, brilliant person with a natural knack for writing, whose talent alone will lead him to greatness. Yet, I cannot say that this image, as narcissistic as it may seem, is yielding the results I’d like. My blog has stagnated in the past year, perhaps because my content has drifted from underresearched essays on race and class to “dealing” with anxiety, something people, I’ve been told, find both impenetrable (because they cannot feel what I feel, and therefore cannot know; are frightened by the tangible limitations of their knowledgeability) and disturbing (for the same reasons). The older essays, while sexy and jarring, nevertheless represent a side of myself trying to wrestle with the essential questions of identity which many POC must know and refuse to acknowledge. My position as a Black man does not make me special, nor does my alleged eloquence help to make the bitter pill of internalized racism and affective violence any easier to swallow. When talking about myself, I am able to seize a kind of authority which no one else, ostensibly, can possess; who else can know you more than yourself? And it is perhaps the reliance on the personal, on the ultimately “unrelatable” as I have been told by my professors, that makes my writing so powerful for some, and disturbing for others.
Warning! Now that I’ve actually applied to, was accepted to and have committed to a graduate school, I am able to look back and realize the reality of the situation I have just thrown myself into. Do not, truthfully, apply to graduate school as a senior. I was told by so many people, and I ignored them because I thought I knew better, and I wouldn’t necessarily say I regret it, but I do understand the strain now that I have been through and am now out of it. I really don’t recommend it, although for reasons which are different from the ones that my friends told me a little over a year ago. It was a severe drain on my life and honestly not the way I would have wanted to spend my final semesters of undergrad. I was rarely at Swarthmore during the month of March because of all my visits, and I didn’t even go to all of them….
I have been asked more than once about my graduate school application process. I’m not sure why. Perhaps its because this stuff is visible through this blog and through my other social media platforms, or perhaps because people are intrigued by my journey. As I said in the blurb, I really don’t suggest undergraduate seniors apply to graduate school, even if you are as hard-pressed to continue your years of toil as I was. Nevertheless, for all of those who are interested in my detailed process, this post shall be a guide.
So I wrote this blog post several weeks ago, and I for some reason never posted it, so I’m gonna post it now, but I’m going to add a short preface explaining where I am now. I also added some comments to clarify developments since this was written during my first wave of visits to Yale and Stanford (3/5 – 3/10) and my trip to Berkeley (3/17-3/20).
3/31 – I’m in Pittsburgh, presenting a chapter of my thesis which is just about finished. I have a bit of work to do, and my conclusion to finish, but my thesis is essentially all but done. I have also committed to going to Yale University, after about a month of fretting and second-guessing and listening to people tell me what to do and give me copious amounts of unsolicited advice. Of course, it didn’t help that like, two days after I committed to Yale and declined my offers elsewhere that Stanford sent me a big fat fellowship offer, but I’ve stayed steadfast, realizing that even with that fellowship in addition to my abnormally large stipend at Stanford, the price of living in Palo Alto is so high that I’d likely not have much money left at the end of the day, fellowship or not.
I am ready to be done with the semester. I’m so close, but I still have a huge mountain (Honors exams, lol) to get over before I’m clear. Then, I have a week of downtime before I start taking this Latin class at Yale.
I am sooooo tired, but excited. I want to sleep for a month straight and wake up and it’s Senior Week, a full day after my Honors exam. I wish I could just go on autopilot for the next few weeks, but I need to be present, need to attend this stupid swimming class in order to pass and graduate, need to finalize my summer plans, need to find an apartment, need to….
Anyways, here’s the now anachronistic and probably confusing blogpost that I wrote and just got around to published. I haven’t even changed much, because I know it was super-angsty, and I didn’t want to adulterate any of that raw emotion, since this blog is essentially the only space I give myself to really be emotional. Continue reading yale-bound