I don’t have much to say about the riots or the protests. I’ve tried drafting a post for the past few days and nothing has come out. It all sounds trite or too formal or too academic. Writing your vulnerability is difficult, but you all know this.
In times like this, I feel my blackness the most. I watched the video of George Floyd’s life getting snuffed out, just like I watched the spray of blood as Ahmaud Arbery was shot dead. I acknowledge people’s right to abstain, but I never do. And each time, I feel a certain nothingness inside of me. What’s wrong with me? I just watched a snuff film, watched this man beg and plead and gasp while this fucking cop applied pressure to his trachea until he went limp. He was probably dead by the end of the video. I watched a man get murdered for no reason. So why do I feel nothing?
I don’t post on social media when things like this happen. I avoid talking about it with my friends because I resist unraveling the bundle of nerves around my true feelings. No one can put my fragile life back together, so why bother? Or, I’m afraid that there are no true feelings thereunder, that what I feel I feel is just an illusion. Affective gas. Existential indigestion.
You don’t have to tell me that there’s nothing protecting me from being another Ahmaud or Michael or Korryn or Tony or Sandra or Breonna or Trayvon or Amadou or Sean or George or Eric. Mine is another name to dry out your mouth at a sun-parched rally and scrawl onto your picket sign. Another face to break the internet.
I already know it, and it’s the knowledge of my knowing that I avoid. I live so squarely inside of my body that I can feel my skin tighten as I shrink in the presence of white people. Obedient and obeisant. Willing to serve. I’m never unaware of who and what I am in this world, even when I’m trying to be someone or something else.
I avoid Facebook, Instagram and Reddit because everyone is talking about the latest killing, saying the same old things. Voicing their hot-blooded anger and grief. A stir, a collective weeping. Then the lull before it happens again. This time is different and I’m glad. I adore the crimson glow on the horizon while I watch the world burn from a distance.
There were protests in New Haven today. Had I known of them, I would have had to make the decision of whether I wanted to go or not. I don’t think I would have gone, had I been given the choice. I can’t furnish you with an explanation that doesn’t sound like an excuse. It’s all nonsense in my mouth, a meaningful jabbing with the tips of my fingers.
I abstain because I think about my racial experience every minute of every day. Whenever I go into a store, I feel their eyes on my back. I’m careful of where I put my hands, careful to not seem too shifty or shady. Very rarely do I enter a store without making a purchase because I don’t want people to think I’ve stolen something. My grandmother’s voice is in my ears: “Always ask for a bag.” Why, I asked, a stupid child not yet aware of what he is. “People will think you stole if you don’t get a bag.”
Whenever I sit in a seminar room, I police myself. I’m eager, I’ll admit it. I do my homework, I like the sound of my own voice. But somewhere in a region of my mind I’m whispering “That’s enough, Xavier. You’ve spoken too much. Shut up shut up shut up shut up shut up.” A fifteen second point feels like I’ve been talking for thirty minutes. I imagine their green and blue eyes rolling. “Why does he always have to talk about race?” My point was too long, meandering, incoherent and baseless. I’m taking up space, I’m expanding and smothering everyone in the room with my dark continent of a body. I imagine hearing their thoughts in my head as a kind of prejudicial telepathy. “Stupid, arrogant, garrulous n*gger.”
I don’t share my emotions with others. Very few people have seen me cry or angry or excited. In general I’m rather neutral because being neutral is safe. But this isn’t a façade, but a defense mechanism. Boisterous, rambunctious and loud black children get set apart. They draw too much attention to themselves and demonstrate that they won’t survive in a white demure world obsessed with decorum and homogeneity. Black kids with ambition learn to keep themselves small, even when they pretend that being tiny is partial to their truest selves. Being black in white spaces means believing your mask is your personality, after all.
It means believing that being in diverse and integrated spaces means you no longer have to know your place. Nothing was ever further from the truth. A diverse and integrated space means that your place has been ordained. You have an office now: resident black. Be grateful and don’t look so darn melancholy. Try to put on a smile.
Somewhere in the deepest recesses of my mind is a person I don’t recognize. I keep him imprisoned in the frigid Fort de Joux of my mind. A war criminal, a terrorist, I leave him there to ice over and die.
I’m not okay, but I’ll survive.
I know my silence doesn’t mean what I feel people think it means. When I don’t post or reshare the links to resources, relief funds, mutual aid – it’s not that I don’t care or that I’m unbothered. I choose my quiet to protect myself because I still have to deal with a racist world when the protesters go home and classes start again and things return to normal. I tune out because protecting myself keeps me alive.
Survival isn’t enough, though.
I fear this post makes no sense, but I’ll post it anyways. I’m used to my emotions not making sense. I’ve accepted that emotions never make sense. Nevertheless, I haven’t been articulate and I may have even soured your image of me. I accept this if it’s the case. I’ve always feared that I’m secretly a cold, calculating and manipulative person with little to no warmth or passion. Maybe I am, and my numbness to all of this is just a symptom.
I wish I felt comfortable going out and protesting, writing thinkpieces, posting my thoughts and opinions to Instagram, standing off against the police. I’m grateful that there are people out there doing what I can’t or won’t do.
Perhaps I’m nothing but a sniveling craven of an academic hiding behind his books, preaching of a world he’s too afraid to build. And if that’s the case, can I accept myself with grace and kindness, even if that means being rejected by you?
Is my grief and fury, tinged with melancholy and stained with pessimism, legible to you?
Does it need to be?
Image: Faith Ringgold
preface OR white tenured professor mourns an imagined bygone era
A few months ago, I had a conversation with a professor in my department. It was one of those long meetings where we ended up discussing just about everything. This particular professor enjoys a prestige and esteem most would find enviable. And he wielded his status like a weapon, in the ways professors of such clout typically do. As we were chatting, I began to unfold my aspirations and my fears for the coming years. As I feel like everyone knows at this point, I am planning to take the next two years to study for my dissertation, conduct some archival research and write my dissertation, presumably and preferably away from campus. I’ve thus been in the process of applying for grants to fund these two years of travel and study and was asking this professor for advice. Interweaved into this conversation were my inevitably legible trepidations about my job prospects. Comp Lit at Yale has a decent hiring record, but the lack of any semblance of institutional support for my research project and the rather vague and open-ended image of my dissertation committee has left me with a feeling of insecurity I’m sure won’t go away until I’ve accepted a job offer somewhere.Continue reading fear of a black future
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.Continue reading bibliophobia
If you try your best, you can.“Optimistic,” Radiohead, Kid A
If you try your best, you can.
The best you can is good enough.
It’s the end of August and school is about to start again. For the past month, I’ve been trying to figure out how I feel about my upcoming second year of graduate school. Throughout this summer I’ve been slowly and carefully reading the marginalia from my first year of graduate study, unpacking situations, reliving conversations, and trying to learn from my experiences. I was unhappy, perhaps the most unhappy I’ve ever been in my life. Everything I had once thought about myself, the great pillar of my self-worth, seemed suddenly called into question. I was worried that I had made a mistake in coming to grad school, or in picking Yale, or in deciding on a research topic which seemed to get more frayed and frayed at its edges. I was unsure of what it meant to be a scholar, of how scholarly writing or scholarly reading should look. I was disenchanted with academia and uncertain of the weight of my dreams. I was unsure of myself as a person, not really aware of how people understood me, displeased with how my friends had begun to treat me, and unsure of how to remedy these situations. I was very lonely, and I felt at times as if no one wanted to be around me. I began to think I was a person undeserving of close friends.Continue reading year in review: onwards
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.
I have been living with an anxiety disorder for four years. That’s to say, I’ve known about my anxiety disorder, was able to name the monkey on my back and recognize it as my own, for four years. My undergraduate studies will forever be colored by a apparently perpetual state of anxiety whose description seemed only to confuse people. My parents were disturbed when I told them about it, thinking that something had happened to me, that I was sick. My mother in particular would continue to use the cooing phrase “don’t stress yourself out” for the next two years in hopes that the repetition of that phrase would have magical, incantatory properties. My father simply withdrew a bit, as men are prone to do, unsure of how to help, unsure of how to mitigate the insatiable fire of rage which we call masculinity in the face of what seemed to him to be another parental failure. And this was all a narrative which was thrust upon me, for I never understood my anxiety to be a disease or my parents to have failed me because of it. Sure, it was painful, and the attacks unbearable, and the possessions unsightly, but when the episodes of deep introspection and guilt and self-pity subsided, when my mind cleared after would seem an eternity, I never wanted them to stop, so much as to bend them to my will, to use them. I never wanted my anxiety disorder to go away, to be ‘normal’ or ‘healthy,’ likely because I was of the opinion that it would never cease. From the moment I knew that something was not normal, that I was not like everyone else, that my bouts of “overthinking” were chronic and inescapable, I knew I was strapped into a car I was now forced to drive, regardless of whatever other motorists believed of it or my fitness as a driver. This has been my coping mechanisms for the past five years, living in this body, and it has gotten me this far.
The title of this post is a translation of Ferdinand de Saussure’s definition of semiology as a science that studies “la vie des signes au sein de la vie sociale.” The phrase itself is not very clear in the native French, let alone translated and disfigured into English; how do signs have life (vie) and why must we study them through the logical systems which found scientific study? How can we study the lives of signs within (au sein de) social life (vie sociale) and why must, according to Saussure, we study them this way? Does signs have meaning beyond the social realms/lives which they inhabit?
Because I am young and coming into myself, I have become aware of a series of events in my life which have been formative to my development as a person. I am both superstitious (in attributing certain things to God or to spirits or to circumstances outside of my knowledge or control, or as a teacher once said to me, “to people who have been looking over me and supporting me throughout my life, since my early childhood”) as well as rational (in attributing certain things to “feats of will” in myself, as well as strategic moments when my parents chose to act on my behalf for my greater good, even in situations I, in the moment, considered with scorn) in looking back at the timeline (or time-web, time-potato, maybe) of my life, attempting to tease out in a Freudian way the paths I have taken and how they have affected me for good or bad. Trying to better understand the reasons for my perpetual impatience, for my displeasure with the things I possess, with my amusement with the ideas behind pretention, with my preoccupation for the analysis of social structures and my disdain for my participation in the very structures I think should be utterly abolished. I think back on my life, from the beginning of the tape when, one day when I was 4 years old, after a nap, I woke up in my parent’s bedroom to see my family gathered downstairs for a barbeque and the reel, the story, begins, and try to piece together the elements which made me who I am, the highlighted, slowed-down, heavily-remastered details of the fraying wheel which stand out, which are all that is left of the masterpiece long-shot film of my life.
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.
Lol. So I’m officially done! with all of my applications. I was accepted to the Master’s programs in Quebec and got funding to do them from the Fulbright Commission but I declined my grant offer today. When I got the email notifying for the Fulbright, it was like the same thing that happened before with other acceptances; looking at my phone, saying “Oh, wow” and going back to whatever I was doing, thinking, in the absence of emotion, about why I am so unimpressed or unmoved. I’m tired, and I’ve been saying the same thing for months. I haven’t even told many people about the Fulbright because I haven’t really considered it a viable option. I wanted to write (an actually brief) blog post about it, just to sort of formally announce that I got (and have declined) my award.