Confessions of a Black Graduate Student

broken-pencil

There are a lot of things that people don’t tell you about graduate school. What you will hear, is that it is a privilege to be where you are. Of course it is. In the grand scheme of things, any higher education one receives is a privilege. But people woefully neglect to be real with you when you fill out the applications, sign the contracts, and buy your textbooks. Somehow former students forget some important things when urging your towards another degree: The weight-gain, alcoholism, lack of sleep, anxiety, the cult-like environment of school, and most importantly, the depression.
I’m choosing to write about my own experience, from the black female perspective. This might not be what every black female graduate student experiences, but from what I’ve read, it’s not too far off the mark. It doesn’t encapsulate everything I’ve dealt with from the past two years, it’s more of a overview of the angst I felt.
I was twenty-nine years old, nearly five years older than most of my classmates. I was one of a couple of black students (and with our busy and isolating work, we had little time to bond over that). I was married and had a five year gap in between degrees. Suddenly, it felt as though I didn’t know how to read or write. Like most grad students, I balked at the challenge of reading a novel a week. I read too slowly. I retained very little. And when it came to writing, I found that I had to throw every writing instinct I had out of the window.
But if you talk to most grad students, I’m certain they’ll tell you the same. Confidence flees from us the moment we receive a syllabus and I am afraid it doesn’t come back when we sit down to write a paper. This is the reason why I’ve done a poor job with writing for this blog. Every idea I came up with seemed amateurish, all attempts to write about those ideas became pedantic. I had lost myself.
Blackness became the tiny warren that I could burrow myself into. If I was losing bits of my identity to the Ivory Tower, blackness was something that I would fiercely hold on to. Not that I had too much of a choice in the matter, because in graduate school, that’s all some black students have. It’s like a brand that follows them where ever they go. They feel it when they sit in the classroom, holding their tongues during an exceedingly milquetoast debate over race. They feel it even more standing in front of the classroom, trying to teach white students about the world.
 While the warren I built was, at times, cozy, other times, if felt claustrophobic. I was reading Invisible Man for my thesis and the novel often made me cry. It sometimes made me feel crazy. I couldn’t talk to anyone about the feelings Ellison made me face. Doing that would force me to admit that I couldn’t hack it in a white institution. If I couldn’t work twice as hard as the next student, who happened to be white, there was no point. When I talked to classmates about alienation, I kept it very surface-level so as not to make them feel uncomfortable. This was exactly what Ellison wrote about: feeling like an outsider and not being able to express those feelings with anyone around you.
Teaching was probably the most challenging task. Any student knows that the work put into learning is hard enough, but then to pile educating onto the heap, is insanity. I felt unprepared in that arena as well. On most days, I stood there wondering if my students could sense my insecurities. I wondered if they felt that they didn’t need to listen to me because I was a black woman. Did my lectures on race or feminism, although toned down for freshmen, reach them? Or just bum them out.
Of course, I reached some of them. One particular office appointment with a black female student sticks out in my memory. She was there to talk about a paper, but after awhile, she blurted out: “I didn’t think I’d ever have a black teacher at this school.” I had a feeling that this would eventually come up. Because in the entire time I was at the program, I had only sat in one black professor’s class. We discussed her experience for quite awhile before I told her: “Count this as preparation for the future.” As sad as it sounds, I think my advice was as honest as it got. If she wanted to keep climbing the social or financial ladder, she had to be prepared for the inevitable loneliness at the top.
And that’s something I wish someone had told me. It’s damned lonely, the higher you go.
It wasn’t until the following year that I gained some footing in my studies. I now knew what to expect from my course load, how much work to put into class prep, and when to just take a break. I was lucky to take a Post-Colonial Literature class which turned me on to a period of time that I didn’t know enough about: Colonialism. I learned about the writers of color who fought to reclaim their own identities while inventing new ones. Coincidentally, I took that class alongside Victorian Literature and arrived to each class armed with a withering cynicism that actually helped me understand Dickens, Hardy, and Wilde. Today, I wonder if I should have started out learning more about post-colonial literature. Would I have been happier with the experience? Would I have felt sturdier in the pursuit of my degree?
I can’t answer those questions right now. I don’t think I’ve put enough distance and time from graduation to really know. In writing this piece about being black in graduate school, I don’t have an elaborate list of instructions or advice for people in it or thinking about getting into it. This is more for me. If I don’t sit down and write something about the experience, and then hang it up, I can’t move on. Up until now, I’ve been stuck in the belief that I couldn’t write . And lord knows that I’ve sat in more than one grad adviser’s office crying about it. Those advisers told me the same thing: “Sure you can write! It’s just that academic writing isn’t for everyone.”
And now I will tell you the same thing. “Sure you can learn! It’s just that graduate school isn’t for everyone!” Now if you find yourself in the the thick of your program, black, exhausted and alone, please find someone to talk to. For me, I had a husband to come home to every evening. But I also had Evelyn, a black woman who had already gone through it and who is actually teaching full time at a white institution.
If I were forced to give you advice, I suppose it would be:
  • Find your Evelyn.
  • Reach out to black faculty members and organizations.
  • Get in contact with your school’s counseling center.
  • Know that not all of the work will get done. It’s okay.
  • Get what work you can get done, done. Not perfect.
  • If you’re teaching, take nothing personal. Don’t worry about reaching all of the students.
  • Lastly, just hold on for the end. It does end.
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