“I decided long ago
Never to walk in anyone’s shadow
If I fail, If I succeed
At least I’ll live as I believe
No matter what they take from me
They can’t take away my dignity”
But they will try. They will do their best. They will be covert. And the “they” could and will be absolutely anyone you come into contact with. One of my first musical memories is the above song by Whitney Houston, played on grainy vinyl in my parent’s living room while my sister and I interpretative danced/erratically ran around the room to the words in our pajamas. We thought we were brilliant. In reality, we were terrible, but still terribly brilliant. I thank whatever higher power you and/or I might believe in that this all took place before video cameras were commonplace. We called this particular version of activity “our exercises.” As in, “Hey turn that down and quit jumping all over the place;” countered with “But mom, we’re just doing our exercises!!” Can’t argue with that.
Flash forward. I grew up. All the while, I took Whitney’s words to heart. I never wanted to be the person they wanted me to be: a quiet, polite, masculine, good-natured Mormon boy that would go on to do all the things associated with quiet, polite, masculine, good-natured Mormon boys. So in any ways I could, I rebelled, I resisted, and I redefined myself. But that’s a story for another time/essay/book.
I went to college, I bummed around, I played music, I worked different jobs, I lived in different states all trying to find my “true calling,” and I eventually enrolled in graduate school – because I enjoyed learning; because I wanted to learn more about things outside my own experience; because one day I wanted to teach and inspire young people to live their best life (but not necessarily in the same metaphorically Oprah-endorsed way), and hopefully introduce them to some of the same readings/writings that saved my life (black feminist writing, LGBTQ writing, radical politics, etc.).
So that time came and went. I do teach now. I teach badass shit that I’m proud to expose young folks to – black feminism, LGBTQ studies and writers, voices of underrepresented groups, etc. But the rat-race of grad school/academia never ends. I’m in a kind of limbo state: I’m an adjunct teacher at the college level but I have yet to complete the requirements of the PhD program in which I was/am enrolled. Quite specifically, I am a PhD candidate (which means I have completed all requirements save submitting the final dissertation) in the department of Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers University. For all accounts, I’m disagreeable and bite the hand that feeds me. I make a living cashing (very measly) checks from Rutgers for adjunct teaching while spending most of my free time promoting and spreading the word about a course I created and teach – Politicizing Beyoncé (www.politicizingbeyonce.com - holla!) – while mainly garnering free publicity for Rutgers University and the Women’s and Gender Studies department while my own name is buried beneath the headline or not mentioned at all.
I’m not necessarily angry about all that because it’s my choice to rep my own course and spread the word. My complaint lies with the failure of Rutgers to acknowledge the unpaid work I have done and continue to do, while still refusing to pay me and all other adjunct lecturers and graduate students alike barely above a poverty-level wage while they reap the benefits of my hard work. And my complaint lies with the very nature of graduate study and what it may or may not prepare any individual student/teacher for.
Graduate school is like religion is like a cult is like the military is like…
They (and yes this is the “they” from earlier in this essay) attempt to break your bones; strip you of substance; annihilate your agency; obliterate your choice of occupation. Just so they can build you back up in their image. And despite coming from a Women’s and Gender Studies department – an interdisciplinary department founded on its own challenge to traditional power structures – I was/am expected to reiterate traditional models of knowledge in order to prove myself as valid. This call comes from white folks, women, people of color, etc. – all invested in the academic power structure while simultaneously claiming to challenge that same structure from within a “nontraditional” department.
So I’m confused. And I have no answers. Only more questions. I suppose I’m just attempting to expose this pressure piled onto my chest to the universe. If teaching has been subsumed into the academic industrial complex, what hope do we have? If I, an educated white man, have trouble navigating the toxic spaces of academia and knowledge production, what hope, if any, do we have of making any kind of revolutionary change in this world? If people from traditionally marginalized groups are joining the academy only to be incorporated into the same power structure that seeks to oppress them on the outside, what does the future look like? If we demand a certain kind of knowledge as the only kind of knowledge that “counts” (and trust me, I’ve fielded countless questions over why Beyoncé and/or Black feminism even count as sites of knowledge in the first place), what kind of world are we trying to build? Audre Lorde said “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” but have we EVER engaged in a discussion around what those “other” tools might look like?
Since I was young, I never respected power as power itself. I questioned. I didn’t want to walk in anyone’s shadow without knowing why that shadow was worthy of walking in. I never wanted to hide myself in those shadows. No one should. And yet power shadows all of us. And some of us like the shade. And while shade is an important mode of critique, living in the shade of power will never get us anywhere. Living in the shade will never affirm your dignity. Come out of the shade. Sweat a little. See the world for what it is – unequal, biased, fucked up, but not without hope. Shade is like silence, and Audre Lorde also cautioned us: “Your silence will not protect you.” Living in the shade will not protect you/us. You can privilege genuine independent thought and shine a light on the real issues; or else you can hide in your ivory tower, outside the sun’s reach, and hope and pray that you aren’t stuck locked inside that tower when the rest of the village wakes up and tries to burn the tower to the fucking ground.