Today I curled up in a ball and laid on the ground in various public spaces across USC’s main campus. Why you may ask… because I was tired and in my feelings. But also because I am one of only a handful of black students who are pursuing their Ph.D. at USC– one of approximately 1,640 black students (undergraduate/graduate) enrolled as a part of USC’s 41,000 student population …that is roughly 4%. The truth is, I have been exhausted and thinking about this project for some time. It came to me during my first year as a doctoral student in the midst of the stress and the mental and emotional violence that is graduate school. I would trudge across campus feeling absolutely spent, broken, and alone. Asking myself: Did I make the right decision to pursue my doctorate? Did I choose the right school? Did I choose the right program? Other questions too, like: Am I emotionally stable enough to endure the micro and macro aggressions I step into every day at USC? Can self-love practices sustain me? Can my work (my research and my art) ever be enough in an environment that is structured for my erasure and my silence?
That first year, I would curl up in bed anytime I was not on campus and hide, or read (or both). This, for many doctoral students (race and gender aside) is probably a familiar ritual. It is different for the small percentage of black students oftentimes because there is no one there (advisors, cohort, professors, or friends) to welcome us back each day, each week. People in our academic world who are there to jest, support, provide assistance, provide guidance, or simply reassure that while the road is challenging (and not for the faint of heart), it is absolutely something that can be done. As with my experience, there have been almost no such people. The conversations I have shared with Ph.D. students of color have revealed similar stories of alienation, extreme isolation, and even violence. Every morning I give myself a pep talk and say a little prayer so that I can face another casually racist or sexist professor, another condescending student, another holier-than-thou peer, or another unavailable or cruel advisor.
Recently, my desire to visually work through my experience as a Ph.D. student has become more urgent with the media shit storm and virtual avalanche (domino?) effect around the mass killing of black people in this country. Other black academics have asked if pursing a Ph.D. even matters. Lately, I have been asking myself this same question. Does it even matter? Today was not my first tango with the diversity rhetoric and its reality for black students on university campuses. My undergraduate thesis also dealt, in a very visual way, with the presence (read absence) of black students and teachers on Colorado University’s Boulder campus. I quite literally went searching for black students in the sea of white faces at CU, a large state university, which at the time reported that a little over 1% of its entire student body was black or African American. Here are some of those images:
The pilot performance piece I initiated this afternoon is far from complete. It can most easily be described as the early sketches for a more distilled series of images that will radically reconsider black graduate student bodies across USC’s campus. I hope to include other students of color and other imaginings of how our bodies can create visual ruptures in the hustle and bustle of campus life–a campus life that is often exclusive and hostile towards black people.
I hope you will stay tuned for this work, and be inspired to consider your own position within this ongoing project. Bottom line: Me lying in the middle of a sidewalk is not going to answer the above questions or concerns– it won’t, by itself, bring about the kinds of institutional changes that would be necessary to better support both a robust undergraduate AND graduate student body of color. However, lying in the middle of the sidewalk provided a moment of visualization around these feelings and questions, especially the isolation I feel when walking around campus every day. I hope my body created a visual rupture in the places where I lay. People were forced to deal with me, even for a split second before they kept on their way.
I am an artist and a visual studies scholar by training, so here is one more visual conundrum for me to close on. Since I was thirteen years old, before coming to graduate school, I had been working as a professional model and actor. I have spent countless hours in front of the camera, and more specifically in and around college campuses, ironically enough. I have been willingly and unwillingly photographed for college apparel, sporting events ads, diversity pamphlets and student handbooks. The images you see below are some of the random work I used to get paid for while in college. The other images I referred to were usually taken of me while walking across campus, or within my ethnic studies classes. Like myself, the university’s photographers would have to strategically seek out students of color in order to get the necessary images for the campus bulletins and what have you. It was these unsettling images that ended up all over the CU campus, boasting a diversity narrative that was misleading and simply false. Even my little sister (who was in high school at the time) and who visited campus a handful of times had ended up in one of CU’s campus publications…a running joke among several friends and family members.
I remember one image very specifically, and how it was captured. In fact, as I lay on the cement in front of Doheny Library this afternoon, I thought of it… It was the fall of my senior year as an undergraduate and I was asked to be photographed with a causation girl and her friends (probably freshmen) whom I didn’t know. They were walking by the bench where I was sitting, when this guy grabbed them. ‘Can you pretend like you all are talking,’ is what the photographer asked, looking to me and pointing. After he got an image or so of our awkward exchange, the group walked off and I was left as I was before the incident. Alone. Yet now I bore the psychological burden of the exchange.
As I dig up these old modeling tear sheets, I wonder at how easy it was for me to simply remove those clothes and backpack, get off the borrowed bike, put down the bio-chem books (I was an art major) and walk out of the shoot and on with my life.
Here, I played a hyper visible role in a false visual narrative of what higher education looks like. Ironically, this visual role continues to render my scholar/student self strange and invisible. Today, as the performance neared, I told myself over and over “being photographed in public is nothing new, you got this.” “People may stare– but that is the point– to be seen/known.” Every time I got up off that concrete and walked to the next location, the exhaustion and emotion set it.
Today, I tried to visually explore what higher education feels like for a black woman doctoral candidate. I was out in public yes, but I had nothing to take off, to leave at the scene/shoot. In fact the heavy backpack I lugged around reminded me that I still had “real work” to do once I got out of the heat and off the concrete. I curled up on the ground in order to visually symbolize the weight I experience in my chest every day.
As an artist, I am reminded today that performance art is incredibly exhausting. You don’t walk away from it. You can’t walk away from your own body. And I have to teach tomorrow and a dissertation to write, so I will not be walking out of USC anytime soon… The art was in the process, the entire thing was a performance, and the entire thing was the work of art. This is how I am going to look at the rest of my time at USC… as a performance…a work of art…a time and space for me to peel myself off the concrete and out of my ball once more.
*This blog is not intended to be read as “academic writing.” In fact, perhaps the opposite. I compose most of these blogs on iPad, on phone, and/or in transit. Blog posts are loose personal ramblings. Some may contain silly errors. I appreciate you taking the time to read. Your generosity is undeserved, but much appreciated.