Barefoot at the defense or Call of the Torchbearer

If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.
~Audre Lorde

I was reading a book I’d checked out from the library about women of color in academe. I could tell it was one of those books I wanted to read immediately and without interruption, and I could also tell that it was a book I would need to constantly stop reading and make notes about. I was ready to dive. On the introductory page written in italicized letters was the word “Fuck”. I knew then that I’d been very right about this book.

I interrupt myself to add a bit of context. Today I went to the dissertation defense of one of my classmates and pseudo-cohort members. I internally and externally–as evidenced by my lack of critical questioning–cheered for her successful defense and all the while deeply considered the pending arrival of my own.  I studied her body language, her notes, her slides, would my slides be the university standard Torero blue? I made a mental note that prior to my defenses I would need to buy a wireless clicker to maneuver my slides. I wondered what type of suit I would wear and I got down to her heels and I asked myself what type of shoes would I wear? It was then that the words that first began my initial doctoral class rang deafeningly though my head, “How would you like to begin?” Before I  could think about it I answered myself and said, “By telling people exactly how I felt, acknowledging whatever emotion was there and I would like to be barefoot.”

As a read the second story of From Oppression to Grace I came across a metaphor introduced by Menthia Clark but derived from work by Smith ((sidebar, I tried desperately to find the whole name of this author but unfortunately the citation only lists Smith, D. and the internet isn’t too fond of ambiguity.  I see this as a major flaw in the system, APA….major flaw)).  Smith states that, “I work hard at staying in my mind and not allowing spirit to visit me as I speak about critical education theory, womanist/feminist theory and pedagogy or qualitative/ethnographic research.  It is the dis-dancing with myself that creates a kind of distancing from the southern Black girl/woman who enjoys spirit-filled conversations that push the boundaries of a different kind of intellectual life.”  When I read it my breath left me, temporarily.  I felt this way. About spirit and particularly about art.

Much of my research is about connection, authenticity, feelings of belonging, vulnerability and all of that for purposes of facilitating innovation. AND much of my degree has been running through mud trying to make space for both my artist and my academic selves. I’d long sense surrendered a battle I foresaw with my department over doing a non-traditional defense. Partly because I was not sure the fight would create more heart-ache than hedge-way and partly because I conceded to do both the traditional defense and a nontraditional option.  However, in completing research on facilitating innovation, everything in me scoffs at the traditional defense with black words on white backgrounds and an hour of intellectual hazing.

Get me get me out of this box I feel so claustrophobic in here...
Get me get me out of this box I feel so claustrophobic in here…

How far can I push the boundaries, I wondered? Again, I answered myself lamenting that if I were going to dare to buck against tradition, I better damn well know my shit.  How is it that the sole purpose of the doctoral degree of philosophy is to promote new ways of thinking, and being and yet the process by which we go about it is, to some extent, archaic and riddled with binding rigidity?

Clark recalled a story where she asked a classmate what she, a Black woman, should wear to assert power. He laughingly responded “a power suit.”  She pointed out the illustration of westernized patriarchy in the subliminal suggestion that a woman must wear a “power” suit in order to assert power as if she could not any other way.  And the very fact that for women it is called such supports the social construction (and thus, to some–large–extent the consciousness) of such a remark.

I struggle with idea that I am working within the confines of a system that was not designed with me in mind.  And for as much creativity, forward-thinking, innovation, and imagination that we (the academy) claim to foster, there is only but so much the system can handle before it begins to reject it entirely.  It is kind of like what I’m studying.  In explaining my research earlier to a colleague I wrote to her the following: If the leader’s vision is not in alignment with the values of the group the leader will quite literally be destroyed like a parasite or a virus.  The group acts like a body and each individual is a white blood cell working for systemic stasis.  If a host upsets that stasis then it is attacked. However, my understanding is that what they call the leader I also see as this intermediary.  It does not make the leader a person, but a role, literally then the one exercising leadership in the moment and the person who is holding both the “human community of individuals” and the “greater collective system” at the same time. However because of the danger of any such group requiring this of one person, and repeatedly, that model is not sustainable over time.  In this sense, sustainable leadership requires individuals to each hold a piece of the leadership responsibility.

Herein lies both the problem and the solution.  If I chose to throw out too much of the tradition, the process, the standard way of going about my dissertation I would be treated like a parasite, a virus and the body of academia would destroy me.  However, if I am able to work within the system.  Both sharing the responsibility of creation and connecting with others who are working towards the same end, the perhaps I might survive.  In either case, it just won’t sit will enough with me to go along to get along. That has never really been my style. Fitting as such, my current facebook cover photo is from a professor in my program that perfectly summarizes exactly how anyone willing to fight against convention must do so…

Screen Shot 2014-08-11 at 7.09.05 PM

Such is the task of a torchbearer.  “Jessica.” I think, almost daily, “You have to just do it your way and forget how hard its going to be or how much longer it will take.  You have to go with your gut.”  It is a gift and a curse  to have such a vocal and ardent inner voice. But she has gotten me this far and we have many more miles to go.

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