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KEEPING CONSCIOUSNESS IN THE IVORY TOWER

 

By Regina N. Bradley

 

Saturday, August 21, 2010.


I met with tenured Professor Guy X (or your favorite alphabet letter) back when I first started my MA.  He called me into his office of books - I'm a fiend for and always salivate at a sexy library - and asked me where I saw my career heading in the next twenty years.  Twenty years? Chile boo. Can I get past this first semester? Not pee a little when I look at my weekly reading schedule, who, if it could talk, would probably say "do you really want this ass whoopin'?!"
 

"Well, sir, I.....I hope to teach and really contribute something to the understanding of people of color," I stammered. If one my best girlfriends the superdiva pageant queen heard my response, she would just shake her head. I didn't move him at all.

"Miss Barnett, seeing that you are fairly young and inexperienced in the academe, let me stress to you the importance of not only dedicating your life to your work but also understanding how cut throat the academy can be, especially to scholars of color. You have to prepare yourself, immerse yourself..." I zoned out after that.

There go those damn moon crickets again
.

I quickly scooted from his office. I barely committed myself to pursuing a graduate degree and dude was pushing for a lifetime commitment of scholastic excellence? No dinner and wooing first? Apparently not.  As a first semester, 22 year old MA student, it scared me shitless how some professors expected some ingenious, carefully crafted theoretical framework to speak to the ills facing the African Diaspora.  Basically what the brotha was trying to tell me was that all that "leisure" time was dead and gone.  No more going to Club Pendergrass Sunday through Thursday nights, professing full out support of procrastination, and just merrily drifting through my twenties. Oh no, not you, you wanna be scholar.

That's when the panic attacks and four or five times a day phone calls home and to my future husband started. I couldn't handle being seen in a strictly academic lens.  *Cue Rocky theme music* But I adjusted, I adapted, and carried on. And then, something bad happened.  I went home. 

My first trip back home, I felt a big disconnect from those same friends, sorors, and bruhs I was JUST clubbin' with not even six months before.  How the hell do I feel like a visitor to my own city?! Just like that, I lost my pass. All I wanted to talk about was...school or some interesting theory I was tinkering with or some ideas I had floating around in my head. And I expected my folks to know where I was coming from because they knew me. That got shut down when one of my boys kindly shrugged it off and said, "Gina Mae, that ain't got shit to do with me or what's going down in life.  How is that relevant?"

One of the drawbacks to being, ahem, a "schooooooluuuuuuuh" is often losing the ability to link your academic approaches to the real world.  Bruh was more scholastic that day than me with his observations. And I didn't understand where he was coming from until this past January.  Oh yes, it took me until my candidacy exams to realize that in order for my interests to make sense they HAD to stay relevant and current.
 

In my Hip Hop writing course this past spring we discussed how to situate Hip Hop into and write about it in the academy.  Our textbook was Mark Anthony Neal and Murray Forman's edited anthology That's the Joint!: the Hip Hop Studies Reader (2001).  We discussed articles anchored in the following questions:


1.) What makes this cat an expert in said area of Hip Hop Culture?
2.) How do they keep their research fresh and relevant?
3.) What writing approach do they use to address these themes and issues seen in Hip Hop Culture?

Our conversations often rested on the third question and their responses were fascinating.  Eric Michael Dyson, for example, really "got did in" by my students because of the arduous language he uses to talk about rap music.  One of my students opened the conversation with "it's a damn shame I have to pick up a dictionary to understand every other word Dyson is attempting to use." There it is.
 

While it's pretty apparent that Dyson's audience is majorily academic, his realm extends outside of the Ivory Tower into a lay audience of everyday folks.  In my own studies, I'm always intrigued by those experts in the field who pompously speak for all, transcend all, and are superior to all.  Dr. Such-and-Such writes about rap or popular culture yet you also blatantly and frequently profess you stopped listening, stopped watching, and gave up on the exact topics you claim expertise in? 

Everyone has their beautiful struggle.  For me, it's maintaining a sense of where I'm from with my training as a scholar. There is a constant struggle between the 'Bany girl "Gina Mae" and the doctoral candidate "Regina," with little room for the two to exchange fluidly and fluently. I am attempting to navigate a rigid space that allows for little breathing room. On top of that, you'll be damned if you breathe the wrong way.

 

I, like many other next generation cultural and social critics, am trying to keep a choke-hold on my passion and experiences while finding a way  to make what I am passionate about academic.  Like an IV, the academy, popular culture, and "real life" are slowly dripping into each other and becoming inextricably linked. When will our scholastic approaches indicate this on a grand scale?

 

 

Regina N. Bradley is a doctoral student in African American Literature and Culture at Florida State University. She earned her MA in African American Studies from Indiana University Bloomington. Currently, her research interests include performance and gender identity, popular black culture, late 20th and 21st century black literature, and Hip Hop.

Ms Bradley blogs at Red Clay Scholar.

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