On Submission: Reflections about my Master’s research & my mixed feelings about the academy

Much to my own surprise, the day after I submitted my Master’s research paper, I woke up with a lot to say. Here goes:

My research report is titled An exploration of Black women students’ sexual experiences. This is (I think) a very misleading title, based on what I thought my research was about 8 months ago (and what I came up with, while in a rush to hand in my proposal).

At the same time, it’s also hard to say what would have been a more fitting name, because my research paper is about a lot of things. My research paper is about the gravity of emotion in our intimate lives. About how “consent” doesn’t always fully capture what takes place in private. About how we experience complicated feelings sometimes. About things that aren’t black and white. It’s also about how we know things. About how sometimes we know something with our body and we can’t necessarily express it in words. About how that kind of knowledge is just as important as the knowledge we can express verbally.

My research paper is this academic thing where I talk about theories on sexual violence and sex and gender and and and. And just like the title doesn’t capture the essence of the paper, the paper doesn’t capture the essence of the interviews I did.

I interviewed 8 women about their life experiences. We talked about sex, sexual violence, being Black, girlhood, womanhood, confusing things, love, dating, insecurity, heartbreak, sexiness, the pressure to play netball, crushing, clubbing and other stuff like that. In every interview, there was a moment where I thought: “Woaah, you felt that way in childhood/high school/your first relationship? I felt the exact same way.”

I wished we could have more of these types of conversations. Maybe we’d feel less alone.

The interviews were rich in a way I’ll never be able to represent in an academic paper. On one hand, it’s a little frustrating that what I write about in the ‘Results’ section is just the tip of the iceberg. Frustrating because I like sharing knowledge. It’s what makes things like tutoring, lecturing, tweeting, blogging, journalism, etc meaningful for me.

On the other hand, I’m glad that there are things I will never be able to give to the academy. The academy doesn’t love us and it doesn’t deserve the life-saving knowledge we’re sharing. To be a Black person and a woman in the academy is to basically be in an exploitative relationship. It’s to be expected to give receipts for your brilliance all the time, translated and peppered with jargon, and then, when you ask to be treated like a person, issa no. You get painted as ungrateful, as disruptive, as a problem. You get painted with that same paint that washed away the stories of your ancestors.

A black woman in the academy is a fierce lil human library but somehow, it feels like we’re being done some kind of favour for being allowed in. The academy wants our amazing ideas but doesn’t want to acknowledge that it hurt to arrive at that knowledge. Our pain becomes an inconvenience. “Valid knowledge” is defined as that which is communicated through words and numbers in research papers; leaving no room for that which we express in our “first” languages, in tears or struggle songs. I digress… but basically, I’m just happy the academy doesn’t get to keep all our stuff. Not the time of #Fallism and #RhodesWar.

Degree-holder status is given a lot of value in our society. The impression is that those of us with degrees worked hard, that we’re smart and that our ideas have the potential to change the world. While all of this is technically true, it’s not only true for us. Having a degree is not a simple result of work + intelligence. It more likely means that you were lucky to:

  • survive a basic education system where the majority of the country’s youth were shortchanged
  • have had enough funding somehow to apply, pay an acceptance fee and register (whether paid for upfront or acquired through a bank/nsfas loan)
  • have had enough (financial & other) resources to manage any mental illness or physical disability you have (likely with great difficulty) long enough to complete your courses.

There are lots of people who cannot jump over these hurdles, at no fault of their own.

I struggle with the way a lot of people’s knowledge and labour are dismissed because of the value we place on tertiary education. I think of my aunt who was not afforded a high school education, despite her yearning for it. She is one of the best teachers of kindness and generosity I know (summa cum laude levels). The knowledge she’s given me is the backbone of any knowledge I’ve produced. And unlike the schooling system, she always taught me I was valuable – I never had to jump through hoops for her to recognize that. She takes sentience seriously and responds to it with live-giving sensitivity. Trust me when I say, your alma mater could never. The academy does not have that kind of r.a.n.g.e.

I fundamentally don’t believe in universities. Academic institutions have broken my heart into pieces (see: #RhodesWar). I tread anxiously in their big, concrete buildings:  trying not to get too attached. I still have heart though because of those who never reduced me to just my mind. I still have heart because in crevices of libraries, people who share this kind of sensitivity have left me lifelines. Focusing on my work on intersectional & feminist theory has been like a treasure hunt: the treasure being the solace of finding bits of yourself that were stolen before you could even blink. It doesn’t take away the pain of being dispossessed, but still.

I don’t know how much longer I will stick to academic pursuits, but for as long as I do, what will nourish me is the network of people who are using the academy to reclaim our stuff. Kunzima mara sisonke.

Let me end off with an excerpt from the Acknowledgements page of my research report:

My intentions with this research report are closely connected to the greater feminist, womanist, queer, blackity-black legacy of activism/life-giving that has brought me here. I am indebted to all the people who have struggled for my breath and who have ensured the survival of the knowledges that have saved my life. I give thanks to all of you: my ancestors, my grandmothers, the One in Nine campaigners, the Fallists, the reference-list-ers, the healers, the journalists, scientists, teachers, tweeters, etc; basically all the people who are my people, despite (constructed) time and distance separations.

With love,