It has taken me at least the past several months to muster up the courage to write this post. I’ve gone back and forth about it more times than I can really recall, having it in draft mode, then deleting the post, creating another, deleting that one — this all happened a few times — and finally beginning to write and letting it sit for a while. Part of this is because it means things are now a reality. I also feel — because I don’t know who reads this blog — it makes me sort of vulnerable to put these types of thoughts out there. But I decided that I should be — and need to be — as honest about my thoughts as I am with the way I advocate.
Over the past while I’ve really been thinking about my place in Black breastfeeding — in continuing to pursue anthropological research on Black breastfeeding — which, of course, means even finishing my PhD. If I can remember correctly when I really began to wonder about this I was in the south. About a year and a half ago I was in a conversation with a distant relative, while there, and he and I were talking about the state of Blackness in the area and all the turmoil Black people face at the hands of the state. He was telling me how state sanctioned murder of Black people (Black people being killed by cops) is much worse in Mississippi than in other areas. That’s when I began to wonder why I was called to do work in this area versus something else. I began exploring these thoughts last year when I wrote about them here but never really talked more about it. But the truth is that I already had thoughts about it for other reasons.
I’m entering the 6th year of this program at school, and at the dissertation writing phase. A year ago I was advanced to candidacy which means what’s left for me to do literally is to write a dissertation and graduate. It’s more complicated than it sounds. For anthropology part of this means going to the field — the physical research site and practicing just about everything I’ve constructed thus far and collecting data. This means I’ll be implementing all of the research methods to figure out the Black breastfeeding scenario to find out why there is such a huge lack of breastfeeding among Black women, to create change. I’ve gone to Mississippi on a few occasions as an anthropologist — as pilot and preliminary research, but now it’s time for long-term, which, based on my timeline would take me about 12-18 months. From now until the dissertation is finished could/would take a couple to a few years. That’s not a problem for me. Except there are a number of things I consider.
Graduate school has taken a tremendous toll on me, in several ways. I guess it wouldn’t be that bad except for this is my 6th year, and I have literally put myself through this program! I have had extremely minimal assistance from faculty in my dept., and over 6 years can literally count on a single hand when I’ve had meetings with an advisor about my work, to help move me along. To put things in perspective, many people meet with their advisors on a consistent basis — in the beginning it’s usually weekly, as they progress it’s usually monthly. But I’ve had to figure everything out myself, with some amount of guidance from a professor I still keep in contact with from community college. I know there are other people who say they don’t get help in graduate school. But I firmly believe that is has been to this extent is one of the consequences of being a Black woman pursuing a PhD – Black people in this country once faced physical punishment for even attempting to learn how read and write and those sentiments are still active, even if covert. I have had no help at all and no mentors. But what I have had is a bunch of opposition and racist sentiments that began during the very first quarter I stepped on campus. I could list all the ish that’s gone down, but maybe I’ll save that for some other time.
Another obstacle is that my research has yet to be funded. In case you’re not familiar with how this works, let me give you some insight — we apply for funding from organizations — the National Science Foundation, or wherever — whatever large national or international organization that believes you’ll ‘make an impression’ and believes your research is worth handing thousands of dollars over to. As you can imagine it takes a lot time and effort — months in some cases to construct what you feel is the ‘perfect’ grant proposal — writing — researching — editing — submitting and then waiting — for additional months sometimes — to hear back and there’s no guarantee at all. Research money doesn’t come easy. Not only since grants are very competitive, but especially because it isn’t a secret that often times when People of Color are working to make radical changes to society, our work just doesn’t get funded. Also, for me, I refuse to produce proposals rife with poverty porn about how the ‘poor,’ ‘at-risk,’ ‘uneducated,’ subjects I’ll be working with, whose only redeeming quality comes from a researcher draped in a cape of academic tools to study and save people from themselves, will be what will ‘fix’ problems in Black breastfeeding. I also will not erase nor play down the fact that I am a Black woman with a deep personal & historical connection to the land and people. And that seems to be always an issue.
Other things I’ve been thinking about are that I find it might be problematic to think that I have tools that people need to change breastfeeding and I can’t act like the ‘savior’ to ‘help’ them. My redeeming quality is that I am very connected to the people but have been so far removed. In academia we call this insider-outsider. But that’s not all. I also think about safety. No one ever talks about safety issues while conducting research, and it leaves the door open for harm to go unchecked and to not find ways to create avenues of safety, which is problematic.
I feel I have extremely little support. It’s so interesting when I get undergraduates who approach me wanting to talk about pursuing graduate school, my first words of advice (after trying to get them to wait if they’re very young) is to find support — from people inside of academia who will understand the pressure they are under, what is expected of them and how to deal with it all, along with people outside of academia who honestly have their best interest, is so proud of them, but just cannot fathom the demands they’re under when pursuing a PhD. Very often I get people who contact me asking me to speak, write, publish, visit etc. I realize I turn the overwhelming majority of these down because — for one if I don’t see how the purpose benefits the people in the community directly — outside of an academic framework understandable to only those in the academy — then I don’t do it. I also recognize that I’ve failed at my own advice. I’m sure this advice comes from experience but I do recognize that I just don’t feel supported and cannot really conjure up the energy it takes to put effort into something because I’m already doing so much on my own. I have a list of other points that I could talk about but maybe I won’t right now.
In times like these I really miss Terry Jo Curtis. I think about her and how she was like a mother to me in the Black breastfeeding world and I could call her and talk to her all about this type of stuff and she’d give me her honest feedback.
I won’t say I don’t understand the significance of my work in Black breastfeeding — or that my heart does not still remain in it. I know the significance. I still have not found another Black person who is an anthropologist and who focuses on Black breastfeeding. This isn’t surprising, given the fact that there are relatively few Black people who are practicing anthropologists and since the disjuncture in the history among ourselves when it comes to how Black women were breastfeeding then and how we’re breastfeeding now, is highlighted because it needs crucial change. So I get it. I’ve also had too many experiences with Spirit to know that working here is not of my own volition.
I’ve been seeing a life coach over the past few weeks to help me disentangle from a lot of things — not just with school but other areas since I do a lot of community work, and one of the things I mentioned to her is that I feel like I’ve been fighting to be (in grad school, trying to do this work) when there is so much opposition that tells me I shouldn’t be there. I honestly feel this way which is why I’m even sharing my thoughts.
I’m usually very resolute in my plans with desires to create change that I firmly believe in & finish what I start. But things, I’m not sure if they just may be different in this case. To be honest, I’m not sure what the immediate future holds, so I’ll say just that I guess we’ll just wait and see what happens.