Bread for the Journey: A Mini-Reflection on Life in a Doctoral Program

Clarity comes from conviction.

Thus far into a doctoral program I’ve learned that sometimes the hardest part of it is not the coursework but feeling worthy of the post and feeling capable of doing everything that is required and expected of me. I confess that more often than not I feel inadequate because of the sin of comparison and even because sometimes it feels late in the game to be on such a journey. But hearing the aforementioned quote—and a few other words over the past few weeks—is helping me push beyond those feelings.
The quote came from someone interviewing for a position within the school and he shared it as a word of encouragement to a group of doctoral and masters-level students. He told us that the work is not about having the right answers or all the pieces in place but a conviction and a passion for doing important and necessary work for our communities and the world. This is easy to forget in the midst of all of the requirements and the rigor of a doctoral program but I’m thankful for the reminder because I do have a conviction about this work which leads me to clarity about this vocational path I’m on. It’s hard work, my God it’s hard work. This work seesaws between giving me life and dealing me death in all areas of my life, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world and I never want to forget what leads me to this work and the blessing or being able to do it in the first place.
So thank you to that candidate for the timely word, thank you to the professor who put the bug in my ear to be present for the candidate’s talk—and to another colleague for the invitation, and lastly thank you to God who keeps finding new ways to keep calling me to this work. I hope this is also a note of encouragement to other doctoral students. We made it this far for a reason, now it is time for us to believe in the gifts within us, trust that those gifts will make room for us, and believe that through those gifts we are bringing something particular and special to the table that no one else can bring. We’ve got this!
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Reflections from the Strip Club: A Heady Night at King of Diamonds

FullSizeRenderA few days after my 35th birthday I went to King of Diamonds (KOD) my first real strip club experience–sorry little strip club on Bourbon Street with women dancing to Sixpence None the Richer’s “Kiss Me,” you don’t count. This trip to KOD was about a year and a half in the making as there were many attempts at going that failed. The first attempt occurred during a bachelorette weekend and failed because the concierge convinced us that there were better things to do. The second attempt happened during a close friend’s birthday weekend and failed because of the general exhaustion of the group. With this third attempt in view, nothing could stop me from being the one to conquer this beast. Despite having no real detailed plan for going because my friends sometimes like flying by the seats of their pants, I still had some hopes that on the last Monday in December I would end up in the nation’s largest, most popular black strip club. Fortunately the universe conspired with me and I made it. I didn’t suffer from sensory overload as some suggested I would, I didn’t try to save any of the women stripping, and I didn’t get bored quickly. So what DID I do? I had a good time but I think it was atypically so because I was in my head and analyzing everything I saw with my friends. So here are some of my thoughts from my night at KOD.

  1. “Women Who Strip” not “Strippers”: It occurred to me that few other women are called by what they do, and pejoratively so, more than strippers. There are the instances where people refer to Sheryl Sandberg as “CEO,” or Beyonce as a “pop star” but Cheryl and Beyonce are also “CEO Sheryl Sandberg” or “pop-star Beyonce Knowles.” They are known not only by what they do but who they are. A “stripper” on the other hand is usually just a “stripper.”  Part of that naming convention is that women who strip are usually not world-renowned–unless their name is Maliah–but the other part is that I’ve existed in a world where stripping is considered a morally questionable and problematic occupation. Among the ordinary people of the world, I’ve heard that strippers are “messed up,” morally depraved, desperate, and lacking in self-respect and dignity. Broadly construed in popular culture, the stripper is an icon in rap culture and someone T-Pain could–and has–fallen in love with, someone Usher doesn’t mind, or someone Drake respects. One night in a strip club made me question the way I refer to these women and think about what it would be to refer to these women first as women and then as their occupation. And maybe they don’t care either way, but my personal conviction is “person before occupation or ability” at all times.
  2. Do women who strip have a union? As I watched the women stripping I couldn’t help but be amazed and concerned. My concern wasn’t about the salvation of their souls but about their job security, their worker’s comp benefits, health insurance, the safety of hiking up and spinning around those poles all night long… Do these women have a national union that not only protects their right to do this type of work but ensures their safety and fair pay while doing it? I’ve read a little about regional union in places such as San Francisco but it doesn’t appear that there is an AFL-CIO-level union for women who strip in America. Maybe someone can make that happen…
  3. There is a light skin/dark skin dichotomy. An early observation that my friends and I made was that there was a difference between the performance of light-skinned women versus darker-skinned women. What we noticed is the light and fair-skinned women exhausted no energy during their performance. They did no tricks, waited for patrons to approach them, and sometimes looked disinterested in being there altogether. On the other hand, the dark-skinned women performed like the rent/mortgage was due after they left the stage. They had all the tricks and twerked exceedingly well. This claim worked across the board with the exception of maybe one woman per group. (Shout outs to Mini (sp?) for being the real MVP that night!) This was fascinating as I assumed every woman in the club would be working like their lives depended on it, but apparently that wasn’t the case. I talked to a good friend and he said, “The strip club operates the same way the regular world does. Pretty people can get by on looks.” So the strip club mirrors the world, huh? I wonder how many other ways I could draw the analogy out.
  4. Women who strip are gifted. Now on to something a little bit lighter. Women who strip are gifted. Yeah I said, “gifted.” I have no reason to mince my words here. I watched those women do things that the average, and even some above average women, could never do while naked. It takes a great deal of confidence not only to be naked in front of strangers but to perform compelling routines to great effect. (It also takes great confidence to assume that your vagina smells incredible after all that work, good enough for you to shove it in someone’s face after you’ve finished sliding up the same pole as the woman before you.) Nevertheless, I say “perform” and not “dance” because stripping is a performance of the sexual. It’s a performance of projected ideas of the sexual and sensual by women attuned to those ideas through their observations of what men want and sometimes what they need. Their performances ranged from being docile “lady in the sheets” to aggressive “freak in the streets.” There was something for everyone in the strip club performance.
  5. IMG_1170I’m low-key scared of women who strip. So about my personal experience at the strip club…I will confess that I was somewhat scared of the women. My friends and I were sitting at the bar which was close enough to watch the women strip on the stage and really close to the women who were cruising for lap dances and VIP room action. Early in the night I broke a $20 into $1 bills so that I could tip the women. I was excited about my $18–because the club charges a 10% fee to break large bills–and I felt ready to tip women. I saw plenty that was worth “making it rain” but I never got up the nerve to leave my bar stool to leave a tip on the stage. I was scared that someone would find out I was there celebrating my birthday and then bring me up on the stage for a dance or put my face in their crotch or something else. For the women roaming I tried not to make eye contact in case they thought I was choosing that night and decided I was ready to be relieved of all my money. I’ll also admit that the thoughts of objectification were running through my head as I struggled with enjoying what I was seeing but not wanting to objectify women–even though I believe these women were exercising agency not being objectified. These strains of thought run deep and even if I’m able to articulate a progressive to liberal view of women who strip, deep down the problem still exists. As the kids say, “There are levels to this thing.” As you can see I was clearly in the strip club with a lot of preconceived notions about how it works and a lot of fear that these women were predators and not just performers looking to put on the best show for all patrons. So what did I do with all those $1 bills? I spent it at an IHOP. Don’t worry, I realize how ridiculous I am for this.
  6. I would do it all over again… You’ll be surprised to know that I would do this all over again. While I spent way too much time in my head during this time in the strip club I think it was a good primer for future visits. I reserve no official judgement for women who strip–even if subconsciously I’m still showing the signs of my prior judgement. I respect it as a job a woman takes up like any other, and I enjoy watching it like a would enjoy any other performing art. As someone with interest in embodiment and dancing, watching a woman’s strip performance is one of the most amazing things I’ve seen. Just like dancing, stripping requires a strong core and control of the body. There is similar precision and discipline that the woman who strips must exercise in order to deliver the best possible performance. I respect that and would definitely go again to see it. So, who knows, I might write another one of these reflections in a few months.

And It Begins: The Genetics Journey via 23andMe

As a person adopted at a young age I’ve lived most of my life with a lot of unanswered questions. I don’t know much about my birth mother except for the fact that social workers claimed that she would have made a good mother, she had hay fever allergies, and she was quite pretty–this according to a description of her, I don’t know what she looks like. For most of my life, thus far, I’ve been ok with not knowing much about her but I am growing increasingly wary about not knowing the things about her that effect me such as ancestry, carrier status, wellness, and traits. I’m tired of filling out medical forms and primarily answering “No” to questions about all manner of illness and disease. Tired of telling various people “No” when asked whether I’m Somalian, Ethiopian, or Eritrean. Tired of a general lack of knowledge about where I come from and how that impacts who I am. Hopefully, I’ll receive some answers through the DNA collection service, 23andme.

IMG_115723andme is the first and only genetic service that delivers reports directly to clients through an FDA-approved system. Once they receive this vial of my spit–yes all it takes it a vial of your spit–they will run tests that will yield information about my ancestry, carrier status of certain diseases, wellness, and other traits. I will finally know a little bit more about who I am, what I have, and what I may pass on to the next generation. This feels like the beginning of knowledge. It’s the key that will unlock information about myself that has been unknown for the better part of 35 years, information that I’ve increasingly become interested in knowing over the last five years. I’ve found that in my 30s, the greatest challenge of living with an adoption narrative–aside from the pervading issue of abandonment and being chosen, which are still pretty big–is not knowing some of the intimate details that make me who I am.

I have no problem with my inherited narrative of being adopted at eight months old by a married couple, the woman from New York and the man from Jamaica, who came together to give me a chance at this thing called life. They instilled in me a strong value system, raised me in a religious tradition that has imparted its own value system, and loved me and protected me from the moment they set eyes on me and still maintain that same level of love and protection to this day. I’m thankful they adopted me into their family which is now my family, a family that has made me a cultural Jamaican, a fighter, and a strong lover if not always by word, surely by deed. But at 35 it feels like I need to know more. More about who I am, the science and biology behind who I am. I want to know for me but also for who might be…

It dawns on me that these questions are important not just for myself but for my future children–when I decide to have them. I don’t want them to have the same life of filling out forms in which they answer “No” out of ignorance. This is why knowing my carrier status is so important. I also want them to know where they come from and not just to assume that because their mother is a black woman of Jamaican cultural heritage, that is their story. This is why knowing my ancestry is important. In general I want them to have a rich narrative about their life filled with the love, care, and compassion I came to know through my adoptive parents but also filled out with the knowledge of who they are because I know who I am.

That any of this filling out of a life narrative could happen from me spitting in a vial might be wishful thinking on my part, but I hope that I will come at striking distance of fuller knowledge of myself. Stay tuned as I start this journey on the verge of becoming knowledgeable about myself…

PS: A big thank you to my parents for two great gifts; first the gift of adopting me into their lives and now for this 23andMe kit.