Declining Plan B As An Act of Faith

In a few months, it will be ten years since I moved to Atlanta to start a new chapter in life. Given this, I have been thinking about the next ten years and what I ought to leave behind.

Reflecting took me back to a moment in October 2015 when I was attending a gathering of my Ph.D. cohort at our advisor’s home. I remember being nervous about speaking to one faculty member in particular because of his intense personality, yet I found myself standing with him talking about alternative academic (Alt Ac) careers. I wanted to know his thoughts on Alt Ac, a term bandied about a lot in the first few weeks of the Ph.D. program as a vocational direction. I was also curious about how I might spin my first vocation as a journalist in case this whole Ph.D. thing didn’t work out. I remember his energy and his words to me and my colleagues that evening as if it were yesterday. He said–and I’m paraphrasing because this was nearly five years ago,

“There is no plan B, you don’t do PhD work because you want to do alternative academic work, you do this work so that you achieve plan A, otherwise you may as well leave now.”

I remember being shocked at his words but also feeling like it’s just what a white male would say. A white male graduated with high honors, and thereafter landed a teaching position and then a tenure-track position and is currently a full professor. This was all within his first 10 years of holding a PhD. Given this, his dictating what we ought to desire as new PhD students seemed easier said than done. I also couldn’t help but wonder if my path was so assured as a young Black woman scholar. Thinking this way lead me to hold onto my identity as a journalist by hanging on to any opportunity I had to capitalize on that identity and turn it into work. That is why, for the better part of the last five years, and actually for the previous ten, I stayed working in the realm of journalism. Whether it was writing bit pieces, managing editorial websites for publishing companies and people, being an editor for online journals, and the list runs on. I kept myself glued to my first vocation. Yet, this also meant that my loyalties were divided between where I’ve been and where I was headed. It was the difference between resting in the comfort of what I’d known for nearly 20 years or accepting the challenge of a new realm. Recently all of this came to a head for me.

With this being the penultimate year of my Ph.D. work, I’ve had to become more precise about the return on investment that I desire. Thus, while working, writing, applying for fellowships, and living, I’ve had to think about what I want my life to look like in the decades to follow. This has become particularly important as many people ask me, “What do you want to do when you graduate?” Unequivocally I say I want to become a tenure-track professor so that I can teach, write, and speak about ethics, religion, and women, gender, and sexuality at a university or seminary. Yet what I practice is not always what I preach as I continue to hedge my bets by holding on to Plan B.

For the past few months, holding on to Plan B has looked like holding on to my position at the library like a security blanket, all the while knowing, “Everything I can do is not everything I should do.” I told my advisor this last year when she and I were strategizing about my final years in the program. I remember sitting in her office wrestling with the opportunities before me but articulating rather clearly that just because I can do something doesn’t mean I should do it. Sure, I am good at what I do in non-academic areas, but it does not mean that every opportunity presented to me to work in those areas is an expedient opportunity. This is particularly important when I reflect on the precarity of time, and how I indicate to myself and the universe what is important by what I spend the most time doing. If I am dedicating more energy to everything but the pursuit of this Ph.D., how am I sowing into the future I say I desire? Indeed some of this work is necessary because bills don’t get paid by chasing dreams. Yet, if I am not being clear about what it is I want, searching for opportunities to singlemindedly pursue it, and having faith in the pursuit, I cannot and should not expect for it to fully manifest. (Read “fully manifest” carefully, which means I could manifest something, but will it be what I know I am worth?) 

So I’ve had to make a choice–and it’s not lost to me that God gives me choices time and time again. As I shared with a friend recently, “I am never forsaken,” it can be probably be argued that many of us are not forsaken; we just choose our comfort over the challenge to rise to the occasion for which God put us on this earth to meet. But that’s another post for another day. Nevertheless, similar to the choice I had to make ten years ago to leave NY and move to Atlanta to start seminary for God knows what, I have chosen to stop hedging my bets on this old life and start betting on this new life.

I did not just take ten years out of my life to be on the proverbial backside of the mountain to go back to doing the same thing. Indeed, being a journalist is who I was for some time and much of my life will be guided by those impulses–because there is always room for fair and balanced reporting, in-depth coverage, fact-checking, and good writing that everyone can read. All of those things are important to me as ways of life and I carry them with me into the academy. But what I am no longer holding onto tightly is the idea that if all else fails I’m going to fall back into the field of journalism. Instead, in the middle of a pandemic that is wreaking havoc on the academy and creating uncertainty for near-future PhDs, I’m leaning into what I want and what I’ve been working toward all along. I’m thinking about the words of that faculty member who told me in 2015 that there is no Plan B, there’s only Plan A, and he was right. There is only a Plan A, and I’m encouraging myself to believe that I can achieve the Plan A by dint of my hard work over the last decade, my gifts, and by hoping against hope that the future I want is the future I will have.

In many ways, I’m returning to the type of person I was ten years ago before I was in the throes of graduate school theological education. I was hopeful and willing to trust God with what I cannot see and that hope and trust moved me to Atlanta for ten years and set me on this incredible journey. I feel that God is again asking me to hope and dream audaciously and trust the process, but this time around to lean singularly on the last thing I was told to do. So here I am, entering the final lap of this pursuit toward a Ph.D., having decided to step away from my work in the library, having accepted the fellowship that aligns with my future goals, and that allows me the opportunity to work on this dissertation singlemindedly. I am entering the next ten years focused on the one thing I want. I am giving this work time to speak to me by only listening to it. Finally, and most importantly, I am trusting the process and trusting God in the process.

Redirecting the Orgiastic Ethos of Christmas

During the first two days of Advent I heard people use erotic language to describe the capitalistic ethos of the Christmas season. In the first Sunday of Advent mass the priest referred to the constant announcement of Black Friday deals and sales as “orgiastic,” and on NPR the next morning they referred to the season as an “orgy of consumption.” I’m struck by this language particularly because yesterday’s second reading also traffics in some erotic language. Everyone’s problematic fave Paul tells us to stay alert throw off the work of darkness and put on the armor of light, conducting ourselves as if we were in the light not in orgies and drunkenness, promiscuity and lust, or rivalry and jealousy. He concludes the passage by heeding us to not make provisions for the flesh but for the Lord Jesus Christ.
While this passage was being read in mass, I noticed a few members of the choir chuckle when they heard orgy and I saw a few people throughout the parish squirm at the sound of promiscuity, lust, and flesh. I was even shook for a moment until I realized that being shook by those words is old hat. It’s old hat because we hear “orgies,” “promiscuity,” “lust,” and “flesh” and go straight to our bodies and sex, and while we are not far from not needing to be concerned about our bodies, sex, and flesh in the world, it’s above us in this season because there is honestly a bigger fish to fry.
What the priest tried to get us to understand in the homily and what came back around to me via NPR’s utilization of this erotic language to describe the season is that our desires are being corrupted by the enterprise of capitalism which convinces us that extreme consumption through the guise of giving gifts to our loved ones is how we spread good cheer and tidings of comfort and joy. If the copious advertising and marketing of Christmas does any work, it is to constantly whet our appetites for more by selling it to us for less which makes us want it more and buy more. It is orgiastic indeed because, as a recent article pointed out, clenching the deal is a state of mind, it makes us feel good. It is affective, engendering a positive feeling close to an oxytocin release.
Thus it is no wonder we cannot part from all this season has become for us. We are now affectively conditioned to consume and without that consumption, we may feel nothing at all which means, capitalism has sufficiently done its job and is a hell of a drug.
So where does all of this leave us?
To do as the first day of Advent readings directed us, stay alert and walk in the light of the Lord. Being able to name how we’ve been taken by the spirit of capitalism–as we do every season–will allow us to properly discern our place in this season. I do not want to suggest that the gift-giving element of this season is wrong, but I do want to encourage us to interrogate how we consume toward the gift-giving end of this season, being careful to put Caesar in his place and bring Christ and the ethos of goodwill to all humans to its proper place. In this way, we can find more ways to put people at the center of our holiday practices–as Jesus put people at the center of all his praxis–and in this way we do not so much look for gifts for them but we look for ways to be a gift to people through our presence in their lives. Maybe in this way we can derive orgiastic pleasure not from bestowing gifts but by availing ourselves one to another and experiencing the true power of the erotic where it is, as Audre Lorde says, a “critical element in dismantling the social and political hierarchy situated in a white patriarchal power structure that reproduces the erotic as pornographic.” After, it is those same white patriarchal power structures that have shaped this entire economic system down to the capitalistic Christmas enterprise we are currently beholden to. Lest you think I escalated this out of nowhere...


Yesterday in a class, a student aired a complaint about the way they believe white people infiltrate spaces not meant for them. They spoke in general about situations on campus but then brought it to the particularity of the class, a class which by name alone, might suggest an all-black space but by the university’s student population would make that an impossible feat. The professor issued a gracious rejoinder that took a little edge off–without this the snaps in agreement to the student may have escalated to a conflict. Yet what was disappointing was when the student was encouraged to speak about the lecture at hand and the readings, they were silent. Granted the student might have been flustered and frustrated in the moment, but it made me think about an issue I struggle with being a Black person in mostly white spaces, particularly a Black PhD student in mostly white spaces. I’ve been uncomfortable with the ways that White people fill spaces too, so I understand the student(s) concern.

What I’ve discovered is, white people are going to fill spaces, especially the spaces where they’ve been privileged to be all their lives as we struggle to figure out our worth in the space. Even if it is a 20-something college student, they benefit by being a descendent of people who’ve always had access and never had to question their belonging in the world. I realized that I can’t continue to spend my time worrying about the ways they move around in the world because it won’t change, immediately–if it ever. What I can do is worry about myself.

In the first semester of my doctoral program I spent a lot of time being frustrated by the ways White people, specifically White men, take up space with their command of the scholarly lexicon and their body language. The ease with which they walk into a room, pull up a seat at the table and make seminar rooms their own–even when they don’t realize they’ve monopolized and exploited spaces for the sake of gaining social and intellectual capital with the professor–rarely is it ever to the advantage of their colleagues given the level of obscurantism present in their speech. I spent a lot of time complaining to family, friends, and colleagues about this phenomena all the while being silent in the classroom because I didn’t think what I had to say was worthwhile–because I didn’t speak or think like “them.” But I realized that the time it takes to worry and complain about them, while remaining silent, ensures I don’t move the needle forward in gaining my own social or intellectual capital or putting forth my own ideas. I realized I couldn’t spend another day talking about the ways in which I feel white people are silencing me in the classroom. I have to say it and say it without apology. Not sheepishly, not with disclaimers, not with cowering voice but with courage, certainty, and a little bass in my voice. It took me a whole year to learn that and I’ve since gotten better in the classroom because I believe I have as much as right to the space as “they” do. Now I try to take up space with my blackness and by that I mean with my perceived difference, with the determination of my people, on the prayers of ancestors, the dream and the hope of the slaves, and every freedom fighter without whom, I may not be here.

So I’ve learned that what the classroom doesn’t need is black and brown people who will idly sit in silence because they perceive the White voices in the room as too big. No voice should dim your light regardless of how big its performance–because remember, a lot of this is a performance. What the classroom needs is Black and Brown people courageous enough to decide that their voice, their ideas, their thoughts are worth hearing. Black and Brown people in the classroom, at a base level, must believe what they have to say is worth saying and worth hearing. No longer can we sit in silence or in circles after class complaining about white people and their voices and their bodies claiming spaces. We have to claim and re-claim the space against all odds and believe we are as entitled as they are–and sometimes we are even more entitled than they are.