I’m really excited about this blog and about sharing this journey with you. I’m not sure who you are but I have an idea when I write. Most times, you are a Black, undergraduate student. You’re someone who doesn’t feel confident that the academy is for you. Sometimes, you are a PhD peer, with the same discomfort. I’m excited to speak to you about all of this because I think it’s important we do so. I imagine a solidarity of sorts between us and these posts are my attempts to connect.
It’s been easy to write so far, about the terror of teaching and the excitement of learning. What has not been easy, which I will attempt to do here, is to write about the ugly feelings. Much heavier, they linger longer than bouts of excitement do. They outlive all other feelings.
In the first week of the Wits academic year, there was a protest due to a lack of accommodation, as well as registration fees. There was private security all over campus. Teargas. Rubber bullets. I remember trying to get to my supervisor’s office, going from pillar to post, finding that most doors to her building had been locked. I negotiated numbness and helplessness as I moved through the maze. With those I spoke to on campus that week, there were similar feelings. Powerlessness, horror, and grief. How do we exist on a campus where rubber bullets and private security do not elicit reactions from the majority of us anymore?
The university is a violent space. In its very nature. This violence is meted out against those of us who are Black, poor women, queer, transgender, disabled and/or not citizens. We are under seige in so many ways, and even those of us who make it to the upper echelons have limited power in the face of white supremacy and its continued economic power. This is complicated by the fact that the access we have to the university privileges us in comparison to the remainder of society.
It is difficult to write about the grief of trying to exist in such a space, when at the same time, our “achievements” in such a space are celebrated. Indeed, when our presence in such spaces is the result of so much historical (and everyday) sacrifice. The keys that grant us permission to have our physical bodies in the university were gained through struggle. So it means a lot to be the first Black graduate in your family, or to be a graduate from any marginalized group, because we know what it took to get here. People were killed. The promise held in that graduation gown and that transcript makes a symbolic difference to many of our communities, because it would hurt too much to sit in South Africa and acknowledge that people died and little changed.
For me, this is what makes it heaviest to exist in the university: knowing that the promise offered on those brochures is a lie, knowing we only matter as numbers. The battle begins and intensifies from the point of entry. And despite this, we go home and cannot always speak to our families about how things are not okay. It becomes such an isolating experience, sometimes making us illegible to those who love us, who knew us before (if we ever had a before in relation to colonial education). We come to the university but cannot always return. As Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Tambudzai says of her cousin Nyasha in Nervous Conditions,
“I missed the bold, ebullient companion I had had who had gone to England but never returned from there. Yet each time she came [home] I could see she had grown a little duller and dimmer, the expression in her eyes a little more complex, as though she were directing more and more of her energy inwards to commune with herself about issues that she alone had seen.”
We become illegible, as we fight battles we cannot put into words or as we are forced to put our feelings in words that require the labour of translation. Even our grief receives more recognition (and praise) when we put it in different language. The university is closest to understanding us when we can say that we face “ontological annihilation”.
To shutdown the university because it hurts us is not legible to those who see the university who sideline questions of human dignity for some suspect attachment to “improving” the economy. Thus, at every encounter, engaging with the management of universities is an endeavor which assumes that we do not know things, as Black people. We become semi-valid when we have learned academic jargon, then we must explain our greviances in that limit(ted/ing) medium. All this explaining is exhausting, especially because it is obtuse for the parties in power to pretend they do not understand what is meant by “Black pain”. When we are asked to explain – to put it less disruptively, less ‘violently’ – this distracts from the fact that what is happening is a refusal to understand, not an inability to understand. Ruling powers maintain their power and control through such refusal, which is framed as our confusingness, lack of articulation, incoherence, our problem.
A lot of the prestige that comes with being an academic comes from the idea that the university is a place where the best ideas are nurtured and development. In reality, what we face in the academy creates the very opposite environment. Our ideas are lucky to survive. We are lucky to survive. It is ridiculous that the university can remain this respected place of ideas and hold the power it does when it is so severely constrained. The ideal of what a university should be is constrained by the idea that the new entrants do not deserve to be there. As my colleague/friend Moshibudi Motimele has recently written, universities like Wits are constrained by the idea that their role is to mould workers. It is the antithesis of the idea that universities should be for the good of society at large.
In speaks volumes that universities are under so much surveillance and security. What is seen as being worthy of protection is the system that already exists. People who have been oppressed throughout time are not seen as worthy of such protection. Indeed, we are the threat that has created the justification for security. Regardless, we still have the right to make the spaces we have ours. We can do our best to make sure that the pockets of air we find are preserved for those who come after us.
I am heavy when I let my whole self feel my (dis)place(ment) in the university. I contemplate whether this place – founded on the exclusion of some of my ancestors – was ever worth fighting for. At every closed door I turn to, in this burning maze, it seems more and more to not be worth its salt.
I still have my ideas. I nurture them with help from the resisters whose writings survived. I hope that my ideas survive. I hope that if the university must be destroyed for the sake of a better world, the ideas I am nurturing are still of some use in the new economies of love and connection that may come. In the meantime, I navigate the maze: an everyday confrontation with a broken dream.