Remembering the Joy of the Doctoral Journey

It’s fall of 2005, and I sat around my grandmother’s kitchen table with two of my aunts. The kitchen table is where my family normally engages in conversation by telling jokes, sharing stories, or giving their opinion on current news, especially when we haven’t seen each other for some time. Unlike other kitchen table talks where the conversation progresses organically and spontaneously, my aunts and I had gathered there for a purpose. At the time, I was in an undergraduate program, where I minored in women’s studies. I was taking a course on women in American history and had to write a final paper on a related course topic. Like the serious undergraduate I was, I consumed course readings and dialogued with my peers about the potential topics based on course materials. While I was grasped with ideas presented in my course academically, I still felt a desire to connect with the information from my experiences and those of my elders.

As I proceeded to think about my final paper, I reflected on stories I heard from family members. There were conversations with two aunts that stood out to me. Our conversations about their experiences of the 60s, going to universities, and being Black women replayed over and over in my mind. It was like someone kept hitting the repeat button of short audio clips, and I couldn’t help but listen. I eventually I took it as a sign that I had a topic for my final paper. I decided to explore Black women’s experiences in the 1960s, particularly related to the Black nationalist movement and attending predominately white institutions. I just needed to talk to my aunts to record their stories.

So there we were, sitting at the kitchen table with the intention of sharing information that would give context to my final paper. Since I didn’t have an audio recorder at the time, I was writing notes to their responses to include in my academic work. During the conversation, we talked about many dynamics of being Black women at American universities in the 1960s. They talked about ways they were excluded from social events, organizations, and athletics teams, the friends they made due to the very few Black people at their universities, and the ways in which they were cultural brokers for white students since many of them had never encountered Black people. I prompted them with follow-up questions, and each response gave me a fuller view of their experiences. I felt humbled and proud, united and separated, grateful and saddened. Hearing their stories, I could sit in my experience of being a Black woman at a predominantly white institution differently and felt affirmed in my own journey. My experience was unique and, at the same time, I was connected to my elders and ancestors.

As I reflect on this experience, I see the seeds of my continued journey in academia. During the fall of 2005, I had no plans of pursuing a doctoral degree. I didn’t even know what Black feminist theory was.  All I was doing was working on a final paper in a manner that came naturally to me – utilizing knowledge from my elders as well as academic resources to explore and examine a question of interest.

One of the greatest joys of my doctoral work is that I have continued to take this approach to my research and teaching, blending the personal with scholarship to address concerns that impact people’s experiences. The blending of these two areas allows me to be my fullest self, an unapologetic blerd with a rich history and a purposeful mission. There are times when I don’t feel this joy or connection. Having recently submitted my comprehensives (where I wrote theoretical responses to questions to show I can go to the stage of my doctoral journey), I have felt disconnected from my approach. As a result, I have felt a desire to sit with my elders at a kitchen table to discuss life experiences and feel affirmed in my journey. But since I live thousands of miles away from my grandmother’s kitchen table, how can feel like I am there? If I’m not at a family member’s home, how can I feel comforted and affirmed in my journey and scholarship?

Besides utilizing the benefits of smartphones and social media, I have also found solace in immersing myself in the lives of Black women who have come before, those who have found ways to merge their personal experiences with their work. I am reading their stories, listening to their songs, reviewing their research, and watching their movies until I feel consumed with joy, love, gratitude, and passion. Through their work, I can feel them cheering for me, like they knew I would be here even if they didn’t know me or when I would exist. Those Black women along with my elders are supporting me in my journey. They are all telling me my journey matters and to keep going.

Reflecting on my own work in feminist theory, I find writing— theoretical talk— to be most meaningful when it invites readers to engage in critical reflection and to engage in the practice of feminism. To me, this theory emerges from the concrete, from my efforts to make sense of everyday life experiences, from my efforts to intervene critically in my life and the lives of others.” 

~ bell hooks, Teaching To Transgress

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