To survive.

I have been considering reflecting on my PhD journey for a while. I completed it in 2017 and I feel like enough time has passed to now process some of the challenging and conflicted encounters I had during that time. It cannot be captured in a single blog post, and so I offer this just an introduction to my reflections. The posts that follow will explore and unpack more intimate moments.

I want to start by sharing a power that has instrumental in my making sense of what it means to go through the PhD journey as a Black, Somali, Muslim woman, researching a topic that sits at the heart of my activism.

Audre Lorde is rarely mentioned in my thesis, but it could not have been written without her words. The poem I share below is entitled ‘The Brown Menace or a poem to the survival of roaches’, which formed part of her 1974 collection New York Head Shop and Museum.

This poem was written during a period of time in New York City where police brutality and killing of Black men was of growing concern. It addresses issues of white supremacy, anti-blackness and brutality. It speaks to the experience of living Black where Blackness is hated. Over four decades later and this poem could have been written to describe what is happening in the United States today as well as across Europe, Latin  America, Asia and the Pacific. Although the poem was written in a specific context, the power of the poem is as global as anti-Blackness.

When I read this poem initially, I kept returning to the imagery of violence; both self-inflicted and inflicted on others, and the language of survival. I reflected on my own experiences of growing up in Britain and the countless times I internalised the need to survive in a space. I reflected on the young men in this research and the countless times they had spoken to me about survival. Much like the ‘cockroaches’ in Lorde’s narrative, they represent what it means to survive despite being threatened with destruction.

I returned to this poem countless times during the research process and each time I reflected on one word: ‘survive’. What did it mean for the young men who took part in the research? What were the ways in which they learned to survive? How could I as a Black woman exist in academia? How do the choices we make allow us to survive? What could we have done in the research to make sure we did not harm each other and ourselves?  

Britain and the United States do not share the same history with regards to race, nor are the experiences of racism the same. Racism in both contexts is implicit and explicit, however; it is systematic and embedded in everyday interactions between people.

Lorde’s poem resonates so deeply with me because it remind me that the work that we do; the work that must be done, cannot be done with the exclusion of or at the cost of ourselves. By that I mean that we cannot talk about systematic violence without considering the ways in which we internalise such violence. We cannot talk about the binary of oppressed and oppressor without acknowledging that the oppressed internalises the oppression to become his own oppressor. When we talk about surviving the battles that exist in the world around us, we must also talk about surviving the battle within.

Although some may have interpreted the verse your itch to destroy the indestructible part of yourself to refer to the harm that Black men do to Black women, (which may well be what Lorde meant), I understand it to mean the ways in which Black men and women harm themselves and their own Blackness. Lorde’s poem, just as the writings of all the Black feminist authors I have read give me the tools to consider care (of self and others) in research.

The Brown Menace  

Call me
your deepest urge
toward survival
call me
and my brothers and sisters
in the sharp smell of your refusal
call me
roach and presumptuous
nightmare on your white pillow
your itch to destroy
the indestructible
part of yourself.

Call me
your own determination
in the most detestable shape
you can become
friend of your image
within me
I am you
in your most deeply cherished nightmare
scuttling through the painted cracks
you create to admit me
into your kitchens
into your fearful midnights
into your values at noon
in your most secret places
with hate
you learn to honor me
by imitation
as I alter—
through your greedy preoccupations
through your kitchen wars
and your poisonous refusal—
to survive.

To survive.
Survive.

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