Cohort 2010–2011. My path to my current position as an Assistant Professor of Afro-American Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has had more than a few bends. I came to Princeton following the completion of my undergraduate degree, and though I attended college with ambitions to become a university professor, I found myself torn, upon entering graduate school, by the actual demands of the profession. This division manifested itself geographically and philosophically. My life in New York City tugged away at my study in Princeton; any commitment to the rarefied space of the academy seemed to betray the vivifying energy of struggles in the street. It didn’t help that, during the early years of my graduate study, a seemingly endless stream of Black citizens was publicly murdered. I was at a crossroads: Did I really want to pass through a number of elite institutions only to teach similarly elite students for the rest of my life?
Of course, there are productive ways to join scholarship and activism and in fact, such efforts buffeted me through the difficulties I experienced during my graduate study. With a close friend and fellow scholar, historian Jennifer D. Jones, I developed a series of graduate student conferences showcasing the scholarship of Black queer studies. I also devoted much of my time away from research to serving underresourced communities and populations in NJ and NYC: in Princeton, I worked with the Princeton University Preparatory Program (PUPP) to provide after school college preparatory courses; in NYC, on weekends, I offered classes in the written and communicative arts to eighth graders. But the finitude of my graduate school fellowship meant that the decision I had to make was more than philosophical or vocational.
When my funding ran out after my fifth year with me having completed very little of my dissertation, my hand was, for a period of time, forced. I fell back on what I knew best. The activities that had sometimes been referred to as distractions by various stakeholders in the University made it easier for me to transition to part-time work, for me to begin thinking about balancing adjunct teaching with the research necessary to complete my degree. In the first few years, I cobbled together part-time hours working for a non-profit devoted to extending education access, taught at various institutions, and gained valuable experience and funding through employment and administrative fellowships at the University.
During this period, I gained a real-world understanding of how to better join my interests in social justice, especially universal access to education, to my professional dreams. I learned how to better manage my time, how to juggle multiple projects, how to levy my talents, and how to work within structures and to engage courageously to transform them. But, despite all of this, not much writing was getting done. These years presented me with another division. On one hand, I felt like I was living out my most deeply held values, but on the other, I felt like I had given up on my most deeply held aspiration.
One of the places where I’d picked up part-time teaching, Bard High School Early College, eventually offered me a full-time job. I took it. My research was fully on the back burner by then. But, during the summer before my first year of full-time employment, several serendipitous events occurred: I was offered an adjunct course at Bard College, I was invited to submit an article to a special issue, and I was informed of a number of promising jobs in African American literary studies on the upcoming year’s job market. I tentatively returned to my research and I decided in late summer to enter into the ring. Being back in the college classroom that Fall further confirmed that my bold decision to apply was the right choice. After a busy, tumultuous year, I landed multiple offers my first time out.
My journey ends traditionally, seemingly neat, but the intervening years between the exhaustion of my fellowship and my landing a university position were absolutely improvised, lived in a precarity that has sharpened my sense for how to better equip graduate students with skills that might serve them in and out of the academy. More importantly, leaving and coming back clarified why I bring my passion to the varied commitments—philosophical, vocational, and otherwise—that give my life meaning.