I am not from the Bronx, the home of hip-hop, the subject of infamous movies such as Fort Apache and The Warriors, but honestly, I am not from the roughest of neighborhoods. The burned out Bronx happened between my mother’s childhood in the Hunts Point section of the South Bronx and my childhood in Co-0p City located in the Northeast section. My childhood circumstances were not dire or even close to be harsh. However, when I compared my past experiences (or should I say situations that I often crazily put myself in), they were very different from the world I entered when I continued on to graduate school. As I sat in seminars and listened to people discussing these “inner city” folks and problems and issues about the underclass, I often felt alienated and put on display simultaneously. This is a difficult quandary to be in. I felt as if someone had left the door open so to speak and I snuck into the lobby of the Ivory Tower, however, my ability to get in the elevator and go up to the top was another story (a scenario given to me by my “intellectual auntie” Michele Wallace).
So, here I was looking for my place in all of this and I searched, made some mistakes along the way, but essentially always had a different “take” on the analysis of most of my graduate school peers. I began to shape this intellectual awkwardness into a makeshift identity that I, until recently, really didn’t understand. I mean the first time I wrote for a journal (not really a peer-reviewed one, but a journal that more than one or two people read – African Diaspora Archaeology Newsletter – ADAN), my contribution was the only one without citations. Not because I didn’t cite anyone, but because I was speaking from the heart. While at the College of William & Mary, trying to get my MA degree, my confidence was really quite low. I was under the impression that I would never be able to write with the fluid (and factual) ease of a real historian. I was characterized as the Affirmative Action experiment (they had recruited me at my Historically Black undergraduate institution – Virginia State University) that would probably survive, but never really be that rigorous scholar that was usually the product of the History Department.
I slinked through and the pieces of my identity began to form and then I went off to Texas. The University of Texas (Austin, that is). It became my first foray into the world of anthropological thought, theory, methodology and hypocrisy. There my pieces took greater form. My experiences there were conflictual. They were positive and building and tearing down at the same time. I had the insulation of the African Diaspora Program in Anthropology (my saviour), but I still had to deal with the racism of the larger department of Anthropology. But that is another story, another entry for a later date.
Postdoc at Cornell University. The Africana Studies & Research Center! Wow! I really felt out of place when I got there, felt like I didn’t deserve this Ivy League opportunity, but I was there and stayed there for three years! I made it, my armor was beginning to get a little wear, but it was starting to fit nicely. I could move in it with a little more ease.
And then my first real job as a PhD person…my first book…and then the realization that although I thought I was building up my identity as a “sista scholar,” I was still invisible to my true self. I needed my gangsta back. I needed my swag back. This is a part of my larger life’s work, finding my own voice that is different (and not in a marketable way), but different in a way that is real to one of the main people I answer to – myself. So, this realism is what I call gangsta, not in the take what doesn’t belong to you sense, but gangsta in the sense that takes what should be mine intellectually – my own way of talking and walking and thinking and writing. Not to conform to that which is the academy, but that which is realistic to those who have never had the keys to the elevator (or the stairs for that matter), those who have considered academia, but felt it might be suicide, that is that gangsta for which I speak.
That gangsta has yet to really be perfected, I have a long way to go, however, I am beginning to recognize (like through my book), I gots to be about it, if I am going to make a difference and make that difference last.
In the immortal words of Outkast (with some changes):
“Return of the gangsta thanks ta’
them n.. that thank [think] you soft
and say y’all be gospel rappin’
but they be steady clappin’ when you talk about
bitches & switches & hoes & clothes & weed
let’s talk about time travelin’ rhyme javelin
somethin’ mind unravelin’ get down
Now, roll that up into a seminar…let’s do it….