Oberlin Blogs

Write As You Are

May 27, 2016

Alexandria Cunningham ’16

"All of us are made up of the stories that we listen to, the ones we disagree with and the ones that we agree with." -Stanley Crouch

Stories with Weight

Think about all the times you had to introduce yourself to a room full of strangers. Do you ever feel like you missed an important detail of who you are? Can you really ever overview your journey in thirty seconds? Of course not. Unsurprisingly so, there is a silent pressure to be the funniest, warmest, most interesting, amazing person that you can describe to a dozing-off audience. We are all made up of stories, but what is the introductory story we give continually rotating audiences who attempt to be guests at our theater of life?

Personally, my spiel has seen many changes over the past four years and I credit the many times in admissions panels, class, dinners, meetings, etc. where I had to stand and share myself in about thirty seconds. In listening to myself and the stories that were bringing me to and away from particular departments and spaces, I was compelled to think about how my identities that I say matter show up in my writing.

Bringing Me to a Major

Coming into Oberlin, I wanted to major in Afrofrancophone Studies and French and minor in Psychology. My goal was to study language, culture and interpersonal relationships in Francophone Africa and do a comparative study of Afrofrancophone culture in the U.S. in places such as New Orleans. Upon discovering that Psychology is no longer offered as a minor, that my French skills had gotten far too rusty in a matter of years, and being too overwhelmed to work outside of our amazing Africana Studies department to create an individual track, I made some decisions.

Subsequent versions of my bio followed creative changes: Psychology switched to a major with a concentration in social psychology; French dropped to a minor with a focus to literature and Africana Studies emerged as my second major. After falling in love with the department, I declared my primary major and wrote about in Declaration Trumpet. Soon thereafter, I dropped French altogether to be a Sociology major. My foci became education, accessibility, personal politics and constructions of identity.

One of the beautiful things about being a social science major is that the field of inquiry is pretty open and I am required to write by my departments. I am challenged every day to think of the ordinary and the abstract and use real language and analysis to take up challenging issues to provide context, nuance and new angles to investigate social questions of justice.

The Politics of Writing

In both of my fields (and scholarship generally), there is an expectation of the "removed researcher." Personally, I view the removed researcher as a person who is required to be objective and not allow their lived experience to impact their work--which is impossible. Everybody is subjective, and objectivity is relative to the contexts, circumstances and power structures we, as subjects, find ourselves in. No one walks away (from life) untouched, uninspired or unburned.

What I am admitting to you is that the best work that I have ever written as a major has been when I ran far the hell away from this expectation. When I dared to be myself in my writing and center the memories, personal questions and random conversations I have in an academic query is when I produced the most creative, artful work I have done in my undergraduate career. I can say without a doubt, that I have produced my best academic work in my final year of college. A huge part of that comes from having had the space and room to become familiar with myself and articulate that self to other people.

Senior Capstones

My capstone in Africana Studies, "Hip-Hop Sexual Anthems, but Only if Ya Nasty: Unpacking Black Sexual Politics in the New Racism," emerged from memories of my mother telling me I knew far too many of the nasty songs on the radio. In combination with another memory of Nicki Minaj continually being criticized in the media for being sexual and expressive, I had the basis for the story I wanted to tell in my capstone.

I never believed that I could write about sex, fantasy and eroticism in college, let alone for my capstone for the major, but I did. Through a Black feminist framing, rhetorical analysis and media content analysis, my capstone looks at how sexual narration in commercial hip-hop, often deemed nasty, is a carefully crafted fantasy tied to consumer interest in eroticism and the Black body. Much of the analysis speaks to Minaj and the case of her wax figure at Madame Tussaud's because this is where my point of entry was for the discussion.

Never in my life did I think I could develop theory or bring such nuance to what may be initially seen as a trivial discussion of pop culture and hip-hop culture. However, I did it! Not only did I do it but I was able to share it through a well-attended community talk-back on campus. Secondly, I was honored with a research grant by the Phyllis Jones Memorial Award for my capstone's work. Never believe that you only have to write "boring" academic papers... write your truth.

Personally, forcing myself to write my truth in the academy in this way allowed me to realize my future plans include getting a masters in sexology. One of my many goals is to co-create free, holistic sexuality education programming in urban communities of color for high school students (with free access to safer sex supplies and supports) and training for educators and community-based organizations (CBOs) working with youth.

All of this to say, write as you are. Speak as you are. Challenge the assumption of conformity that is often placed on students in collegiate spaces. Your truth, your slang (or lack thereof) is a valid part of your existence, and you should be able to communicate--in all ways--in the manner that resonates with you and opens up your mind to new possibilities.

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