At the beginning of summer, I gave a speech at the Ethnic Studies graduation ceremony, and you could say that the address (provided below) summarized well my sentiments as I looked at what’s next for me and the many others in my position facing the end of a hard seven years of poverty and intellectual labor, in an inhospitable academic job market, in an economy that is doubly hard on foreigners, with absolutely nothing waiting for me…
But a lot has happened to me over the summer, including becoming the incoming Digital Media Director at Parallax Press (how does a historian become a digital marketing director?), as well being appointed to teach Ethnic Studies part-time at St. Mary’s College this fall.
I am so happy and love both of my new positions tremendously — my new colleagues and co-workers have been great, and I feel energized and purposeful.
Needless to say, these days I feel like the mouse that got away in the fable I reference in the speech.
For those that are still struggling and barely hanging on out there, please take my experience to heart: you only need to change direction if you’re not happy with the way things are going. All it requires is courage and creativity.
When I was in 3rd grade, my friend and I decided to become geniuses. As we sat waiting for the math test to make its way to our row of desks, I closed my eyes and told myself these things: “I’m a genius. Everything is easy. I can do this.”
Armed with these crazy ideas, my friend and I solved the math test at a frantic pace. And so when I saw that my friend had put his pencil down at the 5 minute mark, I got up with a sudden jolt and our second race began — who could turn in their test the fastest? Who would be the singular class genius?
Although we did our best to outdo the other, we both reached the teacher’s desk at exactly the same time. I shot a grin at my friend, and he returned the most dignified nod that has ever been nodded by an eight-year old. Our teacher was not as pleased. Her head swiveled up and down like a broken see-saw as she looked down at the two tests, now a little damp with our sweat, then at us, then up at the clock, then back down at us again. She was befuddled. Unphased, my friend and I looked at each other knowingly, shrugged our shoulders, and said, “We’re gifted”, and returned to our seats. Of course, we both flunked the test.
If my early years in school were filled with bold declarations of genius and lessons rapidly learned, my years in graduate school in contrast have been a long, daily grind of attempting to convince myself that I am not the biggest failure in the room.
And so, I am not here to provide inspiration or the usual narrative of how my talents overcame everything. Octavia Butler wrote that we must forget relying on inspiration to do our work as “Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not.” She also added that we must forgo constantly sizing up how we are or aren’t capable, as “continued learning is more dependable than talent.”
What Butler’s insight suggests is that our ability to flourish as thinkers and learners of color is tied to making habitual the practice of muddling through and continuing to question, just as we breathe and eat. Butler also wrote that “All that you touch, you change. All that you change, changes you.” And this is how I make sense of our collective struggle as Ethnic Studies scholars.
But struggling in this way is not a process that leaves you unscathed. For instance, I know that a grandson lost his grandmother. A brother lost his older brother. A daughter lost her father.
Furthermore, during my 7 years at Berkeley, I have witnessed the effects of the crushing financial burden increasingly placed on students and their families, the restructuring of this university through a neoliberal technocratic vision of Operational Excellence, and the creeping erosion of both public and higher education in this state and across the nation.
And so, my friends, every student you see on this stage has had to fight tooth and nail to make it to this day, and had to learn to habitually overcome difficulties both personal and structural, every single day, just as we breathe and eat. So if there is reason to be optimistic, this is it: the people here before you prove that another future is possible.
And so I end with a short fable which describes so well what we have done, and what we must continue to do.
“Alas,” said the mouse, “the whole world is growing smaller every day. At first it was so big that I was afraid, I kept running and running, and I was glad when at last I saw walls far away to the right and left, but these long walls have narrowed so quickly that I am in the last chamber already, and there in the corner stands the trap that I must run into.”
“You only need to change your direction,” said the cat, and ate the mouse. (“A Little Fable,” by Franz Kafka).
Many of us have had, and will continue to grapple with, a future that is not to our liking — the trap that lays before us, or the cat that stalks from behind.
But I am so hopeful and so happy when I gaze across at these lovely faces that have in them the unmistakable mark of intelligence, compassion, courage, and resolve.
I see their smiles, and I am heartened. And so I smile too. We smile because we, together, have chosen to create a different future, have dared to turn away from the traps set before us, and have refused to become food for cats.
And so class of 2014, congratulations and let us continue on our way.