Office Hours: Henry L. Washington Jr.
Henry L. Washington, Jr. @henrywashjr
Modern Thought and Literature Ph.D. Student at Stanford University
B.A. (cum laude) in English, African and African American Studies, with a minor in Political Science from Duke University
What inspired you to attend grad school?
The culminating tensions around race and identity on college campuses when I began undergraduate study compelled in me a passion for studying black literature and culture, but I was initially unsure how exactly I would make a career out of that passion. Eventually, I had the pleasure of taking courses with three faculty members in particular who became cherished mentors, all of whom urged me to consider a career in academia. Upon consideration, I succumbed to their urgings, mostly because their lives were exemplary of the impact I hoped I could have on others—they were smart as hell, and used their intelligence to interrogate and resist oppressive systems of power.
Tell me about your proudest grad school moment. Why was it special for you?
I took a course in pedagogy during my first quarter with a woman of color professor. For one of our course meetings, we were required to create a mock lesson plan that focused on one theme in Toni Morrison’s A Mercy. Many of our presentations, unsurprisingly, focused on different themes relating to race and identity in the text. My presentation focused on how we might use the novel—which features a white male protagonist who takes in several slaves in part because he believes that their lives will be better if he owns them since he imagines himself to be merciful—as an occasion to discuss the violence of white liberalism to contemporary social movements for racial equality. My professor immediately took issue with my presentation, warning that to even use the term “white liberalism” risked making my white students “uncomfortable” in ways that could be risky. I was incredibly offended by this, and I made it known to her. I refuse to disappear from my classroom in order to make white students comfortable. I am proud of this moment because in it, I became aware of how committed I am to the integrity of this very complicated work, and a boundary was set. One realizes very quickly in graduate school that as a person of color, you will be asked to compromise your politics to get ahead, and I think it is helpful to establish quite early where you, for the sake of your own black righteous mind, will draw the line.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve gotten while in grad school?
About halfway through your quarter/semester, you should start treating the final paper—not the assigned reading—as your main priority. The increasing pressure on graduate students to publish in graduate school means that you should be doing all you can to produce writing of a high caliber as soon as you can, which requires time and diligence, neither of which exist in the final week of a grading period. This suggestion is commensurate with consistent advice I have received that I continue to find helpful: coursework should be approached as an opportunity to clarify your own interests. If you find that you are spending a significant amount of time doing thinking that will never be useful to you, then you might want to approach coursework differently. Even in courses that you may be required to take outside of your particular interests, find ways to make coursework work for you.
If you had to describe your Black Grad experience with one song, which one would it be, and why?
"Never Would Have Made It,” originally released by Marvin Sapp, and re-released (better) by Le’Andria Johnson
Graduate study has been an exercise in strengthening my faith, and I have frequently depended on gospel music to remind me how blessed I am to have this tremendous opportunity even when times are tough.
What has been your biggest obstacle in grad school? What strategies have you used to try to overcome it?
I have had great difficulty at times convincing myself that I belong here. I know that this is pretty commonly the experience of underrepresented folks in these spaces. I am one of the only black people in my department, I am the youngest person in my department (I started school early so I am somewhat accustomed to being younger than my colleagues, but many of my cohort members also have masters degrees) AND I study race and identity in my work. That I study race and identity, in my opinion, is particularly isolating, both because there are not many other folks in my department who are interested in that work and because I tend to feel far less beholden to the norms and boundaries of disciplinary inquiry than my colleagues. My interests, I think, are necessarily broad and always interdisciplinary, since I am interested in how systems of power are constructed and maintained. Thus, in addition to feeling like an outsider demographically, I can often also feel like an outsider intellectually. It can be very difficult to find a sense of intellectual community when you study black people at a predominantly white institution.
Since this is my first year, I haven’t completely figured out how to manage this. Perhaps this seems intuitive but my best advice is to seek out those communities rather than expecting them to come to you. I have gotten a lot of intellectual and personal support from the faculty and staff in the undergraduate program in African American Studies at my institution, through relationships I only forged because I intentionally positioned myself at events and in company where I would have access to those communities. I also think it helps to think of your intellectual community as existing beyond your particular institution. I have plugged into my Mellon Mays Fellowship community, along with different groupmes, Facebook groups, and other intellectual communities for black graduate students recommended to me by friends at other institutions.
What has this experience (pursuing a graduate degree) taught you about yourself?
I have learned how important black community is to me. I took this for granted as an undergraduate, but it was the support I received from black people in black spaces that has always sustained me in the face of institutional violence and all of its perils.
How do you think your identities have informed your graduate experience?
My identities inform my experience in so many different ways, but perhaps the most significant is the way in which being an underrepresented minority in academia makes me feel that this opportunity is bigger than me. People in my family and even people in my community are invested in my success, which helps me to develop a sense of integrity and responsibility toward the work I do. In theory, I produce work capable not only of empowering those folks but also of making them proud. The sacrifices of those who came before me are what make this journey meaningful.
How do you intend to use your degree in the future?
I imagine for myself a career of public scholarship both inside and outside of the academy, disrupting the way that power relations affect people transnationally across difference. Thus, I want to teach at a university, but I would also like to be a commentator for shows thinking about politics and popular culture. Most of all, I want to remain engaged with activist communities while doing my work.
What’s something that you would tell someone who is interested in pursuing a similar path?
I would remind them that the work we do has value, and that others’ inability to understand it should not diminish our light.
I think the feelings of intellectual isolation I describe really informed how I showed up in my program during my first quarter. Often feeling that my knowledges were incompatible with the norms of my department, I became extremely unconfident. I quickly became apathetic to department activities, I would rarely speak in classes (and spoke nervously when I did speak), and became generally defeatist in my attitude toward my graduate experience. At some point, though, I began to grow comfortable with my ideas being ‘different.’ It is important to me that I am equipped to approach the inherently dynamic questions with which I engage in my research with multi-dimensional frameworks capable of honoring their complexity in hopes of producing research capable of instigating social change.
I would say to any black graduate student, especially one whose work engages with issues of race and identity, that institutional legibility is not necessarily the mark of meaningful scholarship. Be you.
Feel free to reach out to Henry: firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow on Twitter: @henrywashjr