I did the thing.

I defended my thesis. I was on the verge of a legitimate panic attack right before it started. And then, it did start, and my screen wasn’t sharing and my thesis chair and spouse were texting me like, “Yo, dude, something’s wrong.” and so that didn’t help.

But what did help was the absolutely massive amount of support I had in the form of friends, colleagues, and faculty. I even had a couple of students attend! Students! I think I had like 25 or 26 in the room for my defense. That’s absolutely absurd, and I want everybody to know it means the world to me that anybody would take time out of their day to come watch something like this.

I read a story about Dre’s gramma, and the only reason I didn’t cry was because I had 3 or 4 times while reading over the story, and because I stopped at the hardest part.

This was for you, gramma.

Thanks, everybody. So, so much. I’m gonna play some vidjagames.

Michael Ferguson, MA (to be conferred, lol)

AKA Skillzilla

AKA AKA MasterZilla

Thesis Stuffs, Stories, and Writing

I’m writing a collection of short stories. The characters spawned from one I wrote for a class last semester called, “After the Accident.” It is the first piece of fiction that I felt encapsulated who I am now as a person and writer. For years, education has been teaching me that my voice has very little value. It does so in ways that are so hard to see. It’s the way that I’m often the only Black student in my classes. It’s the way that the reading assignments rarely, if ever, feature people that look like me. It’s the way that bringing this up has a way of creating awkward silences. For a long time, I internalized this. I instinctively avoided writing anything that would cause this silence. In my degree(s), I didn’t really come into contact with Black authors. I grew up reading white authors, and when I tried to write fiction, emulated them. It is only in the past few years that I realize that the characters I want to write didn’t fit the narratives I absorbed and tried to recreate. A lot of my non-fiction/memoir stuff has gotten lots of positive feedback. With non-fiction stuff, I didn’t have to worry about the type of feedback I’d get from my all white cohorts. If they had issue with the Blackness of the story, then I’m sorry you have an issue with how I present my life. It’s easy to defend my decisions when it’s coming from a real place. But, I realize now, the problem has always been knowing on an unconscious level that if I write things from a place of honesty about the types of characters and lived experiences I would write about that I would need to defend them. In my last class, I wrote five stories across different genres and ideas all centered around Black characters and I was told some of it was overtly political or “on the nose.”

And I was like, “Fuck that noise.” The shit I’m writing doesn’t need defense or explanation or validation from people that can’t handle stories not centered around their experiences. Fuck em. I’m enjoying what I’m writing more than anything I’ve done before. Even better, now that I’ve had this epiphany, I have so many ideas for stories that I just…can’t stop writing. It’s the best feeling.

The other part of this thesis is all of the reading. The past few weeks I’ve read:

  • The Office of Historical Corrections – Danielle Evans
  • Playing in the Dark – Toni Morrison
  • Black Leopard, Red Wolf – Marlon James
  • Invisible Man – Ralph Ellison
  • The Secret Lives of Church Ladies – Deesha Philyaw
  • The Antiracist Writing Workshop – Felicia Rose Chavez

A friend gave me “The Secret Lives of Church Ladies” for my birthday. I devoured it. Philyaw’s stories, voice, and characters all vibed with me in a way I haven’t experienced. I felt people I know represented through the book. Some turns of phrase I know I’ve heard but had long since forgotten that made me smile and laugh. It reminded me of the things I’ve lost through time and education that need to be remembered and valued. It’s such a great collection and I wish her continued success.

I’m starting “The Only Good Indians” by Stephen Graham Jones and “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” by Paulo Freire now. And I’ve got one short story about 1/2 done and a solid idea for another. Hoping to be up to eight completed stories by the end of this week. I want to revise and edit throughout July and hopefully defend in August.

Also, I wonder if proclaiming that I’m writing something will ever not feel pretentious af?

Also, my wife got me one of those cakes that don’t look like a cake. It was Red Velvet, which makes me less mad about it, and it was delicious, but also, stop making cakes that don’t look like cakes. Thanks, for making my 40th awesome.

That’s not chicken. It’s rice crispy treats.

I fit the description.

Update: After thinking about it, I realized that I couldn’t just let this slide by. I was an employee comfortable enough in my knowledge that I belonged where I was, and so was able to calmly provide what was requested. But the thought came to me that I could have been any Black student there on a day close to finals, tired and stressed because it’s the end of the semester. I’ve shared the event with people at work and have been gratified by the response from my bosses and other agencies on campus.

I wore a hoodie today. I don’t often wear one to work. I’ve got a stock of sweaters that make me look like a teacher. Meaning they’ve got leather patches on the elbows. But today, because it’s snowing, we live in a world where Sam Wilson is Captain America and I’ve got a super dope hoodie created by a black woman writer (shoutouts to Stephanie Williams and “But What If, though”), I wore a hoodie to work today. I also had my wallet on me. I don’t always. I frequently forget it in the glove compartment of my car. I’ll pull it out of the glove compartment and put it in the drink holder so that, if I were to get pulled over, the cop doesn’t see me reaching for something. I like to have it in plain sight. But, my point is, I often forget my wallet in my car. This will become relevant.

But today, I had to go to the bank. There’s one on campus, which is convenient, and so I walked down there in my “I’m the Captain Now” hoodie, listening to Black Leopard, Red Wolf as I strolled. My transaction with the cashier was pleasant. She remembered me from a previous interaction. I did my business, and headed back to my office. I walked through the library on campus. In another building, I waited for the elevator. Got to my floor, and started toward my destination. Now, I’m listening to an audiobook, but it’s not super loud, so, I think I hear somebody behind me, but I don’t turn to check because I’m on a college campus and there’s people talking and the book is good, so I just keep walking.

But then I hear the voice grow more insistent. I turn, and a cop is flagging me down. I’m immediately nervous, but I’m in public, on a college campus where I work, so I’m cool. Scared, but not freaking out.

He asks me, “Are you a student here.”
I reply, “No, I work here.”

He asks if I have ID. Now, as I said before, it’s a fair chance I wouldn’t. There’s a good chance on any given day that my ID is going to be in my car. But, luckily, I had business at the bank. I pull out my wallet and happily hand him the ID that signifies that I’m staff. He looks it over. Glances at the picture, looks at me, looks at the picture.

He asks, “Do you have a drivers license.”

I do. I give him that.

He takes it from me and calls in my name and birthday to dispatch. I haven’t been told why I’ve been stopped, and at this point I’m nervous enough and don’t want to rock the boat enough that I don’t ask.

While he’s waiting on whatever info he’s waiting on, he asks, “Have you seen anybody walking around?”

I’m on my way to my office, in an area I’m not always around, and it’s a college campus, so I’m not sure what info the cop is looking for, so I say, “No.”

And he then he says somebody in dark clothes, a hoodie, tall, might have a backpack. The cop is describing any number of students. I say, “No.”

“You sure?” he asks.
“Yes, I’m sure.”

At this point a faculty member that recognizes me, and comes over and vouches for me. The cop hands over both my IDs. Myself, the faculty member, and the cop start walking the way I was going.

The cop continues on his merry way. The faculty member tells me that a tall, thin, black man with thick locks, and a hoodie has been squatting around campus. Apparently going through fridges and maybe sleeping on campus has been a cause for concern. So the faculty member called the public safety office. Public safety sent somebody over. The cop found me.

I’m not sure why my staff ID wasn’t sufficient. Or why the cop needed two forms of ID. I’m not sure why they needed to call down to dispatch to check on my name and DOB after I’d provided an explanation for my presence and proof of employment. I know that I’ve been working here for 6 or 7 years now, and aside from the time Trump came to campus, I’ve never felt more out of place. I’m glad I had my ID, although with how the cop responded after I provided them, I’m not sure what the purpose was. Or what would have happened if I didn’t have them.

I thought about filing a complaint, but I really don’t want to become a target. I’ll probably tell my boss, but I’m afraid of hearing something along the lines of, “They were just doing due diligence.” or “Making sure to check everybody!” Basically afraid of hearing somebody okay the fact that I was profiled.

Basically, ugh.

-Skillzilla

NaNo 2021

I love personification of large ideas, concepts, or themes. It’s what draws me to a lot of Neil Gaiman’s work. Especially Sandman. Lupe Fiasco has a series of songs about a character Michael Young History, in which he encounters The Game and The Street. Lupe’s Michael struggles with a mother addicted to drugs, he turns to selling drugs, and eventually is killed.

One of my favorite poets, Steven Willis, has a poem titled “The Hustle Speaks.”

Willis is a fantastic performer. His voice, his presence, it all makes me think, what if The Hustle were an actual person? A deity, or god? I think the idea of belief is very powerful. The idea of a shared culture so strong that it we will things, ideas, people, or events into being. I’ve been thinking of a Black American pantheon. What things are so strong in our culture, our history, that they could be brought into reality. And, of course, if these things can be brought into existence, then that creates enemies opposed to them.

So, I’m probably not going to do NaNo, but I’m going to start writing during November. This idea is going to need fleshing out, and I’m gonna need to do lots of research. A lot of that research is what I’ve been working on throughout my MA. I think a lot about voice now, and what that means to me. What our language means to me. It’s definitely something that I want to explore. The ways that we move through society, changing how we speak, or not changing how we speak, and what that means in the spaces we inhabit. I think about Frederick Douglass tricking little white boys into teaching him new words and how to spell. I think about how The Brotherhood used Ellison’s narrator to try and control Black people in Harlem. I think about how the ways historians like Nikole Hannah-Jones, Ibram X Kendi, Keisha N Blain, and Michael Harriot take up space and provide context that not only includes us, but shows how we have shaped this country. I think of a white interviewer asking Toni Morrison why she don’t write about white people, and a look that says you’ve never asked a more foolish question before answering, “I wonder if you realize how racist that question is.” There’s so much power in our words, our actions, our gatherings. And since I love personification, I can’t help but wonder, what if that power created something. Someone?

What would they say?

One phrase keeps repeating itself to me when I try to think of the beings I’m trying to will into existence:

You know me, I keep hearing in my mind, and when I put my pen to paper. You know me.

So, not trying for 50k this month, but I’m gonna edit my manuscript and start trying to be a consistent writer. We’ll shoot for 30k this month. 1000 words per day.

My MA Thesis Defense

I defend my Master’s Thesis tomorrow. I spent most of the summer reading and writing. Submitting to my chair, and then editing. I read a lot of stuff. A lot. I wrote a lot. I wrote so much that my Prof has said more than once, after I’ve trimmed as much as I thought I could, that “It could be tighter,” which is to say, that when I submit my final edits, it definitely should be tighter. And now, I sit here in front of a PowerPoint presentation severely doubting whether or not I can do this. Imposter Syndrome will never go away. I am on the verge of an MA, and still, I can convince myself that people are lying when they say that my writing and scholarship are good.

Logically, I know that’s not true. If only because, me being at this point is a reflection of my committee chair. But, also, I know that I’ve done some good work while in this program. I wrote a collection of short stories centered around a character named Dre. Like me, Dre struggles with what it means to be successful after a life full of trauma and loss. You can sabotage your own happiness with the scars of your upbringing. There are eight stories in the collection and every single one is a piece of me. Some are entirely made up, and others are pieces that borrow more than a bit of truth surrounded by more than a bit fiction. I’d guess that’s true of most writers. One of the stories, “The Same Road,” is about my Gramma. I knew I had to write about her, and when it came to fictionalizing the experience of being with her during her final days, I couldn’t bring myself to change her name. She’s Judy Ellen in real life and in my story.

Tomorrow is also the three year anniversary of when I lost her. I chose the date because I know she’d be proud of me, even if she didn’t totally understand what I was doing. She’d know I was getting an education and trying to do better with my life. I’d call her after and say I passed my defense and she’d say, “Hey baby, well that’s alright,” and then she’d laugh the way she always did, like she was trying to hold something back, or somebody was in the room and she didn’t want to be too loud.

I’m very proud of the work I’ve done. The stories, I think, are almost all very, very good. Some of the best writing I’ve ever done. The academic portion of my thesis is about the impact of the white gaze on my development as a writer. It’s been an interesting journey to think about. From my Associate’s Degree where I felt like I didn’t belong in school, was unsure of my place, and had a lot of anti-black sentiment surrounding language and education, to finishing my MA, and firmly in the camp of June Jordan and James Baldwin (amongst many others), that Black English is an a thriving and valid language. I’ve spent the last 2.5 years centering Black voices in my scholarship. When I was assigned white authors, I forced a Black perspective into the topic. I read and cited Black women. I got to present a paper about James Alan McPherson to the MELUS 2021 conference. Over the course of my degree, and especially over the summer, I read so many books by Black writers, that I truly feel freed from white narratives. After completing my thesis edits, I have ideas for at least two novels, and a collection of poetry centered around Superheroes and Social Justice. For that, I want to find an artist to draw the poems in comic panels. I think that would be most cool.

I truly feel as if I’m coming into my own. My voice feels more authentic, more “me,” than it ever has. And so, even if my mind is trying to play tricks on me, I can legitimately feel how different I am as a writer and scholar than I was when I started. My goal is very clear: Center people who look like me in my conversations. Write about people who look like me. Cite people who look like me. Lift up the people who look like me.

I know that I’ve done that, and so I’m pretty happy about it.

And after, I’m going to spend some time writing about the things I’ve read. Stephen Graham Jones, Deesha Phillyaw, Colson Whitehead, Marlon James, Toni Morrison, Danielle Evans, NK Jemisin, Honoree Fanonne Jefers, Yaa Gyasi, Ibram X Kendi.

Five or six years ago, if somebody asked me what my favorite book was, or to recommend an author 9/10 times it would have been a white person. That’s almost never going to be the case anymore. And I’m going to spend all of my time and effort in academia making sure people who look like me have the opportunity to feel seen in the classroom in ways that I never did.

And now, I go to sleep and get a solid 8 hours of rest.

-Skillz

“America isn’t a racist country,” Tim Scott

Tim Scott, the lone Black GOP Senator, said last night that America, the country built by slaves, while murdering its indigenous populations, while writing laws that left out anybody with black skin, that forced Black people to protest in order to be able to vote, that forced Asian people into literal internment camps, that had a president spouting rhetoric that is impacting America’s Asian citizens across the country, that has a law enforcement population that mobilizes more quickly after they murder a Black man than when white people literally stormed the capitol, that is passing laws in conservative areas of the country saying it’s okay to hit protestors with cars, isn’t racist.

Seen here is Tim Scott, the Lone black GOP senator, dancing for his bread crumbs.

Tim Scott when McConnell told him to deliver remarks after Biden’s address.
Also Tim Scott (from r/SelfAwarewolves)

I’m almost done with my MA in English.

It’s been a rough semester. Between COVID, insurrections, the cop’s apparent inability to stop killing Black people, even while one of them is being convicted for killing a Black person, I’ve been mentally exhausted. But, I’m here. I’ve got one class meeting, two papers to write, and that will be it for coursework in my Master’s degree. It’s surreal to think about, really. I never thought I’d be here. And now that I’m here, it’s very different than I thought it would be. The past decade or so, I have come to love and appreciate myself as a Black person. I look back and realize that I internalized a lot of anti-blackness. This is no surprise. Society is built this way. It is impossible to escape white supremacist ideology unscathed.

Coming into my MA, I knew that I was tired of reading white men. I completed an entire degree in Literature and read white men almost exclusively. I wanted to connect with a literary heritage from people who looked like me. I think back and wonder how any Literature program could let a student graduate without reading Toni Morrison, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, or Zora Neale Hurston. I wonder why I had to find authors like Colson Whitehead, Ta Nehisi Coates, NK Jemesin, Octavia Butler, Kimberle Crenshaw, June Jordan, Audre Lord, bell hooks, etc. I mean, I know why. It just shouldn’t happen. Of course, it was impossible to avoid reading white men while doing my MA, but I made sure to approach everything through a racial lens. Wherever possible I brought in Black authors, particularly Black women (#citeblackwomen), to contribute to my knowledge and the conversation. In my first year, I thought my thesis would be about how Straight White Men dominate the literary canon, or how few authors of color there are in the topic of rhetoric. The Faculty at CSU Pueblo have been outstanding and supportive. My topics were valid, accepted, and even though most of them are white men, they gave me resources and scholars talking about the same things I was. I’m going to add a reading list for my MA here soon. Both assigned and things I’m researching and reading on my own.

Anyway, as I dug deeper into the readings, I saw that everything I wanted to talk about was…already talked. Extensively. With like, research and data and shit. And so I started to think about where I could find my own topic within this conversation. I took thesis credits dedicated to this. But then, last Fall, I took a creative writing class. Through my education, I’ve internalized the belief that genre fiction was somehow less than “literary.” But, as Felicia Rose Chavez says in her book The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop, “‘Literary,’ in sum, means gatekeeper.” The teachers I’ve had, some on purpose, and others through the same pedagogy designed to uphold white supremacist ideology, ingrained in me this belief. It is in the past few years that I’ve managed to see outside of what I’ve been taught, been able to begin unlearning this dogma. And so, in this creative writing class I tasked myself with writing five stories in five different genres. And I wrote them all with Black characters. Something I have previously been unable to do until recently, because even in my mind, whiteness was the default. But getting over this gave me a creative freedom I didn’t know was missing. The stories, I think, were all pretty good, but one in particular was great. Some days when I go run, it’s hard, and I run out of breath really quick and I have to push through just to get my miles in. But some days, it’s easy, and I feel like I could run for miles. That’s what this story was like. When I finished it, I felt a sensation I’ve rarely felt with my fiction.

It was a story titled, “After the Accident,” and because of that feeling, and this sense of finally discovering my voice, I chose to pursue a creative thesis. I’ll be writing a collection of short stories this summer and a framework that I feel is aimed at Black students in English programs.

Tomorrow is the very last class of coursework for my Master’s Degree. This summer, I’m going to write and read, and write and read. But right now, I’m taking a breath to acknowledge how far I’ve come and what tomorrow’s class means. I never thought I’d be in the position I’m in now: Graduate school, teaching, and exploring my connection to and legacy of Black literary figures. But I am. And I think with the prospect of my death as a Black man in the news daily, I think these moments of respite are both earned and necessary.

I have grading to do and two papers to write, but that’s easy stuff at this point. Tonight I’m gonna chill and watch TV, and revel in the fact that, after tomorrow, this portion of my academic journey reaches its conclusion.

-Skillzilla

I accidentally bought a website.

So I had a blog, and I paid for the domain name “A Black Lit Major.” I let it expire since I rarely ever updated it. Then, wordpress sends me an email with a great sale for, what I thought, was my blog domain. Happily, I paid for it, and then I go to edit my blog and it wasn’t showing my purchase. Because I bought a website.

So now I’ve got a website that, I’ll be honest, is just a more difficult to create blog. But, anyway, Imma try to update stuff more frequently.

I got a lot on my mind. I’m reading a lot as I finish my MA.

So, yeah.

RIP Ahmaud Arbery

I own a black panther wallet.  When my wife got it for me, I was overjoyed. It’s black with a silver, metal Black Panther logo.  I immediately put everything from my old wallet in this new, Black Panther one.  Because T’Challa is awesome, you see.

One day, while driving.  I looked over to the cup holder (where my wallet always is when I’m driving, never in my pocket where I’ll have to reach for it if I get pulled over and asked for it), I noticed that the way the black and silver metal played against each other looked kind of like not a wallet.  Were a cop to pull me over, they might see that not a wallet looking thing and think, “That’s gotta be a weapon.” We’ve seen time and again across the nation that it doesn’t matter what an object actually is.  All it takes for a cop to “fear for their life” when black men are involved is the belief they’re in danger.  I’m a large black man, so that belief will happen as soon as they see me.  Something that looks like not a wallet could, potentially, push a cop over.

So I stopped using the wallet. It’s in my desk now.

Last night, news of another black man being murdered broke.  People everywhere were sharing video of this modern day lynching.  I’ve only watched one of these videos, Phillando Castille, and I’ll never do it again. Something broke in me after seeing it. I think it was how calm his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, was after witnessing the murder, and how there was a child in the backseat when the bullets were fired.  How cavalier the cop was with three black lives in the car. How easy it would have been for the child to be orphaned if  Diamond had reacted in any way other than how she did. I’m forced to wonder how much a black life is worth.

I think it’s safe to say that most black people have rituals to try and mitigate danger.  I know that my size makes me a target, and so I have worked to make myself smaller in public. During this pandemic, while many of us are wearing masks, I have moments of panic that the white people I pass in stores cannot see me smile, cannot see the efforts I make to show that I am not a threat.

When I get in the car, I make sure my wallet is visible. When I go into a gas station, I make sure that my hands can be seen. I make sure that I’m making eye contact with clerks. When we’re out with friends and an order is wrong, or we need to address the staff in any way, I make sure that my wife does.  I would never want to be considered a loud, angry black man.  But ultimately, I think what I struggle with is that none of this matters, because it’s only going to take one mistake. Being in the wrong place at the wrong time. One unfortunate encounter with the police.  Because of the environment in which I grew up, violence makes me uncomfortable.  I cannot stand when people yell. I watched a boxing match with friends and had random bouts of crying for a week after.

But I know that none of this will matter.  If something were to happen to me, I would be painted in the most terrible light by the media. Every excuse to justify my murder would be made. I know that there are people value me, my life.  I know this. I revel in the love and community I find myself surrounded by.  I know that I’m lucky. But I also know that I’m not unique in this. I know that we’re loved by our communities everywhere.

Ahmaud Arbery was murdered on February 23rd.  Today is May 7th.  There is video of his murder, this modern day lynching.  People in power, with authority, saw this footage and sat on it for almost two months. Ahmaud’s family were lied to.  They have had to sit with a tragedy, with no justice, without charges brought against the murderers for almost two months.

This is how I know black lives don’t matter.  And this is why I’m tired. I’m so sad that something like this is even possible, but the weight of not being surprised is even worse. It took this video being leaked to the public for those in power to do what they should have done on February 23rd.

This could have been swept under the rug and they had video evidence.  I’m just here thinking about all of the people who are getting killed without footage being caught.

My wife tells me to stop going outside. The worst part is that she’s only partly joking.