“Who taught you to love yourself?”: How political education moved me to leave academia
By Deria Matthews
“The university was not created to save my life. The university is not about the preservation of a bright brown body. The university will use me alive and use me dead. The university does not intend to love me. The university does not know how to love me. The university in fact, does not love me. But the universe does.” – Alexis Pauline Gumbs
Tonight, I sit on a balcony in Accra, Ghana overlooking the suburb where I have taken refuge. Most mornings I wake up under the sun in awe of my new life, in astonishment of the series of events that have led me to the land of my ancestors, and with immense gratitude for the kind of freedom I hold now to wake up and spend hours reading on a beach or meandering around the neighborhood to find fresh pineapple.
But tonight is not one of those moments. Tonight, my hands are open, outstretched, and empty. Tonight I am weighed down by the magnitude of my decision to leave relationships, institutions, and ideologies that exist in opposition to my well-being. Tonight, while many of my peers are celebrating their academic accomplishments, I am grieving a self who once wanted all I have given up.
I used to want a degree—a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing to be specific. A year ago I was on my way to obtaining said degree from Pratt Institute. When I made the decision to pursue writing more seriously, grad school was the natural next step. My family taught me to see higher education as a golden ticket, the key to the American Dream, and economic success. My grandmother proudly collected our graduation photos, lining them up on her living room mantle, gloating over her accomplished grand babies anytime she had a visitor. She herself had a BA, an MA, and an MFA from Howard University. I was honored to follow in her footsteps when I first left home for my undergraduate degree at the “prestigious” New York University.
But much had shifted in the seven years between the time I enrolled into Pratt and then. While at NYU, I studied the politics of learning. I was reading bell hooks’ Teaching to Transgress and Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, growing frustrated with “banking models” of teaching, where instructors were seen as the source of information passively depositing knowledge for students to memorize and store. I interned with elected officials researching leading education policies around the nation, I organized with my classmates against racial inequity on campus and I spent a lot of time on the internet.
I cannot exclude the hours I spent on Twitter and Tumblr reading the analysis of Black feminist scholars like TheTrudz and Feminista Jones from my political learning journey. What I learned in these internet communities made what I read in class tangible. They contextualized and put in conversation what I had experienced in the back seat of cars, an auntie’s couch, or my dorm room with the legacy of policies that shaped the lives of Black people—of my family over the past 400 years. I was growing an understanding of how the macro fed the micro, and it was causing the American Dream I once embraced to fade.
I could’ve went to law school after undergrad or I could have become a public school teacher. I knew these things would make my family proud but I also knew I had been in institutionalized learning spaces for the past twenty-years. I needed a break.
I became a political educator instead. I taught after-school and summer courses for feminist organizations like Sadie Nash Leadership Project and Girls for Gender Equity, Inc. In these classrooms I got to practice the years of community-centered, liberatory pedagogy I had absorbed during undergrad. It was as fun and exciting as it was rigorous and healing.
It was in my trainings for these courses that I learned to prioritize health and joy in the design of my classes. How to incorporate play and creativity and temperature checks into a lesson plan. We sang, laughed, played hand games, and imagined worlds where oppressive systems no longer existed. We were learning how to love ourselves, each other, and this earth. And it felt damn good.
While I loved teaching in those spaces, I was still in the chokehold of the American economy living in one of the most expensive cities in the world. Even then, a part of me still held onto the American Dream in the form of a full-time job with healthcare and a 401k. I eventually transitioned from political education into working as a school administrator for a nonprofit organization in Queens. I hated it. I hated how I was asked to conform, the business casual wear, the rote nine to five schedule, and the performance of professionalism. I did not agree with 75% of the decisions being made. I barely saw the sun and the school itself was frequently referred to as a prison. I was having panic attacks frequently, and twice I was hospitalized for pneumonia and possibly meningitis. I burnt out.
After staying out of the workforce for a few months to nurse myself back to health, I returned to the classroom as a political educator teaching about healthy relationships and consent culture. Although I was making a decent salary and the healthiest I had ever been, there was still this gnawing sense that I was not doing enough. Within five months of leaving the public education system, I was applying to grad school.
That is how I ended up at Pratt, in a writing program that described their curriculum as:
“A course of study stressing a writing process that takes into account the material and technological aspects of writing, the human body that produces it, and the larger social, sexual, historical, economic, racial, and cultural contexts in which and through which all imaginative writing takes place”
I was excited to be learning in a space that claimed to share my politic, that promoted a pedagogy with which I was aligned. But within the first week of classes, I felt a tension between my cohort and the graduating class. If we expressed enthusiasm about a class, the second-years would meet us with a daunting critique of the professor. Looking back, it was as if the graduating students were warning me, us, against disillusionment.
Then I noticed the tension between the professors and the second-years. Policies about attendance and note-taking were implemented that students did not agree with. Conversations were had about policy changes but there was very little done to update the incoming class. This happened often, and is an act of erasure on the history of the spaces we were entering. Information carried through hearsay and whispers rather than transparency and honest dialogue.
Then the antagonizing started. Triggering work was shared without content warnings for blatantly misogynistic themes. Comments like “Black women write too much about trauma and not enough science-fiction” or “I am too old to learn new pronouns” were casually made during class discussions and the professors struggled to acknowledge, address, or unpack the harm. Male students made inappropriate advances at their femme-presenting colleagues.
Then we protested. We made noise about the alarming and disorienting acts of harm we witnessed. We called on support from administrators, alumni, counselors, etc. The program grew chaotic and hostile. Over and over again the university revealed its failings, and our professors revealed their alignment with systemic abuse.
I could feel the neurosis settling in, I could see it most clearly when I gathered enough courage to face a mirror. I was running myself ragged again, fighting against my own negative self-talk, a quaking urge to prove that I was worth more money. I was raging constantly. My writing became a reflection of the wars I was waging. The people I felt I needed to protect. A constant response.
Then I became numb. Some days my body wouldn’t allow me to step foot in the classroom, other days my mouth refused to speak. I started to question my own sanity. The excitement I had about being in academia wore off as I approached the end of my first year. I did what most so often do in the face of oppression and just want to make it to the other side: I dissociated. I came to class only when needed, I read what I could, I made decisions that were not supporting my aim because I was not being honest about my capacity.
In April, the last month of the spring semester, I supported with the Black Lives Matter Pratt Teach-In. It was the words of activist and poet, Aja Monet, in her closing plenary, that reminded me of what whiteness required in classrooms: mental physical and social isolation. She shared the torment she experienced when in the woods all alone trying to write which I had also felt when I decided to go to North Carolina the following month, taking a break from social media altogether, attempting to start work on my thesis. I was still compartmentalizing and asking myself to create when I was not in a clear state of mind.
For only so long can you run from yourself. When I returned to Brooklyn in July, I began teaching with the The Octavia Project, a summer learning program for youth to engage speculative fiction writing. It was in partnership with the Pratt MFA program and was housed in the same off-campus space where I felt emotionally and mentally spent just months prior. But over the following six weeks, I entered that space feeling new and alive and curious. I felt like myself.
At the end of my time with The Octavia Project, the teachers and I engaged in a conversation with the students to reflect on our time together. The students said all kinds of beautiful things.
“We feel safe to be ourselves here. We feel encouraged to try new things and take risks. Everyone here is cool and kind.”
But when asked how the program differed from their daily school life, there was one response that tore right into me: “Our schools are like prisons.”
I was jolted back to my time working as an administrator in a NYC public school. Was my time at Pratt carceral too? At the time I had just received word that Pratt would not be granting me additional funding, meaning I would have to go back to working full-time to afford rent and tuition. Would I have to continue to compartmentalize to get through my final year?
The question facing me at the time then was both a matter of value and survival: Was the degree worth my life?
In her essay, “The Shape of My Impact”, Alexis Pauline Gumbs reflects on the survival of Black feminist intellectuals in relationship to the academy. In her consideration, she asks herself, “Did Audre Lorde and June Jordan teach in prisons, coffee shops, living rooms and subways so that I could pretend that the university has all the real classrooms and everything else must be a side hustle?”
As an educator who has learned alongside my students in parks, debating with my family while traveling South for the summer, drunkenly theorizing with friends in bars, and cuddled next to lovers reading poetry in bed, I knew the answer to Gumbs question: an educator practicing liberatory pedagogy carries her classroom with her.
Last week, I sat in an amphitheater watching two African women love each other on a 10-foot screen. Rafiki, a lesbian romance film set in Kenya, was screening for the first time in Accra, a year after its release. The screening was followed by a lively discussion about queer life in Africa, the ways it’s been criminalized through colonization. The moderator, a visibly queer woman, makes a salient point about African narratives commonly engaging the mind, body, and spirit by engaging questions of the political. To drive her point home, she shared that the film is based on the short story, “Jambula Tree.” At this, I laughed.
I first read Monica Arac de Nyeko’s queer love story when I originally journeyed to Ghana to study abroad in 2013. The five-month stay revealed itself as a retreat space for me to release and forgive myself for the ways I previously internalized and perpetuated patriarchy and heterosexism.
When I decided not to return to Pratt, I was rejecting the notion that security and opportunity depended on a degree. But my decision to leave the U.S. months later allowed me to exist outside of the American imagination of excess and to shake the feeling that I am not doing enough when not in a never-ending cycle of acquiring.
Of course, that is not the answer I give people who ask about my move to Ghana. To folks who wonder what I will make of my time abroad, I say: whatever I want.
In the open air of the night, the moderator reminded me of my desire to heal, to commune, to learn, to be free. I raised my head to look up at the night sky where the moon glowed and I smiled.
The university does not offer more than it extracts, but the universe gives endlessly.
Deria (she/they) is a freelance political educator, writer, and content creator thinking through the intersections of social movements and collective healing. She is currently living abroad in Accra, Ghana where she is working on her memoir exploring race and mobility in the Black-American imagination. She has roots in Brooklyn, NY and the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area. Follow her work at deria.co/