What I would say (a love letter/address to African American Studies)

This month, I was asked to address the graduating students from the African American Studies minor at my university. While I declined the invitation with a great deal of regret, I also thought a great deal about what I would say. So I wrote my remarks anyway, and decided to post them here.

Good afternoon.

My name is Tamiko Nimura, and for the last seven years, I have been a professor of English and African American Studies here. First, I want to congratulate every student receiving their degree this weekend. It is a great privilege to be able to speak to you all, and because I understand that we have greater celebrations ahead, I’ll be brief. (At least, as brief as I can: an occupational hazard of being a professor is that we have a very hard time being brief.)

English professors may like the language of metaphor and hyperbole, but I am not exaggerating when I tell you that African American literature and culture changed my life. Studying African American literature taught me about wholeness: the responsibility, as Toni Cade Bambara puts it, that comes with being well. It taught me about agency: what it means to have the right to speak, choose, act freely in this world. It taught me about interdependence: the reciprocity and interconnection embedded in the principle of Ubuntu. It taught me about Sankofa: the necessity of looking back in order to move forward. Studying writers like Leopold Senghor taught me that reading and writing could be revolutionary acts. Working with the words of the great activist Bernice Reagon taught me almost everything I know about coalition: the necessary but difficult act of building communities across and through difference. African American studies broke down the barriers that the rest of my education had created for me: the barriers between language and action.

Because of my study of African American literature, I was able to visit the 6th graders down at Jason Lee Middle School here in Tacoma, and tell them what being an English professor has meant to me: Being an English professor has meant that I teach people about reading and writing, and how those two acts can help us see the world differently.

In his great novel Mumbo Jumbo, the African American writer Ishmael Reed (who was one of my college teachers), talks about the importance of the loas, or ancestral spirits. He talks about the enormous arrogance, the tangible dangers, of believing “that the world can be interpreted through a single loa.” Interpreting the world through only one lens, or one way of being, Reed argues, can be dangerous for the soul. In my study of African American and American ethnic literatures, I have found an interdisciplinary space to merge my interests in history, identity, and literature.

Now, this celebration is really about you and your accomplishments. But if you’ll forgive a brief personal story from my undergraduate years: I saw Reed’s words put into practice when I wrote my senior thesis at UC Berkeley. I was writing about writers with experiences like mine: third-generation Japanese Americans, who were buy cheap ventolin inhaler trying to represent the impact of their relatives’ imprisonment in camps, during World War II. I realized very early in the writing process that I could not write about the literature without including some historical context. The characters, their motivations, and their silences, simply did not make any sense without the external knowledge of internment camps.

As stunning as it sounds now, this was the first time that I had considered including historical context in an undergraduate paper involving literary analysis. I went to my thesis advisor, and described my quandary. “I think I have to include some history,” I stammered. “I think you’re right,” he replied. “But–can I do that?” I asked. “Yes,” he replied. “Now, not everyone in this department would let you do that, but I agree with you that it’s necessary.”

Because I was writing a paper about silence and memory and history, I was struck by the terrible irony of my situation. If I had had a different thesis advisor, I would have been told to suppress a whole chapter of American history, including my own family’s history.

It’s in that space— the space between reading, literature, history, and the mechanisms that we use to hear and suppress certain voices—that my desire to study African American literature was born. That’s the space where we put several loas, several ancestral spirits, several ways of seeing the world, into practice. That’s the dynamic intellectual and emotional space of African American studies.

Like some of you, perhaps, I do not know just what the coming year will bring me. I have just finished my last year teaching here. What I do know is that African American literature and culture, in all their power, can help to keep us steady through the uncertainty and focused on the service of social justice.

You see, perhaps the most powerful concept I learned from my study of African American literature is the concept of the call and response. As I understand it, the call is part greeting, and part exhortation to action. If I say “Good afternoon,” in the call and response context, I would expect a “Good afternoon” in reply. The energy of your response is supposed to match my call. And during our time together, we would build community: my speech would also be, in part, your act.

So I hope that those of us who are leaving can see our leaving not as a time to rest, but as a call to action. There are far too many places of inequality, of injustice, of iniquity, in the world for us to rest.  The world demands a response.

African American Studies challenges us to be part of the co-creation, the response.  And African American writers have opened the spaces for our courage to enter. As the extraordinary poet and activist Audre Lorde writes: “When I dare to be powerful – to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.”

Thank you for your time, and my congratulations to each and every one of you.

On haunting and marginalia: why the private MFA?

It’s hard to think about ways to follow up on that first post, and I am tempted, already, to go back and make changes. Maybe I will, eventually. But first: onward, forward, upward, which is the way to travel if I want to commit to this blog seriously.

I have a PhD in English, rather than an MFA. I have thought about pursuing an MFA for a long time, or at least pursuing creative writing more seriously. There are a number of reasons that I won’t be able to do so, at least for now. I have looked at a few non-residential MFA programs, even one relatively close to where I live. These programs typically ask their students to commit to 10 days of residence at the beginning of each year (for about 2 years), and much of the remaining work is completed through correspondence, at home or off-campus. But I am not sure I can spend 10 days away from my family and my two adorable little girls, much less afford the tuition.

But, just for the sake of argument: If I did pursue an MFA, I would have had to choose a genre, I think. Poetry or creative nonfiction? I’ve got memories and attachments to each.

I remember writing one of my first poems about the color yellow, perhaps in second grade, with Mr. Daley. (I dated his grandson in high school!)
Mustard fields blossoming slowly
Flashing lightning

After watching the pine tree in the front of our house, I remember writing my first haiku in third or fourth grade, which my dad loved:
As the pine tree sways
Gently in the cool, swift breeze
I think it whispers

I wrote a lot of poetry through high school and college. In high school I kept a quote journal of quotations, bits, sayings from writings and writers that I loved. I wrote down spiral notebooks full of song lyrics, as many of us did. I’ve wondered if I wrote those down because I was too afraid to write my own poetry.

I began to write creative nonfiction, essays, at the end of college. Just after I graduated from college, I worked in campus administration. I had finished mid-year, and was applying to graduate schools. I was lucky enough to land a job in the same campus office where I’d worked as a student for two years.

During one lunch break I went to hear a former professor, Robert Hass, read from his work. At work I was steeped in the discourses of underground storage tanks and hazardous waste, and I fell promptly back in love (had I ever fallen out of it?) with poetry, with literary words. The next day I wrote an essay on my lunch break and submitted it to a contest; it won first place.

I wrote journals, diaries well into graduate school. I began to write and experiment ventolin 100 mcg online with artwork and color, joyfully, on September 10, 2001. I couldn’t journal or even open that book after that.

I also wrote a poem for my beloved graduate school advisor, about the memories we shared with each other about our fathers’ deathbeds. It’s called “Eating Grapes,” and I’ll have to find it someday. (I’m a hoarder; I suspect a great many writers are. )

Last year, on the spot, I wrote a poem for a colleague’s poetry blog.

These are some of the important moments of my intermittent writing life, at least to date. But when I think about becoming a writer, about writing this blog, the written word that’s haunting me today is a marginal comment from another college professor. When I was a sophomore, I took “Introduction to Poetry Writing” from the African American author Ishmael Reed. I didn’t really know who he was at the time, nor did I know that I would end up writing one of my dissertation chapters about him later on. I’ll have to find this poem and this piece of paper somewhere, too.

Here’s what he wrote:

“I think you could succeed as a writer. You have the talent, the skills, and the imagination.”

Best marginal comment, ever.

I am not writing these moments down to sound arrogant; they are more like the small squares of comfort I gather around myself as I think about stitching a new quilt of my writing life.

Now that I have had some years of teaching experience, I wonder what led him to write that comment. What does it take for a creative writing professor to write this on your student’s paper? Now I wonder what Professor Reed saw:
–if he knew the young girl who loved L.M.Montgomery’s Emily books, even more than the Anne books;
–if he knew that when I was thirteen I subscribed to an industry magazine, Writer’s Digest, “just to keep up”;
–if he could see those stacks of quote journals, the piles of partly-filled and empty journals, and the sheafs of poems, spilling out of my closets and desk drawers;
–if he knew just how desperately I wanted to be a writer.

I also wonder what he would say if he knew what I “grew up” to be. I wonder if I can unlearn, or need to unlearn, what I learned as an academic writer, as a critic, as a PhD.

And I don’t know if I will ever try to earn an MFA. But in the meantime, I’ll give myself assignments. Maybe I’ll ask from assignments from you reading out there, and I’ll work towards a larger project. Thanks in part to a new and dear friend, I pitched and got my first freelance writing assignment today!–which made me very happy. In the meantime, this is my own practice, my own private MFA.