“Are these poetic times?: A Reflection on Research, Archives, & The Role of the Black Scholar in the Time of COVID-19 and Racial Unrest

Shermaine M. Jones, Virginia Commonwealth University

In January 2020, I returned to teaching from maternity leave. I was excited to be back in the classroom. Preparing my lesson and engaging with my students reminded me of my identity as a scholar, which felt affirming after being consumed by the sleeplessness and exhaustion of caring for my infant daughter. Navigating my roles as an academic and new mother meant pumping between classes and storing my breast milk in a container that camouflaged its contents in the English Department community fridge. Wrestling with the common anxiety and guilt that mothers often feel returning to work, the spatial distance between my home and campus office helped me to maintain healthy boundaries. These boundaries would soon collapse with the growing fear regarding a mysterious airborne virus spreading at alarming rates. By March 15, I was back at home full time with my eight-month old, after my university made the decision to switch to remote learning for the remainder of the semester due to the threat of the COVID-19 virus.

Alongside the anxiety of COVID-19 and its disproportionate impact on the Black community, America experienced a racial reckoning. Black Lives Matter protesters insisted on justice and accountability for the appalling murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd. On a local level, students and community members in Richmond, Virginia, marshaled this fervor and momentum to insist on the removal of the Confederate monuments on historic Monument Avenue. I felt rage at the blatant disregard for Black life in the now ubiquitous videos of violence against the Black body circulated gratuitously on the news cycle. The sense of racial fatigue weighed heavy on my spirit as I pushed my daughter in her stroller past the towering figures of Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee, venerated in a perverse romance of “Southern history.” I questioned my role as a Black literary scholar working and living at the intersection of these urgent matters. As I pondered this question, I was reminded of Nikki Giovanni’s poem “For Saundra” in which the speaker questions the purpose of writing poetry in a time of revolution. While Giovanni concludes the poem with the meditation, “perhaps these are not poetic/times/at all,” the poem enacts the work of revolutionary art in revealing the ways that material conditions and political climates impact one’s lived experience, the ability to write, and the subject of one’s writing.

The twin crises of COVID-19 and the virulent climate of anti-Blackness forced me to confront my role and responsibility as a Black scholar and to attend to more critical matters that made the archives, and “traditional scholarship” less pressing. I initially felt shame at my lack of research productivity early in the pandemic, but when I considered the added pressures of childcare responsibilities, I began to rethink my expectations for scholarly productivity. As research confirmed this larger trend amongst women academics, I felt validated in my frustrations. Yet I still questioned whether annual reports and other forms of academic evaluations would account for race, gender, and class inequities in our lived experiences that directly impact scholarly output.

Most importantly, I was encouraged by the words and meditations of Black women writers and thinkers like Nikki Giovanni, June Jordan, and Toni Morrison who have always been my guideposts. I felt emboldened to prioritize my self-care, my child, and work that I found transformative and fulfilling in this urgent moment. Lamenting my inability to peruse the archives and produce traditional scholarship became less urgent. I directed my attention to an ethical teaching practice to support my students as well as community-engaged scholarship that felt relevant and timely given the contestations over the monuments. Specifically, I was invited to contribute to a conversation about what should happen on Monument Avenue. I turned to a Black women writer, this time Claudia Rankine, in her prophetic meditation on the psychic and physiological costs of racism in Citizen: An American Lyric (see contribution here: https://vcu.exposure.co/what-should-happen-next-on-monument-avenue). While this was a short piece and it was not a publication in a peer-reviewed journal or edited anthology, it centers the way that a Black woman writer’s intervention in past historical trauma and spectacles of violence against the Black body can inform the way we choose to understand our moment and offer guidance in how we imagine and create the future.

I hope to return to the archives soon. I am nostalgic for summer 2018 when I spent days poring over June Jordan’s papers at Harvard. I appreciate the increase in digital collections, and remote services for archives and special collections.  For some of my Black women academic peers whose research relies heavily on archives not yet digitized, this period has been devastating for their research projects and has caused great anxiety regarding meeting tenure expectations. I share this anxiety as I consider how my focus on community-engaged scholarship and ethical pedagogy during this period may not be as legible within traditional metrics of academia, with its motto of “publish or perish.” But when confronted with the real precarity of one’s breath and life amidst the COVID-19’s devastation of Black communities, and racial antagonism from state forces and (white) vigilante citizens, the fear of perishing is not metaphoric. Like the Black women writers and thinkers that I research, write about, and engage, I am charting my own path of what my identity as a scholar and writer looks like in this time of global pandemic, racial animus, and revolution.  “[P]erhaps these are not poetic/ times/ at all.” Still, I write. 


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