"There’s so much that’s uncertain about
life right now."
I am 31 years old and finishing up my PhD this year. Toward the end of 2018 I left Cambridge because I was emotionally traumatized and in a constant state of distress. In my time at the University I’d been harassed by a lecturer and degraded by the racism of my former degree supervisor and other older students. I was, and still am, the only Black doctoral student in my research Centre and the weight of confronting constant racist and sexist aggression weighed on me leading me to unfortunately decide that I was more valuable to my family dead than alive.
I am grateful that when I shared my suicidal ideation with a friend, she led me to people who directed me to receive help from the on-campus counseling services. Being in Cambridge was emotionally and physically unbearable, but because I’d planned on living in Cambridge for the full three years of my degree, leaving meant I had to adjust my entire life. I couldn’t afford to live elsewhere in the United Kingdom, so I moved back home to Atlanta and picked up odd jobs to supplement $15,000 a year stipend. My housing was insecure for the first couple of months while I found an affordable place to live but when my grandmother died, I started looking for other places to live in the US that didn’t carry the pain of loss that Atlanta did.
In the summer of 2019, I got a job at a literacy non-profit in Washington, DC but then I got fired for speaking out about the racism perpetuated by the founders of the organization. They recruited me to come and, in their words presented after I was hired, “be the diversity” in their organization. I was expected to teach them how to confront racism, just not theirs. It was early in February 2020 that I was terminated. Then the pandemic hit and since then I’ve spent most of my time in between looking for jobs asking myself, “How will I survive this?”
This spring, I applied for unemployment insurance. I wasn’t even sure if I was eligible because of my termination and because knowing if you qualify can be hard to understand if you don’t know how to navigate the system. A friend told me I should check it out anyway, so I did. I found out that I was eligible but after receiving several notices back to back in the mail the communication stopped, and I was left for weeks wondering when I would hear back from DOES.
I called the line and waited for hours to learn what was happening. During one call I learned that my claim was on hold because information was missing but I wasn’t told what was missing. Another call was disconnected after three hours of waiting. Finally, toward the end of June, I got through and after two and a half hours, I was told that because I’d worked part of 2019 in Georgia there was a mix-up in calculating my allowance.
Since it’d been more than 30 days since my initial application my case was expedited and the following week, the first week of July, I started receiving my benefits. I applied at the beginning of May and two months later after numerous calls, I finally received the benefits.
As a student with such a low stipend, I need extra jobs to support myself because writing definitely does not provide enough income. As an author I try to write as much as I can and submit manuscripts as often as I can while writing my dissertation and taking any freelance work that comes my way. With the pandemic, opportunities to do school visits and talks have dropped off; since that’s often a huge part of how authors make their money, not with advances or royalties, for me, like so many others, schools shutting down in March meant huge financial losses.
I’m here in DC alone except for a few friends and although my family is often my social safety net, they cannot be a financial safety net. While it’s true that if one person does not have the money they need, another family member will try to step in, nowadays everyone is tightening their belt. I have relatives who have been furloughed, let go or are stressed every day that they will lose their jobs. There’s so much that’s uncertain about life right now. The stress of uncertainty about finances, plus physical and emotional health as we continue to watch the uprisings in response to state violence can be overwhelming. Everybody wants to make sure everybody else is ok but we're not. We’re not ok.
One of the ideas I am drawing upon is being gentle with myself. The nature of what I do in academia honestly sometimes ekes the life out of me. It is the nature of being Black, a woman and growing up poor to be in situations where I have to do ten times more intellectual and emotional labor than many of my non-Black colleagues to be recognized in my field. You can never get away from being Black and a woman and I wouldn’t want to. It’s not my being a Black woman that’s the issue, that’s just what we’ve been conditioned to believe in a world where whiteness is seen as aspirational. I have been conditioned to believe that if I am not working as hard as possible at every moment I am not deserving of anything. I am trying to break out of that conditioning by saying to myself, “The gentleness I give to other people should be given to myself as well.” I think I read that on an Instagram meme and I love it. That's what I try to live by. I’m a true millennial, I guess haha.
How am I going to survive this? I keep thinking about talking back like bell hooks wrote about in Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black. I keep thinking about what happens to Black people, Black Americans when we talk back, yet, here we are. We are still talking back even with all the ways we are, often corporeally and terminally, punished for confronting racism. But it’s worth it, I think, to work toward liberation. So, to survive, I suppose I’ll keep talking back, and writing back and living for me and the people I love.
B.J. McDaniel's areas areas of expertise include journalism, writing, and research. She is as an author and PhD Researcher in the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge.