Five Attempts An essay by Elena Ruiz
“I am absolutely one of those people who learned, through graduate school, to address a white readership in my writing … The advice that steered me toward the process of revision was coming from life experiences that were not familiar with the thoughts and ideas that arise when you are moving through the world with brown or black skin.”
—from “The Dangerous Lure of Writing for White Readers in an MFA,” keynote by Aisha Sabatini Sloan at NonfictioNOW, in Reykjavik, Iceland, June 2017
As a first year student at Pratt Institute, an art school in the Clinton Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn, I took a journalism class where students wrote for the school paper, The Prattler. Our theme for the first issue was “Fierce and Femme.” In order to share the abundance of fierceness required to succeed as a black woman at an academic institution, I sat down to write this essay, “Five Attempts.”
Thinking about how to configure this essay, I asked myself how I was going to make a predominately white audience understand my experience as a black woman at Pratt. I took inspiration from Aisha Sabatini Sloan, whose keynote last year pointed out how even trying to communicate this way obstructs voice and vision. As an act of reclaiming black readership and black revision, I am writing without a white reader in mind. With that being said, I offer five attempts to summarize my experience as a black woman at Pratt, for a black audience.
I. My journalism professor asked the class what first came to mind when hearing the word institution. Our heads tilted upward in thought, but everyone feared the direction of the conversation if they were to be honest. Finally, one of the students broke the tension, “I feel as if the word institution usually holds a negative connotation.” My professor’s face contorted with confusion.
“Prison,” I interrupted, and looked at my professor. She appeared shocked.
“Prison?” she scoffed. She actually scoffed. “Really?” I felt the anxiety of being around white people I suddenly must explain myself to and I shyly explained that institutions are usually seen as a system built to perpetuate oppression. I wondered why that wasn’t the first thought she had. Then it hit me: this is not a reality that upper middle class white women must acknowledge or think about on a daily basis. It was after this class that I came up with my favorite phrase to summarize my experiences in institutional academic settings: I always knew I was black, but I never felt black until I came to Pratt.
I was alone in the revelation. There is a moment when even your white supposed ally with a “Resist” T-shirt and a “Black Lives Matter” sticker can’t help you explain why your teacher ’s ignorance is doing the entire class injustice. I was at college, finally immersed in what had always been described to me as “the real world,” and found the same old world where the systems of oppression succeeded at infiltrating institutions, like this one of “higher learning.”
II. When I first arrived to college, I was on the constant prowl to find other students and teachers that looked like me. Unsurprisingly, my first acquaintances were cafeteria workers and security guards, as people of color dominated these parts of the staff.
At the one Black Lives Matter meeting I attended, a student brought a pie chart on CollegeFactual.com displaying diversity percentages at Pratt. Black people made up 4.2 percent of the student population and 11 percent of the faculty. Where was I supposed to see myself? In the classroom—or serving other students?
III. It seemed that my professor had finally come to her senses when our next journalism assignment was to visit and write about the Brooklyn Museum’s exhibition, “We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85.” I was excited. My writing is inescapable from the politics of womanhood and blackness, so the art rang close to home. I was ready for my white classmates to get a glimpse of my truth through the work and eager to begin our class discussion on the lawn afterward. After seeing this exhibition, we would have to address the divinity of the black woman as displayed in the exhibit.
As we made our way outside, I awaited a fruitful discussion on the complexities expressed in the show. Were they going to address Blondell Cummings’ dance “Chicken Soup” in which she mimicked the action of shaking a skillet the same way I had seen the women in my family cook?
My professor led the conversation. She asked about the different ways that writing can be implemented in museums to enhance an exhibition. I offered that the exhibit was as an epic and complex rendering of the black woman experience. My classmates and professor nodded but remained silent on the topic. While the class moved on to the next discussion prompt, I looked at the photo I had taken of a Carrie Mae Weems’ portrait from her series “Ain’t jokin.” In it, a black woman peers to the side of a frame that a white woman stands behind. The caption reads, “Looking into the mirror, the black woman asked, ‘Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the finest of them all?’ The mirror says, ‘Snow White, you black bitch, and don’t you forget it!!!’”
IV. During a meeting to discuss my goals as a writer, I explained to my teacher the importance of writing for my communities: “I want my writing to be accessible and comprehensible for the common person. I feel like my future work might move from the book to the screen; videos are far more accessible to lower income minorities who already feel failed by the school system.”
She replied that she didn’t understand why books would not be commonplace in the hood. I responded to her, “Sometimes the last thing a kid wants to do at the end of a day is pick up a book after having adult responsibilities or suffering familial trauma. In my experience, if the school system is already failing to address the child’s home life, and the school is the only place providing the child with books, the page is one of the last places they’re going to turn to for help.”
Speaking of adult responsibilities, many days at Pratt I assumed the position of the instructor and taught my elder the most successful ways to gain the attention of under-resourced black children. I was not (necessarily) talking about myself, but upon retrospection, I should have spoken personally. Perhaps if I had made it clear to the professor that what I was offering was not just a powerful way to teach and address the “other”—i.e., “under-resourced black children”—but the way to speak effectively to me, her student, it would have made more of an impression.
One time the teacher even said in class, “I can’t believe you guys are thinking this critically as freshmen; maybe you should teach the class.” Although she was being sarcastic, I thought about how much more successful of a teacher I would have been. There are some skills a credential can’t provide, such as how to navigate an environment created to fail you, how to refrain from exuding your ethnicity like the bright light it wants to be, and the exact moments when to assert (or hide) your blackness in an unfamiliar territory.
V. Every time I’m in a difficult point of life, I cross paths with a black female writer and embarrassingly cry to her. When Aja Monet visited Pratt as a guest speaker for the writing department, I was teased by powerful black energy. After her reading I sobbed—about my feelings of isolation and about my lack of connection to the faculty. Monet reassured me of the power of the black woman, and held me in her arms compassionately. She encouraged me to use my frustrations as fuel for change. So, I use each day at Pratt as fuel for transformation and growth; I make thread to support my future self; I keep spinning and cocooning, cocooning, cocooning.
Elena Ruiz is the lead singer of the rock band The Jamming Nachos, and a creative writing major at Pratt Institute who uses both music and writing to build community awareness and evoke change.