The Struggles of Being a Black English Major

No one really prepared me for what a four-year commitment to words written through America's history would ask of me. I didn't realize how difficult reading stolen stories of slavery by white people for profit would be. I didn't realize how hurt my heart would be just by reading stories. That's what shocked me most in the beginning years of my career as an English major. I never got emotional reading school assigned books. Until this year, my junior year of college.  

I'm not sure if it's our current social climate or if the videos of black death going viral is what triggered me most this year, but man... I don't think we have ever paid enough attention to black writers or black students to really be able to teach these courses with the sensitivity they require. The only time I felt safe and understood in an English course where we read slave narratives and stories was when the teacher was black. I'm not sure if its the shared experience or the true understanding of how f*cked our history in America is, but I find myself getting through them so much easier than when a white professor has to awkwardly introduce the topic. Mind you, I never really noticed how much of a difference that could make. In all my time at VCU, I've only had one black professor, but I've read countless horrifying stories and poems about and by my people. On top of that, there are not many black students majoring in English, at least not around me. So occasionally, I will find myself having to better explain ideas and questions brought up in our readings to my classmates. It starts feeling like you have this wound that you keep tearing open just to do an assignment right when things are still not fully healed on the inside. Like despite how painful this work is, we are expected to prioritize being a student before being ourselves.  

open books on a table Photo by Patrick Tomasso from Unsplash

When my white peers read about black trauma, there is a disconnect that happens automatically. Yes, they feel bad and understand slavery to be a horrible thing, but they never have to hurt for their family as they read. Every time I read those stories, I feel like I'm in mourning and unless the professor is black, the likelihood of me even mentioning that I'm struggling to the instructor is zero to none. Syllabi never really include "flexibility in assignments dealing with black issues" anywhere on them. Plus, it feels awkward to me to email a white professor saying I was struggling with a reading or couldn't do an assignment because they don't see everything that's unspoken. At least with black professors, they can relate to our difficulty, and as I explain the best about my difficulties as I can through email, our commonalities say things I don't even have to mention. We automatically get each other, and we work together better. Otherwise, feeling like an inconvenience is how I regularly react. 

Being an English major is my favorite thing in the world, and I know this is what I want to do, but no one ever really talks about this, and as I have no other English majors in my circle yet, I will write this here. I still would be an English major had I been told this information; I just feel like I would have been more prepared for what was to come had I been told this when I chose this field. It's more difficult on some days and easier on others, but reading life back into the words of those silenced during their time is bittersweet. It hurts, but it's all we have left of them. It's their words, and they deserve to be read the most, so while it's hard, it's definitely more than worth it.