I turned 22 the day before I left for Belfast. Having gone to a college in the same town that I grew up in and ending undergrad tumultuously, I looked forward to my year in Belfast as a chance to finally get out of the South and give myself a kind of sabbatical. Jokingly, I’ve been calling this my “Frederick Douglass year”, but I really did imagine myself following in the tradition of Black scholars and thinkers temporarily leaving the U.S. in search of a kind of peace that just could not be found in their home communities. Without any spoilers, whether it’s Douglass, DuBois, or Baldwin, they always end up returning home with a kind of guilt that they left in the first place.
Having been away for two months now, I don’t know if I’d say I feel a sense of guilt for leaving my community, but I do feel an unexpected appreciation and sometimes even a kind of longing for my home. As I’m away, I realize the power of being so deeply rooted in and connected to a community and having an autobiographical relationship to its history. There’s something really beautiful about the fire you can feel for community and where you come from.
I also wanted to come to Belfast because people compare the residuals of its central conflict and the tensions of its complicated identity to the U.S. South. And this place has provided refuge for Black people before (at least in the cases of Douglass and Equiano), but dynamics of race and power are present and problematic here too, even as they are tend to be much more subtle or not as immediately obvious as in the U.S. context. I am the only Black person in all of my classes, and one of few people of color in another. Race is hardly mentioned, even as we talk about gender, class, and sexuality. Even when talking about making museums more accessible, telling stories of the marginalized, and becoming interpreters of the past, students in my class argue that we need not be concerned with questions of justice. I am hyper-aware of my otherness in all spaces, even if others are not, and it is exhausting.
There are things I really like about Belfast, though, and I am slowly (but surely) finding my community. Sarah’s cohort has integrated me into their tight-knit circle and I have had really sweet days out and nights in with them. We recently climbed the summit of the highest mountain in Northern Ireland (both, marvelling and suffering together) and took a class walk around East Belfast with their faculty which ended up inspiring my dissertation topic.
Because I only have class on Monday’s and Tuesday’s I had a bit of time to kill, so I ran for Students’ Union (student government) and ended up being elected as the new Union Council Speaker. I also joined the Queen’s Rowing Club which is quite competitive for beginners, and was invited to continue in the Club as a coxswain. (At the info session the coaches said they were in need of “short, loud, and bossy” people to be coxes– and here I am!!)
So there’s plenty of good– In less than 30 days, I’ll be done with my first semester of classes and I’ll be ⅓ of the way through my program! I am alive in the age of worry, living the questions, and I’m taking my time in settling in. I am reclaiming my identity as a Southerner and appreciating my home for all of the good things I often overlooked while clouded by my own context while appreciating all the joys and frustrations of getting to know somewhere new.
I think often about something Sarah said at our Mitchell retreat in September when I was worrying about the future: “Life is short, but its also long.” I laughed at the time pointing out that also, “Life is long, but its also short.” With this in mind, I remind myself to take what I need, and to keep on keepin’ on. 🙂