Insider/Out: An Open Love Letter to the Black MFA
This essay is a part of our Insider/Outsider blog series. Once a month, we publish two works of nonfiction on the subject of the MFA culture, one from a writer in an MFA program, and one writer outside it. Pieces labelled "Outsider/In" refer to a story written by the latter, while those labelled "Insider/Out" refer to the former. Both pieces are published simultaneously each month on the Breakwater Review blog.
An Open Love Letter to the Black MFA
By Sam Farquharson
Grad school disappointed me. I know it has only been a week in, but this image I painted of dusted academia with professors graying at the edges while deconstructing Hortense Spillers, and students from around the world reading accented poetry, was not it. It was a Zoom call with mostly twenty-somethings at different stages of emotional unrest when asked to write a sonnet. I haven’t written a sonnet since high school. I don’t think I have ever written a good sonnet.
I left the class feeling defeated, like I was in the wrong room and that my real workshop was with people much browner, less American, more tweed clothing, more quiet. I ruminated over my emotions for a week, called my best friend of ten years, we grew up writing poetry together. I asked her about her work and we read poems, my poems, others, anything that wasn’t white like the clouds that shrouded my clear-painted picture of the MFA.
She is more level-headed than I am. She gave me advice about maybe the workshop not being the workshop I need for my pieces, but still something I can learn from. She was right, no one is the perfect writer and I spent a decade of my life in specialized schools and programs to perfect my craft. I went to an arts high school in New Haven and spent everyday walking past Yalies with their noses snubbed up at the black boys on the Green “jerking," a dance style with elements of krumping and contortion. I studied biostatistics for a summer at Yale while I was still in high school, and went to college full-time during my senior year. I did a Fulbright after undergrad for a year in Malaysia and held conferences and workshops for leadership and entrepreneurship for universities in Kuala Lumpur and Tokyo.
I am used to white spaces and having to carve out meaning within the overarching theme of imperialism. I am used to having to heal myself from the isolation from my peers and the microaggressions that dehumanize me. I might not like other people’s pieces, or perspectives, but it’s not like I can’t learn something from them.
I think my first week gave me insight into how long I’ve been away from America. I don’t relate to the dark humor and dirty jokes and drinking culture that populate common narratives and social discourse. I don’t really care about reading any more white authors I’d already spent my entire literary career studying. I think living a peaceful life in Japan made me forget about how important it is that I, as a black person, take up space.
If I don’t see other people in the room that look like me, it is my job to make space. If I notice my education is too Eurocentric, it is my job to question it, raise awareness to it, and if it cannot be changed, to do it my damn self with other people like me.
I should not be the only black person in my poetry program, and I hope to change that.
I feel that this is a systemic issue within the ivory tower of academia. The workshop is too white and institutions continuously miss the mark of making space for writers of color; the curriculum of white writers in reading lists seems to remain the same. Within the workshop, especially as a black person, each flaw is hyper-magnified and details are always seen as a reflection of your humanity. If I write a haiku, my work is labeled “pretentious” and an “excessive use of florid language.” If I write about love, my work is labeled as “performative” in relation to whiteness and “not digging deep enough.” But if I write about childhood trauma, my immigrant parents, or anything archetypically “black,” my work is labeled as “authentic” and “digging deep.” Writers of colour should not be forced to be performative of racial stereotypes in order to be digestible in the workshop.
It is not enough for institutions to put black and brown students in chairs only to draw a white chalk box around who they can be in academia. The workshop does not function to be conducive to students of color, especially when professors cycle through a list of Hughes and Hurston and Clifton as the only black poets they know. All the black poets are not dead, I’m sitting right here.
I am too tired of not seeing people of color in rooms with me. I am too tired of listening to the same stories. I am too tired of watching my pieces be picked apart by persons who don’t have cultural context. I think black people are integral to academia and there needs to be more of us.
Due to COVID-19, the virtual workshop has only exacerbated these feelings and ideas. I find myself drained from the camaraderie between white students and their pieces about relentless boredom and idleness, while millions of Americans have lost their jobs and housing. I spent time crying between courses because the only access I had to my pieces being critiqued were from a room of white students lunging at imaginary grammatical errors within stanzas. My professor just watched in silent agreement. I teach grammar instruction to over fifty students in seven countries as my bread and butter right now. I had no energy to challenge that.
A current MFA student in my workshop describes the experience as “rancid” in regard to writers’ critiques and attitudes of others’ work. “It feels like the direction of the poem critique isn’t up to me,” the student reflected. A third year fiction student who identifies as a person of colour confided in me that “UMass Boston is diverse in undergrad, but not so much in its grad programs.” They also recounted their personal journey of having to write racially performative fiction in previous years to be digestible in workshop, before deciding to branch out and create a more organic narrative, regardless of peer perception.
Universities fail to understand that the online platform of the workshop takes these current issues of systemic racism and consolidates it into a horse pill made to swallow without a glass of water. The three hours of workshop being the only human contact you have with your writing, and it is spent telling you that you have no mastery of your mother tongue, is anxiety inducing and dehumanizing. I have thought about dropping out of this program many times, and that is just not like me.
MFA programs need to question the barriers they create for students of color in the workshop, both virtual and in-person. If the students in the workshop do not reflect the multicultural demographic background of our country, there is an institutional problem. If instructors can be well-versed on vegan contemporary lesbian poets of the Northeast, but can’t have black poets published within the last five years on the reading list, there is a problem. Why is blackness and black writers an afterthought when it comes to craft? The director of my current MFA program is aware of these issues and promotes writers of colour in their course syllabus as well as focuses on challenging the institutional barriers for writers of colour.
I hope to find other writers of color and build something that is ours. To create rooms with accents and tweed and color and code-switching and peace. To create workshops filled with perspective and learning and uplifting each other and challenging each other to be the best we can be. Critique would look like questions about form and intention of craft instead of pleading for a writer to perpetuate trauma porn. Reading lists will have names that span across cultural identities and seen with validity in pedagogy.
I don’t believe that the MFA can change unless it genuinely wants to. At the center of higher education is inaccessibility, and the workshop is a shining example of that. It is not enough to decide to be more “diverse,” the question is how will programs create a space for students of colour to thrive? The answer, there should be a change in curriculum to reflect indigenous writers, black writers, migrant writers; intersectional pieces. Students should learn about performativity, microaggressions, implicit bias, and how they perpetuate these in the classroom.
If the MFA cannot change, adapt, and be equitable, students of colour will not grow in this space. If I do not see change within my lifetime, I imagine I will abandon my career prospects of being an English professor. Why would I lead students of colour into a place that questions the validity of the very fabric that makes them human?
To heal and survive this current experience I’ve been reading work by writers of colour such as Mia Marion, Coyote Park, Jericho Brown, Rickey Laurentiis, and many more. I’ve been finding solace in Cave Canem, a foundation to cultivate the growth of black poetry, when I feel the most isolated in my brown skin. I don’t bring my pieces that are close to publishing to the workshop anymore, I instead bring them to other writers’ groups made between other writers of colour that challenge my form, content, and clarity.
I dream of a workshop where we flourish. And right now it feels so lonely being the only person in the wrong room, but I know I’m on the right path. I need to use the tools in this room to build a new one, and along the way I hope to find other builders. I want to connect with other writers of colour who can see my work and myself as a person capable of honing a craft, and engage in other cultural experiences through writing. I don’t want to be subjected to a list of stereotypes and traumas to be understood. I am full to the brim of Hughes and Clifton and Hurston and I am starving for black writers of today to feed me with their work.
One day the next generation will gaze into a room, a workshop, a community and see matching melanin and know they too can make space for each other and others like them. But first, the institution needs to wake up.
Sam Farquharson is a first year MFA poetry candidate at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. They are a 2018 Fulbright Finalist for Fulbright Malaysia. They have published works in The Saintly Review literary magazine. They are also the founder of The Button Up Zebra blog with readership in over 36 countries. Sam splits their time between Boston, Tokyo, and Germany (respectively). When Sam isn't traveling they usually write handwritten letters to friends. This essay was originally published in slightly different form on The Button Up Zebra.