“It’s my purpose”: An interview with RACE 2019/20 dissertation prize winner Monisha Jackson

This summer, RACE cannot welcome the 2019/20 dissertation prize winner to the RGS-IBG conference in person. However, you can find out more about Monisha Jackson (University of Leeds graduate, now PhD student at GSU Atlanta), her research and her experiences as a Geography student in this interview. Monisha’s dissertation is entitled “I’m Not your SISTA”: Queer Black Women’s Experiences in LGBTQ+ Night-time Spaces (link to abstract).

Image source: Twitter/Leeds University

Many thanks for doing this interview! First of all, how did you come up with your dissertation topic?

I started properly formulating my topic in the second year of my undergraduate degree in my Research Methods module. I had to do a proposal and I believe in working “smarter not harder” and so I was determined not to waste time doing preliminary work for a project that I wasn’t going to actually end up doing.

But let me give better context… at around 16 or 17, I dealt with extreme racist and sexist bullying from white people at my school. This bullying had occurred on and off since I was 11 but Michael Brown had just been murdered and I wanted to speak about it and I didn’t understand at the time why no one else cared. I was terrified and heartbroken. I was scared for my family, my Black baby cousins in the US and my communities in the UK. I was so lost in a sea of academic and social whiteness so I started delving into the works of Black women. Their work really saved me. My mum had always centered Black and Brown women’s thoughts/work in my house but I never made time as I was overwhelmed trying to keep up with my A-levels amidst daily racist attacks from my old ‘friends.’ I was also coming to terms with my authentic self as a lesbian/queer person. All of this propelled me to re-discover my love for reading. GCSE’S and A-levels had sucked that out of me. When I started reading Black women’s words, I felt like I was home. I was at peace. I was so affirmed and comforted and held. I had never read unapologetic words and poems and prose about queerness and Blackness and womanhood. All of these intersections which described my life and existence.

When I was at the beginning of understanding my own sexuality, I knew a few queer people but barely any Black or Brown queer people. I went to G-A-Y [a club] because it was the only place I had heard of. But I didn’t feel comfortable. It wasn’t all white but the few Black and Brown people were segregated upstairs. And I remember I was thinking where are the other Black women? I had already dealt with so much violence from whiteness throughout school that I knew G-A-Y was not it for me. I also wasn’t that interested in clubbing overall. I desperately sought out other queer Black and Brown people when I started at the University of Leeds. I joined Black Feminist Society. One Black feminist meeting, Melz Owusu [shoutout to @freeblackuni] made a joke about heterosexuality. I was like wow I’m not alone.

The violence I had faced by whiteness juxtaposed with the words, videos, spoken word and art I was discovering as well as meeting more and more queer Black women led me to my research topic. I had escaped much of the specific queer white violence but I was connecting with so many people who were telling me these ‘horror’ stories of being the only Black woman in an LGBTQ+ club… the trauma, the violence, the fetishisation that they had experienced. It broke my heart. Because going to LGBTQ+ clubs can be the only way to explore your identity for many queer and trans folks. And for Black LGBTQ+ people to then be faced with more violence… it’s so complex. I looked at the literature and there was almost nothing on this topic. I was like right. It’s my purpose. Let me amplify and document the voices, lives and narratives of queer Black women. Oh and the spatial focus is inherent in me as a geographer and sociologist.

What were some of the challenges you faced as a researcher? What were some of the highlights of conducting your dissertation ? Do you have any tips for undergraduate students planning or doing their dissertations? – I know this is really three questions but on the same theme!

Challenges… I remember in a dissertation session I asked how approaching my research through a Black feminist framework would be received. I had previously been marked down, especially in Geography for focusing on the experiences of women of colour, so it was an important question for me to ask. I remember being laughed/smirked at and told that “it depends how good it is.” I think I walked out of that session after that. I don’t believe in staying in spaces where I am being subjected to violence, both overt or covert. I was truly worried how my research would be received, who would my supervisor be, who would grade it? Initially, I was given a supervisor who specialised in the sociology of health. I was so confused. Then they switched me around so I was blessed to have a Black feminist Brazilian woman PhD student [Katucha Bento] as my supervisor. The highlight for me was the time I spent with the queer Black women who shared their stories with me. It was so powerful. Some were in tears while we discussed these experiences. Emotions were a key part of this research. I reject [white] positivist objective notions of knowledge. I feel deeply and I felt their emotions too. The pain, the trauma, but also the shared joy and healing that we created in that space. We both laughed and cried and so many people told me of how QTIPOC night-time spaces affirm and hold them. Incorporating a section on whether QTIPOC spaces offer increased comfort for queer Black women was essential for me; it was an active and strategic way of also centering and documenting queer Black women’s joy amongst the intersecting oppression we face daily. It was painful and intense to conduct this research but I knew documenting these narratives were crucial, regardless of how it would be perceived by my institution.

Advice for future undergraduate students is to believe in, be assertive and stand by what YOU want to research. Find interest, find pleasure, find joy in the time that you are going to put into creating this piece of work. Don’t just read scholarly work about your topic, read thinkpieces, watch Youtube videos, speak to friends and family about it! Accumulate as much nuance and knowledge as you can. Request, if you can, to work with faculty who actually know something vaguely about your topic. And start writing. Start writing at the beginning of the year. It can be as messy as you like but try not to leave it to the last month or so. You will do yourself a disservice.

Which scholars and activists had an influence on you?

Oh wow, so many. bell hooks, Angela Davis, Audre Lorde of course. But also my Caribbean folk are so important to me… Walter Rodney and poet Staceyann Chin. Another poet and activist Kai Davis. Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyěwùmí, María Lugones, Moya Bailey, adrienne maree brown. The wonderful Professor Shirley Tate who I feel honoured to have spent time and shared space with. There’s a ton more but I’ll leave it there.

Can you give us some insights into your experiences studying in the UK and US?

It’s been interesting to have experienced different educational systems. I tell people all the time they are both entirely different and neither is worse or better, they are both problematic throughout. I did a year abroad at North Carolina State University. I took 8 classes – 4 of my professors were Black. It was transformational. I have so much love and respect for Black and Brown people who survive and manage to thrive within the UK context but I knew education could look a little different and despite the problems, I am surrounded by Blackness now. I picked Georgia State University very specifically. The undergraduate student population is over 50% Black. Black faculty are still under-represented and subjected to violence. Many have left. But to even see Black faculty is so immensely different from my experience in the UK.

Academically, I think the UK focuses on depth and the US focuses on breadth. The style of writing is entirely different. My first semester of graduate school I was penalised for writing in the passive voice. I was so confused because the UK style of academic writing is often so sterile. You’re discouraged to even write ‘I’. It must be devoid of all personal connection. So the shift was difficult but I feel like I have more freedom there. I am also just more confident in the research I do now. The weekly work is substantially more. You can have multiple essays and multiple books to read each week. That’s normal. I had to let go a little of the depth of my writing for my classes – they call this ‘coursework’. That depth can come with my own research. I am very happy in my decision to migrate for this PhD. My cohort is super queer and Black. If I had stayed in the UK I’d most likely be the only Black woman. In Atlanta, I get to TA for classes like African American Women in the US. I can take classes about Gender and Sexuality in the African Diaspora and Critical Race Theory. My supervisor, Dr. Veronica Newton is a Black feminist boss! We have such a wonderful relationship and we’re working on some publications together. I am extremely grateful.

What are your plans for the future?

Truly, I want to be an educator, a teacher, someone who can assist in the liberation and empowerment of future generations. I believe in collective knowledge production. I believe in a holistic approach to education that nurtures and prioritises the self, the mind, wellbeing. The current academic job market is unappealing to me. I find it so difficult sometimes to be doing the work and research I do within colonial structures. Everyday is a battle. It hurts my soul and my spirit and my body. But I know that this is a mutual feeling amongst so many decolonial BIPOC scholars. I stay motivated by witnessing and observing and learning of all the great educators who came before me, who exist in the present with me and those who will come after all of us. The thought of working in the confines of white supremacist capitalist institutions for the rest of my life is not ideal but if I end up there I know I will continue to forge spaces and participate in spaces that see and understand me wholly in my Black-multiracial-Guyanese-lesbian-woman self.

I’m so excited to see the work of scholar-activists like Melz Owusu – the founder of The Free Black University who is trying to create a radical, decolonial, transformational educational space. The possibilities in creating an educational, liberatory space where the most traditionally/historically marginalised are at the centre is so exciting for me to witness. All power to Melz. Teaching in a space like that would be a dream.

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