Sparks and embers, winning and losing

It’s been a bittersweet week. Mainly sweet but also kind of hard. I am super happy to announce that I was awarded the Jeffrey B. Ferguson Teaching Prize at Amherst College. Jeff was my colleague who died too young, in 2018. (I recently wrote about his teaching and research and the deliciousness of Blackness over at AAIHS, which you can find here.)

So I am pleased to have won, and even happier to share the award with my colleague Adam Sitze. I’m even looking forward to giving a talk about teaching in the fall, because teaching is probably the thing I spend the most time working on (even if it is the thing I professionally talk the least about!) But really, I cannot say enough how grateful I am for this award. Teaching centers much of my professional and scholarly life, and it is gratifying to feel seen in that work.

At the same time, the award’s existence is of course premised on the loss of this friend and campus figure. He is my second young colleague to have died in the last few years. My colleague Nasser Hussain died just a few years before, a loss that came on the heels of the death of my close friend, the artist and filmmaker Prashant Bhargava, a past Copeland Fellow at the college. The week we celebrated Jeff’s life and legacy I learned that my master’s thesis advisor, Columbia’s Marcellus Blount, had passed. Also too soon. The week I received the Ferguson teaching award, just a few days ago, I learned that my newest collaborator, Binyavanga Wainaina, had also just died, and you know the refrain. Heart attacks, strokes, cancer, and disease. We could produce a thousand explanations for each death, and none of those reasons would have to be rooted in the work they chose nor the worlds in which their pursuits were made. Yet, at the same time. When thinking about minoritized populations in specialized spaces like academia, it is difficult to disaggregate the forces that reduce membership from their possible effect on the lives we choose.

What is this song? What is this world? I’m thinking back to a moment from more than twenty years ago that also still feels like today. It is an evening that has followed a long day, and I am at a MMUF (Mellon before Mays!) graduate student conference. We’re watching some film or presentation and I don’t remember its title, but it’s about all these various and inspiring non-white woman academics, their immense challenges in academia, their journeys and impact. I remember there was this terrible moment when we realized that many of the women in the film were already dead too soon. I was grateful for their work and legacy— like the men I have been mourning they carried us to many firsts— but it was hard to hold the joy. At the same time.

So what does it mean to hold joy in this world? We hold joy in remembering the joy they held in the work they chose, the hope around which they oriented their lives and toward which we must repeatedly be drawn as we teach their work and continue to grow through the images and ideas they left for us. At the same time we lose, we also remember and make joy. We break and we dance and it is an honor, because that is how we remember why we strive to remake our worlds into something different from what they are today. I recall writing this after Prashant died in 2015:

“I was thinking about how Prashant’s death is different from that of other people I have known. It is because he has left us with so many things, so much art, the work he has done to us, for us, because of us, with us, and despite us.

Having been left all these gifts brings its own responsibilities, its own kind of solace. That solace is not presence. It is not Prashant. But what he left us are opportunities to live together in better ways. And to call this a gift is not a cliche; it is what warms us in our work. My friend who was once a spark is now an ember.”

Image still from the film Patang, of a boy sitting with his kite and looking to the sky.
An image from Prashant’s feature length film, Patang.
Image of Jeffrey Ferguson as a teenager, flanked by ten members of the Guardian Angels.
A picture of a teenaged Jeffrey Ferguson, front and center with his squad of Guardian Angels in New Jersey in 1981.
Binyavanga Wainaina
An image from a 5CollDH conversation with Binyavanga Wainaina and Khary Polk at Amherst College, on the subject of Black digitalities, which you can watch here.
image of Prof. Marcellus Blount
Marcellus Blount, in an image from The Eye/ Columbia Spectator story about his life and legacy.
image of Prof. Nasser Hussain, paired with a quote:
This last one, a quote from Nasser Hussain, is a little bit different. But his work on the phenomenology of drone strikes is an important and level-setting element of my teaching in videogames and digital media, and is the kind of work that helps me develop the kinds of mixed practicum and theory courses for which I won this award.

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