(written March 2019)
Here is the Statement of Purpose that I wrote as part of my grad school application to The Pennsylvania State University, where I will begin a dual-degree PhD in French and Women’s Studies in Fall 2019:
One crucial take-away that I gained from my college experience is that my strengths and skills cannot be easily reduced to just one purpose. Instead, I have realized an unorthodox spectrum wherein storyteller lies on one end and educator lies on the other. Truthfully, I have many stories to tell. Some belong to me and mine; some belong to complete strangers; some belong to the ancestors whom I will never know. Some are hidden in an uncertain future and might only be conceived during the years of research and scholarship that I hope to complete. Some will be palimpsests of stories that I know by heart and will one day overwrite with my own perspective. At the same time, I am an educator. I might not have done so willingly, remarkably, or even knowingly in the past, but I have always done so through storytelling. If a true educator must commit to the simultaneous acts of passionate teaching and passionate learning, then storytelling is an excellent way to both educate and to be educated. While I often find myself fluctuating on my spectrum of purpose, I know that the pursuit of this particular dual PhD degree at Pennsylvania State University will help me find my balance.
My time at Washington and Lee helped me glimpse the impact that my presence can have on an academic space. Because I was usually the only person of color in the room, I was also the only one who could educate seemingly ignorant peers and professors in the realities of being black. At times, my “lessons” were sparked by microaggressions; such as how a black woman’s hair can be very different from that of a white woman. Usually, though, they were downright controversial; such as why it is problematic for the mostly white choir of a university that was built by slaves to devote a whole concert to slave spirituals. At a school that was originally created by and for affluent white men, mine was rarely a comfortable position to occupy. I spent most of college in a continual state of frustration as to why I had to repeatedly explain concepts that I thought could not be clearer.
By graduation, I’d had two major revelations about my future as a black woman in academia. First, my peers will have likely reached the same spaces by benefiting from various social and economic privileges that I do not have. It is neither my job to singlehandedly address the injustices of higher education nor to educate my peers about its shortcomings. Second, to be a black and female educator in a predominantly white space is to inherently commit to some degree of perpetual discomfort—unlessI can grasp both the focus and the space and make them my own. Regardless of where I end up, that is what I intend to do.
That brings me to my personally-driven, potential concentration: Francophone identity within the African Diaspora. I am American by birth. My deepest roots would likely lead to Africa if traced back far enough. However, my Haitian heritage has never allowed me to think of myself as African American. Black also feels too vague to me, but those are often the only remotely applicable options on most demographic checklists. Moreover, the common use of an “or” or a forward slash suggests that these two identities are interchangeable, but they are not.
Terms and labels aside, there is another important aspect of my personal identity with which I grapple constantly: being “Francophone.” Because I am Haitian, I am also an indirect member of the prominent community of Francophone people. While this is just a more modern way to refer to France’s deep imperial history and its repercussions, it is still a large part of who I am. My parents were born and raised in Cap-Haïtien, Haiti—but were educated in both French and Haitian Creole. I didn’t speak a word of French until I was eleven years old. Learning it in school felt as familiar as embracing an old friend. As I learned more about Haiti’s complex, colonial history, I grew increasingly uncomfortable with essentially glorifying the language of my ancestral colonizer. What’s more is that Haitian culture is still very traditional in how men, women and children are expected to interact with each other. Children obey their parents, women submit to and serve their husbands, and the men lead the (godly) household. Several history and feminism courses later, I know that this “traditional” way of life is yet another deeply colonial, patriarchal system in disguise. I also know that we have quite a few generations to go before we as a people are even remotely removed from it. Mine is a Haitian-American household that still displays much of the same traditional, patriarchal, and inherent colonial discourse that France imposed on Haiti all those years ago. To this day, French is still one of its national languages. How deep does Francophone influence really go?
In order to address these thoughts, I tend to circle back to broader questions that might help others validate similar feelings. While some of them are more geared toward members of the Diaspora who are not also Francophone, they can still be easily applied to both groups:
- After having been far removed from Africa’s influence and Europe’s colonial social structure by time and space, have our current identities as Black people surpassed the confines of one collective label?
- How are we shaped by the absence of clear ancestral, colonial, and post-colonial roots?
- How does my personal sense-of-self shape the future of the Diaspora? What of the Francophone branch of the Diaspora?
- In what ways has the Diaspora shaped our present? Can we actively disrupt the way it is projected to shape our future?
I know that I cannot “solve” the concept of black or Francophone Diasporic identity, but it remains a persistent anchor in my determination to educate while telling my story and those of people like me. It’s an underlying theme in nearly all of my creative pieces. It inspired yet another opportunity for peer education at W&L about what it means to be ‘Francophone.’ It essentially helped me complete my French senior thesis—once combined with the desire to delve into the relationship between post-colonial patriarchy and Francophone feminist fiction. I’m currently considering several other potential degree fields (French, Creative Writing, Comparative Literature, etc.) but I don’t see the same potential to produce several levels of both scholarly and creative works that I see in this particular Penn State program. All in all, I believe that a dual PhD in French and Francophone Studies and Women’s Studies will help me take full control of my academic future in a unique and revolutionary way.
 My French senior thesis, entitled Manipulation Manichéenne: La representation de soi chez des écrivaines noires is a project that I would love to revisit and potentially continue at Penn State.
There are many talents and credentials scattered along my spectrum of purpose. As evidenced by my transcripts, I might have tried to complete more than a degree in French if W&L’s course load regulations had not been so strict. However, my QuestBridge scholarship could only carry me through four years of undergraduate study. The completion of a separate degree would entail a fifth year of enrollment, which was financially out of the question. In terms of academic skills, I first realized and nurtured my knack for analytical writing in high school, through the completion of college-level English and History courses. Separate strengths in both French and English showed me my potential for a future in comparative literature. I am most excited to continue my work in creative writing, specifically in fiction and memoir. As a storyteller, these methods are essential to both my craft and my purpose.
My professional skills have always proved helpful in the face of social challenges. I am naturally tenacious, introspective, and ambitious. Post-graduate life has shown me just how closely those qualities affect my academics. To be an effective writer, I am constantly learning how to use empathy to provoke deep thought. To be an effective student and teacher of language, I must but be willing to mistakes. Because I know I will likely never entertain the same audience twice, I seize every chance that I’m given. Two years ago, I made my very first trip to Caen, France; wide-eyed but willing to participate in a unique cultural exchange opportunity. This year, as I share my language and culture with my students, I don’t think I could embody the term “educator” more meaningfully. I know that I will ultimately cultivate and apply these passions, but I don’t know where I’ll be in a year. It is my sincere hope that my journey can begin at the Pennsylvania State University.