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The joy of letting things go

in Op-Eds/Opinions by

I am easily stressed. I always feel the need to accomplish something even though I do not have to. Whenever I see people cranking out essays furiously in McCabe or complaining (read: humblebragging) about how sleep-deprived they are, I psych myself out, questioning whether I have worked enough. Even though I have the pass-fail cushion this semester, I have bailed out of social events on several occasions for fear of not studying enough. At a high-pressure institution like Swarthmore, it is sometimes difficult to relax, even for just a moment. An unexpected event changed my mindset. How? Here’s my story.

Three weeks ago, I received an e-mail about SwatDeck, offering $15, a one-day Independence Pass to Philadelphia, and an opportunity to travel with three Swarthmore students. I signed up without hesitation, even though I did not totally understand how the event worked. However, as the day for SwatDeck approached and work started piling up, ambivalence struck my mind: would it be alright if I took a break? Soon, the day came; I deviated from my study-Sunday for the first time by joining SwatDeck. I did not regret my decision.

When I arrived at the Swarthmore Station, there were many Swatties chatting with one another while waiting for the train to arrive. After checking in with the organizers of SwatDeck, I introduced myself to the other three members in my group, two of whom I had come across but never talked to. The group’s diversity was impressive. In terms of academics, there was an interest in classics, economics, computer science, and foreign languages. In terms of extracurriculars, we had lacrosse, badminton, and softball athletes, as well as a columnist for the Phoenix (me, apparently). None of us live in the same dormitory or take the same classes. Indeed, the event provides an escape from the “Swarthmore bubble.”

Soon after, the organizers handed us a list of recommended places, such as the popular restaurants in Chinatown, historic sites within Philadelphia, etc. Fortunately, the Philadelphia Museum of Art offers a free entrance on the first Sunday of every month, and because this coincided with SwatDeck, my group paid a visit to the museum to see the art exhibition. Having never visited any art museum before, I was thrilled to see such famous works of art as Vincent Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” and Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain.” Thanks to the fact that one of the members in my SwatDeck group was knowledgeable in art history, I could see the art and appreciate the background behind some of the works as well. Moreover, the museum trip introduced me to many controversial debates, such as whether a work of art could be made of non-art structures and what the essence of art is. After our museum trip concluded, my group dined at a delicious Chinese restaurant nearby and had a great conversation.

What do I make of this experience? First of all, after reflecting upon SwatDeck, I realized that, counterintuitive as this claim sounds, I learn more from “learning” less. During the past few months, I have focused on the classes I am taking to an extreme degree. As each class intensifies in its difficulty, I find it progressively more difficult to explore other subjects with which I am unfamiliar. However, SwatDeck made me realize that doing random activities can be educational, as well. Thanks to my visit to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, I understand more when my friends debate such topics as what qualifies as a work of art or whether one should, when interpreting art, take the artist’s history into account. Had I decided to finish my homework that day, I would not have found my interest in art or art history. The joy of letting the pressure to work go led me to somewhere unexpected.

What I also appreciated about SwatDeck is that the event helps people who are unlikely to meet to socialize with one another. Although the small size of the Swarthmore community can help foster close relationships, such relationships may not necessarily occur. In my case, because I am not heavily involved in sports and usually take STEM classes, I would never have met an athlete who enjoys studying classics had it not been for SwatDeck. This situation applies to every person across our institution. It is unrealistic to take the size of Swarthmore for granted and expect to meet new people automatically. To break out of the “Swarthmore bubble,” one must take the initiative to meet and build relationships with those outside of one’s social circle.  

Lastly, when I let go of the work-first mindset, I experienced the joy of living in the moment. The thought “I must work” does not cloud my mind as it used to. I realized how unrealistic it is to tell myself I must finish every piece of work before I can relax; no matter what day of the year it is, I still have some tasks to finish or some activities I want to do. In other words, one will never truly have free time; work always exists, no matter what. Sometimes, work can wait, and we can focus on some events that cannot.

All in all, by deviating from my habits, I discovered an unexpected joy from meeting new people and visiting places I had never been. The joy of living in the moment comes from freeing oneself from the binding pressure to always work and differentiating between what needs to be done and what needs to be done now. And this joy is invaluable, indeed.

 

Students examine Cuba in Black Studies

in Around Campus/Around Higher Education/News by

On Monday, March 13th, Social Sciences Associate Professor and Department Chair at the State University of New York Empire State College Nadine Fernandez spoke in McCabe Library to community members about race in Cuba. Her speech focused on the history of race among Cuban populations in relation to the family unit and relationships. In the audience were students taking Professor Nina Johnson’s Blacks in Diaspora, the directed reading course of the Black studies department this spring semester. This course also participates in the college’s Experiential Learning Program this semester as it culminates with a trip to the island. The course explores Black identity in Cuba in relation to the migration of Black people and their social movements.

Fernandez’s talk framed the construction of race in Cuban circles through the island’s history. She began with describing the island’s colonial plantation economy that imported enslaved people from Africa, led the audience through the Cuban Revolution, and concluded with commentary on the present day. The talk traced how “the sexual economy of race” in Cuba — explained in Cuba’s Racial Crucible by University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Karen Morrison as how different sexual actors; their relationships; their children, if they are present; and their histories are defined by race — influenced perceptions of race on the island. Further, it defined how race mixing, or people of different races coming together in sexual relationships and in interracial relationships, helped to form the island’s layered organization of race.

Blacks in Diaspora dissects the African experience in different societies that are historically related to the African diaspora, defined by late Nigerian historian J. F. Ade Ajayi in his Africa in the Nineteenth Century Until the 1880s as “the migration of Africans to the outside world under the auspices of the trans-Atlantic and other forms of slave trade.” This semester, the course considers Cuba as a society with a stratified construction and classification of Black, brown, and white people. Coleman Powell ’20 detailed how the talk helped to parse the racial system we work within in the U.S. versus that of Cuba.

“The concepts of one Cuban race clash bitterly with my own understanding of a country [the U.S.] still reeling from the legacy of chattel slavery, Jim Crow, and other institutionalized forms of racism,” Powell said. “Cuba has a history of mixing between races and this is helpful when one is trying to understand the stratification of Cuban society [such as] the racial categories of White, Black, Indigenous peoples, and Mulatto/Mestizo.”

Part of the experiential learning course is the participation in research on the particular aspects of the Cuban experience in relation to race. Prospective Black studies major Brandon Ekweonu ’20 outlined his research intentions.

“I am very interested in studying the different ways in which different Black people around the world understand their own identities,” Ekweonu said. “I want to … gather data as part of my research on the different ways in which people understand ‘race’ and its implications if they even believe that it has implications. Again, I am most interested in who might identify themselves as Black, Black Cuban, or Afro-Cuban and how their narratives may differ from those of white Cubans.”

Powell, who is studying Afro-Cuban social movements and whether there are connections between Afro-Cubans and other people throughout the African diaspora, stated that Fernandez’s talk provided perspective into how to better approach differing encounters with race.

“The talk was helpful in helping me to think about race from the standpoint of Cubans rather than as an American,” Powell said. “I will have to be very meticulous with my word choice in interviews [for my research] because my perception of race related questions may be completely different than someone of Afro-Cuban descent.”

A key component to the course is the trip to Cuba following the Spring 2017 semester. The trip will allow students to continue research ingrained in the culture and environment they were studying. Ekweonu highlighted how the trip will provide new opportunities.

“For a while now, I’ve been particularly interested in the way race is constructed in Latin America,” Ekweonu said. “For me, [the trip] is going to be my first time ever being in Latin America, and therefore the first time I will ever have an opportunity to witness race within a Latin American context apart from experiences in Latinx communities in the United States. It is also a trip that I wouldn’t have been able to afford to make on my own.”

Powell did note that the trip, although exciting, is the product of a semester’s worth of exploration, study, and research. The trip will be contextualized by the work performed and produced by the students.

“The trip will be a culmination of this [semester’s] learning. There is a research component to this class, and before I even think about the itinerary of the trip, I must first have this research done.”

Powell then detailed his motivations for understanding the Cuban history of race.

“As a member of the African-Diaspora myself, I am deeply interested in the political implications of a group that is linked based on a shared cultural memory of slavery because the nature of our struggles for liberation have been inherently political,” he said.

Powell also made note of how the course had extensive connections to other social science fields, and he highlighted links to historical power structures in relation to the African diaspora.

“I entered the course with the expectation that I would find linkages between the diaspora and the field of international relations as well as sociology in general, and I have not been disappointed,” Powell said. “There is a clear link between imperialism, colonialism, and the scattering of the peoples of the diaspora. Imperialism and colonialism have to do with how empires were administered, and this represents some of the earliest manifestations of the field of international relations.”

In sum, Powell described his goals of connecting his academic motivations to understandings of history, contemporary politics, and intercultural relationships.

“The trip is important in fostering engaged scholarship across international borders. What I learn in the classroom will always be applicable in the real world, or at least that is my goal. The trip will also be helpful in fostering dialogue between people of the diaspora,” Powell said.

Ekweonu went on to say how the trip will provide important context in the study of Black experiences and demonstrates the importance of racial and ethnic study programs at Swarthmore and beyond.

“I’m someone who has, for a long time, been having trouble deciding whether or not I wanted to pursue Black studies because of the way it seems to be undervalued by a lot of the academic community. A trip like this reassures me, first of all, that there are professors that are extremely invested in Black studies work in the world and here on campus,” he said. “Second, it reminds and reassures me that so many of my fellow students see just as much value in Black studies as I do. This goes, just as well, for areas like the Latin American and Latino studies program … It reminds me that the work I and so many others want to do is valuable. So, I think this trip means a whole lot for every single person involved.”

Powell echoed this sentiment, explaining the multifaceted nature of the program.

“It is also important to note that this is Black Studies course! The importance of Black Studies as an interdisciplinary field cannot be ignored, especially when it is contributing new and dynamic research to academia,” he said. “Black studies provides a space for discussions on identity, culture, and politics that would not be had otherwise. These discussions and the opportunities, like trip, that discussions produce are necessary if progress towards a more socially conscious state is actually what anyone really wants.”

The Blacks in Diaspora course offers students an opportunity to explore race in Cuba through research and an immersive trip. Students largely see this trip as a way to understand race in another societal context and as reason to support racial and ethnic studies on campus.

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