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"True belonging doesn't require us to change who we are. Read more...
- Publisher: Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Gr
- Date: Sept 2017
From the cover
Everywhere and Nowhere
When I start writing, I inevitably feel myself swallowed by fear. And it's especially true when I notice that findings from my research are going to challenge long-held beliefs or ideas. When this happens, it doesn't take long before I start thinking, Who am I to say this? Or, I'm really going to piss people off if I call their ideas into question.
In these uncertain and risky moments of vulnerability, I search for inspiration from the brave innovators and disrupters whose courage feels contagious. I read and watch everything by them or about them that I can get my hands on—every interview, every essay, every lecture, every book. I do this so that when I need them, when I'm living in my fear, they come to sit with me and cheer me on. Most important, while watching over my shoulder, they put up with very little of my bullshit.
Developing this process took time. In my earlier years, I tried the opposite approach—filling my mind with critics and naysayers. I would sit at my desk and picture the faces of my least favorite professors, my harshest and most cynical colleagues, and my most unforgiving online critics. If I can keep them happy, I thought, or at the very least quiet, I'll be good to go. The outcome was the worst-case scenario for a researcher or a social scientist: findings that were gently folded into a preexisting way of seeing the world; findings that carefully nudged existing ideas but did so without upsetting anyone; findings that were safe, filtered, and comfortable. But none of that was authentic. It was a tribute.
So I decided that I had to fire those naysayers and fearmongers. In their places, I began to summon up men and women who have shaped the world with their courage and creativity. And who have, at least on occasion, pissed people off. They are a varied bunch. J. K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books I love so much, is my go-to person when I'm struggling with how to introduce a new and strange world of ideas that has only just emerged from my research. I imagine her telling me: New worlds are important, but you can't just describe them. Give us the stories that make up that universe. No matter how wild and weird the new world might be, we'll see ourselves in the stories.
The author and activist bell hooks comes to the fore when there's a painful conversation happening around race, gender, or class. She's taught me about teaching as a sacred act and the importance of discomfort in learning. And Ed Catmull, Shonda Rhimes, and Ken Burns stand behind me, whispering in my ear, while I'm telling a story. They nudge me when I become impatient and start skipping the details and dialogue that bring meaning to storytelling. "Take us with you into that story," they insist. Countless musicians and artists also show up, as does Oprah. Her advice is tacked to the wall in my study: "Do not think you can be brave with your life and your work and never disappoint anyone. It doesn't work that way."
But my oldest and most steadfast counselor is Maya Angelou. I was introduced to her work thirty-two years ago when I was studying poetry in college. I read her poem "Still I Rise" and everything shifted for me. It contained such power and beauty. I collected every Angelou book, poem, and interview I could find, and her words taught me, pushed me, and healed me. She managed to be both full of joy and unsparing.
But there was one quote from Maya Angelou that I deeply disagreed with. It was a quote on belonging, which I came across when I was teaching a course on race and class at the University of Houston. In an interview with Bill Moyers that aired on...