Jay Z in a hoodie and black sunglasses.

On Jay Z and Bragging Rights

The Blueprint 3 kinda sorta saved my life. That’s dramatic. It really just helped me keep my chin up during a moment I thought was the worst of my academic career that was actually pretty tame compared to the worst.

During this time, I was in a battle of wills with someone backed by the power structure that is the university system (aka “the official”). The official wanted me to TA a class that was unrelated to my teaching interests. Back in the day, I thought exploitation was what happened to people who didn’t speak up. So I spoke. And I was labeled a problem. My reputation preceded me, so when the white woman I TA’ed for thought I was giving attitude, she called in the dogs.

I was a second year graduate student in a PhD program. Every week, someone was writing about the shrinking job market, the lack of opportunities, the cut-throat world of academia. My success seemed unlikely even with white allies and impossible with white enemies. Students in my department were whispering about the drama; they were saying I was stupid, irresponsible, not worthy of the fellowship I’d received. In short, I was afraid. Terrified, even.

Enter B3. That year, “swag” was only beginning to be a cliche and the album dripped with it. I became one of the students who stomped the yard with my headphones in, always looking straight ahead. Zoning out was a strategy I’d learned from other students of color at PWI’s. I hadn’t needed this strategy when I was a student at Howard. The yard was full of friends or at least people I knew. To walk the yard was to risk losing track of time, as running into a friend could derail your plans. It was love.

I was a second year graduate student and I hadn’t learned to find the love in white spaces. The blanket of whiteness terrified, then choked me. I didn’t know enough to hang around the Af-Am studies department, chatting with the secretaries who had saved and salvaged some of my friends’ academic careers.  I didn’t know enough to find the black staff across the university and stay close, or at least identify the spaces in which I could recharge. Whiteness is draining for Morrisonian scholars who daily read about the brutality of which white folks are capable.

I spent the hour after that meeting listening to Jay Z while crying on the bench outside of the library. I listened to “Thank You” on loop, trying to absorb some second-hand swag. I got the feeling that the lyrics were about haters, a middle finger to those who’d doubted his potential. He was thanking the former naysayers from a high throne and the gratitude was a storefront church, belying the shouting that went on inside. I went inside the church, imagined myself on a pulpit thanking the white woman and the official.

The reason I am reaching for this memory now, seven years later, is that I’ve descended rather than ascending. Both of the professors involved have health insurance. I don’t. Both of them have homes. I don’t. The official’s children go to private school that he can afford and they have certain futures, paid for by the university whose gates were so difficult to climb. My child’s future is a question mark that haunts and terrifies me. It robs me of sleep. And I’m struggling with this: what right does a poor mom have to swag? On what is it based?

Here’s Jay’s list of bragging rights from “Thank You:”

  1. Balcony seats at the Opera
  2. A Black tuxedo
  3. Media popularity
  4. Sitting close enough to a Pacquaio fight to get snot on himself
  5. 10#1 albums while rapping on a likely 11th
  6. Successfully selling kilos of cocaine
  7. Having enough money to tip the waiter $100
  8. Putting cocaine on street corners
  9. Popping champagne with beautiful women
  10. Selling much more music than his rapper rivals/ killing their careers

I don’t remember what perch I’d imagined on that bench 7 years ago. Perhaps success as a writer? A finished PhD and an appointment somewhere 1) enviable or 2)safe? Maybe just distance from the fateful meeting?

Weeks later, the official wrote me to encourage me to enjoy the holidays. He said that things have a tendency to seem bigger than they are when your world evolves around the university. I wasn’t ready to see the truth in that email or recognize the olive branch for what it was. My brain is trauma-trained to believe catastrophe both inevitable and ever-present. Unlike me, he was married with children. His wife was a non-academic. His world was richer than the university, and he had no way of knowing that the university was my only safe space. Outside of it, my father was dying, my brother was facing a prison sentence, another brother’s heart was failing, and I had trouble maintaining hometown relationships over the physical and emotional distance I’d created to protect myself. The official had made my safe space unsafe and I felt my walls caving in. Swag borrowed from an unpredictable future seemed the only way out. And now the past is asking me to pay up, to cash in on the swag I borrowed those years ago and my hands seem empty.

Resilience doesn’t seem like enough of a downpayment, but it’s all I have right now. The fact that I’m still alive. That my daughter laughs every day and doesn’t seem to know how broke we are. The fact that I’m still writing. The gift of hindsight– the fact that I can see an earlier version of myself crying on that bench and tell her that she belongs on that campus. She belongs, I belong, we belong anywhere and everywhere we want to be. Perhaps that is a bragging right.