And then there are the ones we left behind…

“This shit is so hard, babe. People think it’s easy but it isn’t. It is so so hard,” I told my partner through tears this morning.

I was standing in the tan-colored washroom area of the basement bathroom. It had a nifty sign on the door that said “Women’s Lounge” in calligraphy font. The University of Chicago campus is so bourgeois that it has “lounges” attached to every restroom, usually with a nice leather couch and a coat rack. But, they don’t have a childcare nor do they always have access to buildings for those who are disabled or might need special accommodations.

Today is a tough day in graduate school. Amidst the dissertation meetings, conference planning, final exam grading, and presentation building, my personal life has been personal life-ing.

My mom’s house was nearly broken into for the third or fourth time last night. Luckily, she has an elaborate alarm system so those seeking to break-in to her Richmond home haven’t been successful. Each time, she ratchets up the protection, adding motion detectors, high-pitched sirens, cameras, etc. Now, she’s thinking about purchasing a gun.

Hearing her say that this morning broke me down more than I thought it would. I am typically able to perform “strong daughter” for her, “level-headed mom” for my children, “caring partner” for my spouse, “loyal confidant” for my dear friends, and “vivacious and committed scholar” for my advisors and colleagues with little interruption. I am usually able to hold it all together—sometimes with a bit of duct tape or chewing gum—but held together nonetheless. They are the roles I embody; I code-switch in and out with relative ease. I’m never phony or superficial. I’m always honest, but I manage so many discordant relationships that I sometimes feel like multiple people.

In these moments, I often reflect on W.E.B. Du Bois’s notion of “double consciousness,” this idea that Black people always (at once) occupy multiple spaces, spaces that are defined by both the white gaze and a white supremacist order of things and simultaneously by their own Blackness. I have always known this form of living and moving throughout the world. But, perhaps being a first-generation Black social scientist (or any first-generation person of color, maybe) in the modern Academy is the quintessential exemplar of this concept. When considering the intersections of gender, disability, and class, this consciousness becomes all the more complex.

Each day, I manage these tensions, with medications, rest, self-care practices, and a host of other methods that are much healthier than at other stages of my life when I self-medicated with alcohol or over-ate.

Not today. Today, I worry.

I worry about a number of my family members: my grandmother, my brother, my nephews and nieces. My many, many cousins. I feel an intense and ever-present sensation of worry that is often as intimate to me as a gentle but unwanted hug. It’s always there. Uncomfortably there. And, when I take a moment to forget about it, I feel it there, reminding me not to be fully happy, fully gratified, or fully present in my current life, once more.

But, there isn’t much I can do from Chicago, nearly 2000 miles away.

Since leaving for college in 2002, I have learned that the physical distance between me and my family (whether small or large) would always have more of a mental toll than a physical one.

I have managed the college workload while attempting to carry the mental load of the difficulties at home. When several of my family members were shot and killed during undergrad, I had to push forward with final exams, group projects, and term papers. When my father became terminally ill, I was in the throes of moving from southern California to Chicago for grad school. He passed away just a few months before we moved. As family members experienced and continue to experience intermittent homelessness, I was writing fellowship applications and applying for teaching assistantships.

Each time, I felt overcome with guilt for having embarked on this life, away from my people, away from my tribe. I felt overwheming guilt for leaving them all behind. I feel it right now.

So, as I sit here in a room full of accomplished scholars (by the standards of the white-centered world), people with lots of letters after their names, numerous placards on their office walls embossed with institution names like Princeton, Harvard, Brown, Yale, University of Chicago, UC Berkeley, Stanford, and the like, I reflect on the ones I always feel like I have left behind.

I keep telling myself that I haven’t left them, that I have brought them with me. I tell myself that in carrying that worry and experiencing that guilt, I am creating a new world where they get to be a part of spaces like this, too. I’m convincing myself that I am here for a specific purpose, to be here. To be of this place, never from it. And, maybe not even of it.

But, today, I worry.

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Jenn M. Jackson

Jenn M. Jackson, PhD is a co-Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Water Cooler Convos. She is a native of Oakland, CA. Jenn is a radical Black feminist scholar who believes none of us are free until all of us are free.