To me, Dionne Brand’s epigraph “my job is to notice… and to notice that you can notice” speaks about how actively we must listen and pay attention, both in school and in life. Beyond that, we should use what we have learned to the benefit of ourselves and others. Keeping this epigraph in mind has helped me appreciate more what makes my life comfortable, realize my limitations and my advantages, and learn to be a more respectful person.
Initially, Brand’s quote speaks to an awakening, that realization that you’re noticing something previously in the peripheral vision of your mind. Throughout the course of the semester, there were various times both in and out of class in which I felt awakened, like something finally clicked. One such moment occurred when we took a class trip to the heating plant on campus. As I stood staring at the crisscrossing maze of colored pipes and tubes that covered the walls and ceiling of the plant, it dawned on me that beyond the few janitors and cleaning persons I had met over my time living on campus I had no concept of the complex system of working peoples that sustain SUNY Geneseo. Just like those pipes, every worker was at times alone and at times interacting with each other, but all were part of a greater institution that I have massively underappreciated.
What makes this quote even more interesting is how it plays with not only the concept of awakening but also introduces an aspect of responsibility. Brand uses the term “job” which evokes themes of duty and obligation beyond the multiple awakenings I felt over the semester. It is not enough to passively stand in the heating plant, observing the intertwined pipes, patting your brain on the back for having the realization; “Wow, there’s a whole team and system behind making sure I as a student feel comfortable.” We must take what we notice and pursue it. Use that awakening as motivation to act upon the realization. Awakening without responsibility is ineffectual just as responsibility without awakening is thoughtless and even dangerous.
When thinking about this quote, our classmate Molly used the term “awareness.” For me, the definition of awareness with respect to Brand’s epigraph is wrapped up in the previous concepts of awakening and responsibility. When we combine both the ability to notice with the obligation to act we develop an awareness, that ability to “notice that [we] can notice.” When it comes to how our campus is sustained, despite our trip, I am still not fully aware of all the day-to-day processes that keeps this boat afloat. However, there have been moments in class this semester where my awareness of an “aha” moment helped me improve as a student and individual.
Another moment of awakening transpired while reading chapters three and five of Leah Penniman’s Farming While Black. My primary major is international relations and while the majority of the courses are based in political science, I take anthropology, history, and geography courses as well. Something I’ve noticed is that in English literature courses, students and teachers’ method of thinking is profoundly different than that in political science courses. English literature classes place a lot more responsibility on the student to draw their own conclusions, formulate their own opinions, and speak openly about them in class. Political science is much more analyzation, less about stating your opinion and more about reciting what the author’s theory is. This transition can be difficult for me sometimes, as Bernice Johnson Reagon so astutely noted that straddling two lines is always a challenge. When reading Farming While Black, I thought “finally, something I’ve seen before, something I can understand.” These required readings strongly reminded me of an anthropology class I took last semester: Third World Development. In both Third World Development and African American Literature we talked about how we automatically assume western ideals in academia, society, politics, and economy are viewed as better than those coming from the developing world. We also discussed how difficult it is to escape western academia and how influential it has been in shaping our language and thought processes. The interdisciplinary nature of both my majors is my favorite part about them; I never want to be tied down to a single subject. This class has help me become aware that I’d rather be free to explore my passions from multiple avenues of thought than limited to a single way of thinking.
This semester, the theme of outcasts or feeling alien appeared again and again in our readings. In Big Machine Victor LaValle shows how isolation and rejection can lead to both catastrophe with the Church of Clay and heroism in Ricky and Adele. In The Last Angel of History, multiple sources commented that living as a black person in the United States can make you feel alien, like you don’t belong. Nobody Knows the Trouble I See also deals with the struggles of feeling separate from those around you. In Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, the character of Lucius Brockway spends all his time deep in the basement alone, yet he plays the most integral role in the production of paint. This recurring theme of outcasts made me more aware of how I treat people, friend or stranger. Do the workers at the campus heating facility feel alone, cast out, or underappreciated? Everyone has a story, and as Big Machine shows, even the worst can be redeemed.
Thinking about this more, it helped me shape my views on people in general. I truly believe people are dynamic, ever-changing beings. Just because a person acts cruelly does not mean it is ingrained in their character, and vice versa. I don’t want to be judged on a single incident, and in turn I strive to withhold absolute judgement upon other people, give second chances, and treat everyone with respect. Admittedly I’m not perfect, and often I find myself dismissing or judging someone I’ve never even met before. Now though, because of this class and Big Machine, I’ve had a voice in my head every time I begin to dismiss someone into a box reminding me that’s the last place anyone wants to be: limited.