Jared Robinson, a fifth-year UC Berkeley English Ph.D. student, is exploring how the act of “looking twice” at our past can be an empowering form of self-definition, and even self-creation. 

On an individual level, looking twice at the past can be as simple as writing a diary, taking a selfie every day of quarantine, or recording yourself frying an egg.

All these acts are powerful because they make something abstract—like one’s daily life, into something concrete one can reflect upon and analyze, such as a piece of writing, a picture, or a film.

Considering how we exist every day within a web of ever-evolving and contested past, present, and future narratives—another word for this act of making abstract experiences concrete can be “self-care.” 

“In the midst of this global pandemic that ‘eats’ other events—like entire semesters, years of life, huge protests, social interaction itself, you can still do this literal resistant thing,” Robinson shared. “You make an object for you to do something with, something you feel you have full, wholly uncontested access to.”

In his dissertation, Robinson explores how African American literature was formed, in part, through such reflective, “practices of making.” 

“Writers like Ida B. Wells, and W.E.B De Bois […] put together a sort of subjectivity for African American Literature through presenting, representing, critiquing, then collaging past writings by black artists,” he explained.

Drawn to UC Berkeley’s PhD program in 2016, Robinson began by studying hip-hop culture, contemporary poetry, and music lyrics. 

Reflecting on the police brutality inflicted on Rodney King and the death of Tupac in the nineties, Jared began to think about the last moment in the song “Suicidal Thoughts” by the Notorious B.I.G.

In the song, Biggie talks with his friend about wanting to commit suicide, and at the end, there is the sound of a gunshot. Robinson was drawn to the question of, “What happens when an artist recasts violence done against their historical subject position as violence they inflict against their autobiographical or poetic persona?” 

“Be wary of representation, because it doesn’t distinguish between lies and truth. It doesn’t have to.”

Essentially, in the midst of police brutality and racial violence against Black people, Christopher Wallace, the rap artist, kills his persona, Biggie, yet Biggie’s physical body, legacy, and persona stays alive and in motion. 

Power is about conceptualization,” concludes Robinson. “Be wary of representation, because it doesn’t distinguish between lies and truth. It doesn’t have to.”

What Black writers, cultural critics, artists like the Notorious B.I.G. and other creators throughout history understand is: if you do not conceptualize and represent yourself, others will for you. 

In the United States, there is a greater commitment by those in power to conceptualize people as stagnant ideas, often in the interest of greater profit, rather than, as Jared says, “to see clearly […] with an almost meticulous, tedious commitment to understanding.” 

But even within this broken framework, African American literature represents itself, and thereby manifests itself, meaningfully and truthfully. 

In Robinson’s words:

Remember to look twice, and look back. There’s always more there…Social issues, problems in my field (English literature), other people…Be generous and patient enough to look again, to ask a more difficult question, and understand that as a process of generous engagement… A commitment never comes from power to see clearly. You would think that power is about clarity, or about depth… or a meticulous, almost tedious knowledge that sort of tries its hardest to account for everything, but instead it seems to be about conceptualization. Be wary of representation. Because it doesn’t distinguish between lies and truth, it doesn’t have to.”

 


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