KNOWING IS POWER. It not only makes you see, it heightens your awareness. That awareness can determine the life you live, or don’t live, and can protect you from forces that want to control that life.
Philosophy is a deep kind of knowing, and my journey through the depths began at a young age through poetry. In fact, my grandmother still has an old cassette tape of me reciting verse spontaneously at four years old. Poetry allowed me to express the grand ideas in my head and engage with the world around me. One of my early favorites was Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven.” I happened to see an animation of the poem during a Halloween special, and its macabre lines spoke to the pervasive horror I experienced as a target of racism in childhood: “Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood wondering, fearing.” As a teenager, I often skipped lunch during school to spend time alone in the library, seeking a way to come to terms and understand the complex ideas of identity, love, family, society, and nature. It was in the pages of poetry that I found my answers. A simple metaphor could touch my spirit and explain the unexplainable. It was poetry that said the unsayable.
These songs of the spirit began to bloom when I took my first philosophy class, a required general education credit for my biology degree. The class surveyed the primary areas of European philosophy: Metaphysics, what is stuff made of? Epistemology, what do we know and how do we know it? Ethics, what is “good” and how can we be good?
The exploration opened the door to another dimension, where the thoughts that I once found expressed only in poetry now flowered into stimulating discussions that wove together many strands of thought—nepantla.
Until this point in my life, the people around me either tolerated my questions or got annoyed. Some people would walk away, and even become angry, when I asked questions like, “Why do you think that way?” and “Is there another way to think about this?” But in my philosophy classes, I’d found people who were interested in similar questions and were also curious about the world we take for granted.
I continued to study philosophy while earning my bachelor’s degree. It was in a philosophy course that I was introduced to feminist ethics: “Should gender determine social value?” I even took up smoking a pipe so I could continue conversations with my professor during our thirty-minute breaks. Poetry had planted the seeds, and in the sun of philosophy, I flowered. I was becoming powerful.
But there were clouds that blocked out the sun. While we asked similar questions, I did not share passions and perspectives with my professors and peers. Some of the questions I asked were dismissed as questions for political science, gender studies, sociology, or “ethnic” studies. The answers I gave were often minimized because they failed to adhere to European standards: analytic, abstract, and logically linear. There was no room for creativity, no room for spirit.
Once, while I was reading a book about spiritualism in the graduate lounge at Harvard, a colleague approached and laughed, “I never thought I’d see a book like that in a philosophy department.” It was a painful experience and one micro-aggression among many. Another time, I remember defending the value of poetry in a course about the relationship between truth and language. The professor put his hand on my shoulder to interrupt me, and left it there while he told the whole class why I was wrong.
Like many living as marginalized persons in an oppressive state, I naturally thought the problem was me: I wasn’t smart enough, or I didn’t speak well enough; I wasn’t good enough, or I didn’t study enough—I just wasn’t enough. It seemed that no matter how hard I tried in my philosophy courses, I could never live up to the standard of those who defined what philosophy should be, how it should be done, and by whom it should be done. In a philosophical lineage nurtured by capitalism, colonialism, and white supremacy, there are only certain questions that can be asked and only certain answers that can be given. I can’t fully express the anger and resentment I felt while taking an ethics course about social equality, and raising the problem that we can’t talk about social equality without talking about social inequity, only to have the professor reply that our focus should be solely the principles we were currently discussing. So we continued to discuss the abstract principles of an educated, upper-middle-class white male and what he thought made a society equal.
I felt like I was withering, so I left philosophy and earned degrees in sociology and literature. But deep in my heart, I knew that I could not walk this slippery earth without doing philosophy. I say do, because philosophy is not something you merely read. Or at least, it shouldn’t be. It should be something you stick your hands into, like the earth—something that you work and water so that you can live in it. So, after some time away, I gathered my fortitude and went back to formal philosophy to begin the long marathon of a doctoral program.