Then and Now: The Thesis Process and the Power of History

by Anne Louise Cranwell

Photo courtesy of the author

A few years ago, a close friend of mine compared his medical school experience to inserting a hose into his mouth and turning on the water full blast.  Needless to say, it was stressful, and he had forgotten that he chose medicine to help people.  My experiences as a Women’s History grad student have not been quite so dramatic, but at times I felt as though my head was barely above water.  The feeling of “drowning” is something one might experience often; however, the feeling passes, and you just keep on swimming.  When this amazing blog began, I wrote of my early thesis travails, and when I read those words now, I think of how far I have come and how much my thesis has changed, not to mention my knowledge and my confidence.  At times, I had no clue what I was doing, but my passion for my topic never faltered.

Reflecting on the past year of researching and writing “Don’t You Talk About My Mama!”: Black Women Writers and Motherhood in the Era of the “Underclass,” I realize that my thesis process began long before I became a graduate student.  My thesis examines how racial ideology has shaped ideas of family, poverty, literature, and motherhood, and how black women writers have engaged in complicating and challenging a nation’s history that was built on privileging whiteness.  I distinctly remember the first time I realized that “black” and “white” were more than just words to describe skin color, and though this memory is part of my early childhood, I did not examine it until I was in my early 20s.  The fact that “race” is not something I had to deal with is precisely why I pursued a thesis topic that explores America’s racial history.

As an undergraduate at Prescott College, I took a course titled “The Colorline in US History,” and our first assignment was to write about our earliest memory of racism.  During this course, I became familiar with the emotions that accompany the realization of one’s whiteness and the privileges associated with it: white guilt, naïveté, denial, and hopelessness.  I started to understand then that racial ideology must be explored emotionally and academically, from an historical perspective and a contemporary perspective.   I left college with a set of tools and a pick-up truck packed full of ideas to change the world.  Needless to say, the quarter-life/post-undergrad crisis took its toll, and I lost a great deal of the hope I once harbored that I could affect how people think, that I could mold young minds and encourage others to come over to my side.  When I graduated from Prescott College at 25, I was not prepared for how I would feel when I encountered people who did not share my passion, who had no problems using the “n” word, who denied that racism played a part in today’s society.  Graduating from Sarah Lawrence with an MA at (almost) 30, I have renewed my passion, but in addition to passion I have the historical and analytical tools to access what works: perseverance.  This reads like an inspirational speech, and I have a picture of myself standing at a podium delivering my rhetoric to high school students who giggle at the (almost) thirty-year old woman who is telling them to never give up, but the past two years have taught me not to care too much about all of that.

Though the core tenets of my thesis have remained unchanged, my interest in black women’s novels and history, my obsession with American racial ideology, the black family, and motherhood, there was no way to predict the changes that did occur, which were many.  The more I researched, the more I realized how much I did not know.  Luckily, I was able to begin my research over the summer of 2009, and although it is absolutely true that one uses about ten percent of the copious amounts of research one conducts, I would not have arrived at the final product without this process.  My adviser, Lyde Sizer, told me time and again: Be Assertive; I wrote those words on a post-it and placed it directly above my desk, so as not to forget that I, too, have something valuable to say.  I found that people were interested.

Something I did not entirely expect, however, was the pain I would feel, and I am not referring to the workload.  The pain I have felt is a result of coming to terms with how racial ideology has shaped history and how it continues to permeate the present.  I am more certain than ever that racial ideology has had more influence in shaping American history than any event or battle or idea because “race” is everywhere.  This is probably not a revelation to some, and I ask those of you who are aware of this to bear with me; however, I cannot count the number of times that I have argued with my peers or with strangers who have followed a different path or who have questioned my motivations for writing about black people as a white woman, but engaging in dialogue with others has been a crucial piece of my thesis process.   Talking about race is both liberating and isolating, and choosing to learn and write about how racial ideology operates has been a painful and exhausting process.  But, at some point, my work became less about dealing with self-doubt and more about uncovering the nuances of racial ideology and about tracing the historical steps that have reinforced the belief that African American history is a separate history and not the national narrative.  I chose, paradoxically I suppose, to write about three novels that I feel often represent more truthful accounts of history than what is presented to students today, and it was partially my emotional and poignant reaction to The Color Purple, Beloved, and Push that fueled my desire to examine their historically powerful presence.  The novels are painful, too, and provided me with a sense of how invasive and divisive America’s history of race-and gender-based discrimination has been, but the pain is as much a part of the literature as the beauty.  The beauty is reflected in the work the novels do, how the words take hold of you and force you to linger, never allowing a reader to fully disengage or walk away from what he or she has just read.

At this point, the first-years have chosen their topics, and hopefully the excitement they feel now will remain.  The thesis is always a work in progress, and one’s greatest allies are one’s classmates.  When I think about the students who created this blog, who make up the next graduating class, I cannot help but be envious of their dedication and commitment to one another.  I am also grateful to the students before me, whose theses I visited time and again in the back corner of the library.  Their work proved to me that writing a thesis is possible, and I encourage everyone to spend some time getting to know them.  I cannot speak for others in my class, but I see my role as an historian as a collaborative one, and I view history as the most powerful tool to affect positive social change.  I might look back at my thesis years from now and wonder what the hell I was thinking, but right now I am proud of the work I have done because it represents another step in my historical journey.  You will get tired, you will cry and get angry, you will blame the library staff, and you will have doubts, but you will also contribute something great to the field of women’s history, and I look forward to learning from all of you. ▢

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