Admiration, African American History, Afrocentricity, Black Washington DC, Catherine Lugg, Community Space, Dissertation, Earl Lewis, Friendship, Joe William Trotter Jr., Leisure, Marya McQuirter, Multiculturalism, Public Historian, Research, Saab 900 GLE, Self-Discovery, Self-Reflection, Spencer Foundation Dissertation Fellowship Program, Temple University, University of Michigan, Veganism
The most fun part of grad school for me was once I officially began my dissertation research and writing. Especially when I was on the road, or stuck in at the Library of Congress, or meeting folks at conferences or other events. Otherwise, as I’ve written about here many times, it was a single-minded, often solitary pursuit, with known and unknown enemies either trying to put me in a box or rooting for my failure. Really, if a university as a whole could be any less supportive of their students’ success than Carnegie Mellon University, it’s probably a for-profit institution with a nine (9) percent graduation rate.
That’s how my CMU experience had been even before the Spencer Foundation had awarded me my dissertation fellowship in April ’95. But I did take advantage of one generous dispensation by my department chair Steven Schlossman. My becoming ABD within a year of transferring from Pitt to CMU made me eligible for a one-semester sabbatical from teaching to pursue my dissertation research while still on my $4,000-per-semester stipend, starting in January ’95. I made sure to use it, borrowing $4,000 in student loans for that semester as well, so that I could live in DC without living in a box on a corner for a month or two.
That fall, my advisor through one of his colleagues at the University of Michigan had given me the name of a promising doctoral candidate, one who was from DC and also doing her dissertation research on Black DC. I had first called her in October ’94, to learn that her research was on leisure activities and public history in Black Washington, DC in the first half of the twentieth century. It sounded more interesting than my own research on multiculturalism in Black DC, but there were parallels. So many leisure opportunities for Blacks who lived in Uptown communities like U Street and Le Droit Park included public works on Black history, on the connections between Black history and US history. It meant that our projects were actually more connected than not.
So once I came down to DC to work like a monk in archives scattered across the area in February ’95, I contacted her. I’d meet her for the first time about three weeks into my eight-week stay in the area, near the end of February. Between my first few days staying with a former high school classmate and meeting a stranger-peer, I had nearly two-and-a-half weeks of eating, sleeping, and drinking dissertation, with a few moments in a shared kitchen listening to older men talk like we were in a barber shop about exploits and life’s lessons.
When we finally met that last Saturday in February, it was a welcome change. It helped that the doctoral candidate had her own car, a used any pretty worn blue-gray, two-door, stick-shift Saab 900 that had seen better days in the 1980s. For her part, despite grad school, the twenty-nine year-old looked younger than my twenty-five years. At five-eight and change, I wouldn’t have to look down at her in order to see the top of her head.
What impressed me the most about Marya, though, was that I could have a conversation with her about my dissertation research without her eyes glazing over, knowing full well that she understood every word coming out of my mouth. Even most of my fellow grad students at CMU and Pitt didn’t really understand my approach to multiculturalism, Black DC and African American history, and education policy. But she got it immediately.
I loved talking to Marya about her research, though. Looking at leisure and the use of space in Black communities for leisure, for everything from reading newspapers and used libraries, to literally how people walked and conversed in public. I found her work, and the way she talked about her work, fascinating. I wondered if I could ever be in love with a topic as much as her. It wasn’t that I didn’t like writing about multiculturalism. I just wasn’t star-crossed over it.
I learned so much not only during my first time hanging out with Marya, but over the next few years. I really didn’t know DC’s neighborhoods and the history of individual neighborhoods until she came along. She introduced me to the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Museum on local Black DC history. She took me to the Washington Historical Society off Dupont Circle, where I found additional materials on Black activities that were educational but outside the formal structure of Howard University and the segregated DC Public Schools.
She also introduced me to a vegan lifestyle, one that actually seemed sustainable. Matter of fact, when I stayed with Marya for three days in August ’95, I was on a vegan diet. I saw the appeal, but my gastrointestinal tract, well on its way to IBS-land, could only handle but so much in raw fruits and vegetables. Still, Marya introduced me to so many neighborhoods and restaurants, to Ethiopian food in Adams Morgan, to vegan Chinese food in Rockville, to fellow grad students worked on public history dissertations, to young, intellectual DC in general.
Marya also unintentionally helped me see a side of Black thought that I hadn’t seen before. That she survived the Afrocentricity wars at Temple University while earning her master’s there made her tough but also made me weary of discussing my many criticisms of Molefi Asante and his grand entourage of followers. I was so relieved to learn that though she liked some aspects of Afrocentricity, Marya didn’t follow it blindly like so many others I knew in the ’90s. I’d met someone who also marched to the beat of her own drum.
Maybe I would’ve met these folks, made these connections, and gone to these places anyway. Maybe not. But if the former, it would’ve happened much more slowly and cautiously. Marya, for better and for worse, might have been one reason I thought of the DC area as a potential home after more than a decade living and earning degrees in Pittsburgh. Marya McQuirter, though, enriched my life in the years in which I needed it most. I’ve always admired her and her work, and will always see her as a friend.