An Act of Self-Love

By Josh Reason (Brazil ’13, Carleton College)

“I came to theory because I was hurting­––the pain within me was so intense that I could not go on living. I came to theory desperate, wanting to comprehend––to grasp what was happening around and within me. Most importantly, I wanted to make the hurt go away. I saw in theory then a location for healing”

(bell hooks, “Theory as Liberatory Practice”)

Much like bell hooks, I have found refuge in theory. My coursework and research revolves around deepening my understanding of race, gender, sexuality and other social identities. Through this work, I have learned to love and appreciate who I am, despite being conditioned to think otherwise. But I wasn’t always like this.  

Before I came to theory, I needed to recognize and accept the parts of me that were hurting. High school left me with many scars, few of which I could trace back to their source. It wasn’t until I spent a year in Brazil that I was afforded the time and space to understand that my pain was a product of possessing marginalized identities.

When asked why I decided to go on a gap year, I often respond by either saying “I wasn’t ready for college” or that “I wanted to do something radically different with my life”. These are both partially true. While I felt burnt out from my negative high school experience, I received a quality education that definitely prepared me for college. And though I was itching to travel and have new experiences, I was subconsciously running towards an opportunity for personal development that I knew college could not provide.

I wanted to take a gap year in order to become a fuller version of myself, to learn to love every part of who I am. As one of four Black students and very few queer students at my high school, I was never taught to value my identities. Instead, I was subjected to microaggressions that instilled feelings of worthlessness and self-hatred within me. When Global Citizen Year offered me the opportunity to travel to Bahia, the Brazilian state with the largest population of Afro-Brazilians, I knew that I needed to go. Immersing myself in a place with people who looked like me was an experience that I could not pass up.

Throughout my gap year, I unlearned the internalized oppression that I had accumulated throughout high school. I was blessed with an amazing host family, Black/queer friends and other community members that taught me to love myself. My gap year was the first time that I began to understand how my pain was rooted in racism, homophobia and other systems that perpetuate hatred towards marginalized groups. In this sense, being a Global Citizen year fellow was a perfect segue into my academic career; discovering why and how I was hurting fostered my passion for subject areas that valorized marginalized people.

Last March, I was awarded a two-year fellowship through the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. As a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellow, I have returned to Bahia to conduct research on positive representations of Black identity. My research topic was largely inspired by the self-love that I acquired during my gap year. Like hooks, I fell into theory because I was hurting, but I stayed in theory because I recognized its power to heal. Though I did not realize it at the time, Global Citizen Year was a lesson in theory. Through blog posts and introspection, the program created a space for me to critically reflect upon my development. This opportunity was, and continues to be, an instrumental part of my growth as a person and a scholar.