By Sonia Paul
Susana Morris ’02’s life changed one fateful day her sophomore year at Mount Holyoke College. She walked into the office of Lucas Wilson, an Africana studies professor and the current chair of the economics department, and told him something that had been brewing within her: “I think I want to be a professor.”
Morris was 19 at the time and had positive relationships with her professors at Mount Holyoke. They were doing work that was interesting to her, and they didn’t hold the notion that had sometimes surrounded Morris’ life — such as the child of immigrants (her family is from Jamaica), she needed to go for a career that insured stability, like being an engineer, teacher or a nurse.
Wilson guided Morris through the process of applying to graduate school, opened her eyes to institutions outside her northeast bubble — including schools in the South, where Morris eventually found her way — and essentially became an “academic godfather” to her, Morris said. Lois Brown, who was then a professor in the English department, served as her advisor and read all her statements of purpose.
It was in Brown’s class on slavery and the literary imagination that Morris first read Octavia Butler’s “Wild Seed,” about an immortal shapeshifter woman trying to make her way through the world. Morris was amazed to be able to discuss science fiction and fantasy, which she had loved since she was a child, in a classroom space, and have her professor and classmates alike take that discussion seriously.
“It changed my life because I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, what a book about teenage black girls,’” Morris said.
She went on to earn her doctorate from Emory University and is now a scholar of Black feminism, Black digital media, and Afrofuturism at the Georgia Institute of Technology. She identifies as a writer, professor, feminist activist and queer person, and credits her time at Mount Holyoke as a transformative experience that helped her to establish her current path. “Mount Holyoke was such a generative space,” she said. “I felt really smart and affirmed.”
Born in Puerto Rico, Morris and her family moved to the northeast when she was in the first grade. She remembers seeing brochures of Mount Holyoke in the mail and thinking it was the most beautiful campus in the country. She needed no convincing to go to a women’s college — “I was like, ‘I want to study, I want to focus,’” she said — and once she landed on campus, she found her place as an English major and African American studies minor (now Africana studies).
Studying at Mount Holyoke was one of the happiest times of her life, she said. She would often stay up all night talking philosophy with her best friend, who was also from an immigrant family.
But Morris doesn’t brush aside that the College at the time wasn’t an especially diverse place for her as a Black student. She recalled instances of microaggressions and outright aggressions that still plague Black people everywhere, and are symptomatic of larger institutional problems at elite colleges and universities that she acknowledged will take time to ameliorate.
But the friends she made — still some of her best friends today — and the fact that her professors weren’t dismissive of her or her interests but instead validated them, pushed her forward. “There was a space for me, there with them, all in their own way,” she said.
It wasn’t until Morris had earned her doctorate that she realized she didn’t want to focus on traditional scholarship, but rather about how Black women write about the future. By that time, she and writer and professor Brittney Cooper had co-founded the feminist blog The Crunk Feminist Collective to have a space to combat the racism, sexism and homophobia they had endured through graduate school, and to write about topics that weren’t necessarily academic research.
A “true Jamaican,” Morris joked, she has also held multiple jobs and worked as a freelancer for popular publications. Her work has also appeared on popular outlets like Gawker, About.com, Cosmopolitan, Colorlines and Essence magazine. Her first book, “Close Kin and Distant Relatives: The Paradox of Respectability in Black Women’s Literature,” was published in 2014.
Thinking through Black feminism and the future is the theme of the talk Morris will be delivering at Mount Holyoke on Wednesday, February 10, for Black History Month. The future is also something that she hopes current students will consider with care and possibility, as opposed to anxiety.
“You don't have to know everything,” Morris said. “It feels like you have to, and it's so high stakes. So I get that,” she continued, acknowledging that her advice might sound hypocritical given that she went straight from college to graduate school. But she also admits she was “flailing” at times, and was always trying to figure out what she really wanted.
“I was faking it until I made it ... But I think in the multiverse, if we think of all the different paths that we could possibly take, I'm not a professor in every possible scenario of my life,” she said. In other versions of her life, she’s teaching preschool, or working as an interior designer or a chef.
Struggle is inevitable, she said, but it’s important not to internalize that. “I think having folks who are real mirrors of your experience and your aptitude, who can talk you off the ledge, [is vital]. Mount Holyoke gave me that. And that's something that I've carried throughout and have been able to recreate in every circumstance that I live in or work in.”