Thoughts on Theses: Raheem Jackson
Issue   |   Tue, 04/04/2017 - 23:57

Raheem Jackson ’17 is a black studies and sociology double major. His thesis examines black masculinity, specifically in female-headed households. His advisers are Professors of Black Studies John Drabinski and Rhonda Cobham-Sander.

Q: Can you give me a brief overview of your thesis?
It’s ethnographic and autoethnographic. I talked to 11 men and it’s [about their] life history. They talk about their lives growing up in female-headed households and what that means for them … Essentially that’s what it’s about — the men sharing their life stories and making meaning of their life stories.

Q: How did you come up with this idea?
It started when my grandmother died and I did a semester at the University of Florida back home. I took a course called “Man and Masculinities” … about gender and the concept of multiple masculinities. I really liked it, and I started looking into more theories and literature on black masculinities, specifically. From there, the project just sort of happened. But it really started with that course that I took at the University of Florida.

Q: What kind of research have you done?
Literature reviews, a lot of looking at masculinity theory in general [and] a lot of looking at black masculinities and the way that black masculinities are represented in popular culture, in media [and] in the scholarship. And … I talked to the 11 students and [conducted] in-depth interviews with 11 black men that are [in college or] recent graduates.

Q: How did you find those people?
A snowball sampling. I looked at a network of potential participants by looking at social media, reaching out to different college campuses, reaching out to friends [and] talking to people. I met a lot of people who were willing or had some great things to say about where I should go with the project or what I should look for, but ... in my project I talked to each guy three separate times and each time I needed a commitment of at least 45 minutes to an hour. So when it came down to it, there was really only those 11 guys who were willing to commit for three hours.

Q: How has your thesis changed throughout the course of the year?
It changed a lot, actually … [I went] into the project thinking I was going to find one thing, trying to disprove something, so I really went into my project with a chip on my shoulder. All throughout my life I had been hearing about black men from “broken homes” or absentee fathers and all those things — things that weren’t really talking about my life but framing it as what I’m lacking instead of focusing on what was actually going on in my life and what I actually had, which has a lot of value. I specifically remember hearing instances of people saying “women can’t raise men” and things like that. My mom and grandma raised me, so essentially, I set out to provide some counter-narratives to that and disprove it or at least nuance it — the notion that black men from these “broken homes” or female-headed homes are destined to debauchery and failure and criminality and all these other things that are stereotypes. Eventually, I learned a lot more about my own self through learning about the other men. I learned a lot about how fortunate I am in my own situation, in a lot of ways. I think it became less about me … when I talked to the men and reflected on what they were saying, and reflected on my own life … it became about me again. I was able to learn more about myself and learn more about some of the assumptions I had.

Q: What’s the best part about writing a thesis?
For me, the best part about it was making it my own … I was able to put some of my favorite lyrics from the songs that I had heard throughout my life, dealing with black manhood and black masculinity — you know, it was relevant. I wasn’t necessarily quoting some famous scholar, I was quoting things that I was consuming everyday and things that I identify with a lot more. [In] my intro, [I was] talking about my own life and how the project is personal to me and laying out my methodology and what drove the project and … how it’s bigger than me. Also, I think that was fun, because it allowed me to reveal myself. I’ve been at Amherst for four years, and I feel like there’s not really a lot of people or professors that really know me, so I feel like this project allowed me to pay homage to my family, my mother and my grandmother and my circumstances that I value a lot. I think that part was the most fun — making it personal. My introduction was really fun, trying to make it creative and not boring [and] putting some J. Cole lyrics in my epigraphs.

Q: What’s the hardest part about writing a thesis?
Producing pages! Probably for me, the hardest part is looking for validation. Once you get something on the page, it’s scary to think [that] two years from now I might not identify with it as much. Two years from now, I might not agree with some of the claims I make. Some of the things are pretty straightforward, like the things that the men were saying and the patterns that arose from [what they] were saying. [But] some of the claims that I make — I’m just kind of scared that in a couple years, I won’t even think those things anymore, or that they’re not claims that people will agree with or value — so that’s the hardest part, getting over that fear.

Q: Do you have any advice for other students interested in writing a thesis in the future?
Do it! But do it for the right reasons. If I wasn’t interested in what I was writing about — and I really am — I found ways to make it really interesting. For example, my first chapter, it’s dealing with a lot of theory … theories of dominance, privilege and multiple masculinities. It’s dealing with a lot of academic jargon, but I was able to be creative and relate it to something from my everyday life: … the idea of a positive black male role model. That was something that was very interesting for me, relating the theory to this tangible thing ... that’s easily digestible … And so my first chapter is really just talking about the idea of a black male role and complicating that with ideas of privilege and power and heterosexism and patriarchy and all those things. But if I wasn’t interested in it, I don’t think I would have liked doing that first chapter at all, but luckily I like my topic — it’s personal and something that I value and think is important. So I would say, do it if you’re interested in it, but if you’re not interested, don’t do it. And do something that you feel like is valuable to you — that would be my advice.