Life is how you live it and often how you don’t. I came into my professional career from a background, which, by all appearances, seemed culturally, economically, politically, and socially vastly different from my present reality. As someone who grew up in a mid-size city in the Southern United States, I would have never predicted my future as an academic living in New York City.
I have spent most of my childhood and adult life in school, and I’m what some people would consider a “brainiac.” I have always enjoyed learning. Yet, I have often felt like I didn’t belong in many of the spaces I occupied. These locations were not inclusive “melting pots” for those who wanted knowledge and had a desire to explore new ideas. As I had discovered time and again, there were those individuals who didn’t want to hear my story — one of becoming, and eventually, belonging.
I think of the “liminal” spaces that Dr. Jedidah Isler discusses in her Ted Talk — “The Untapped Genius That Could Change Science for the Better” — and I believe they are what essentially makes us who we are. As the first black female astrophysicist Ph.D. in Yale’s three hundred and twelve year history, Isler had to embrace what could be perceived as overarching boundaries of dynamic complexities to become her future professional Self. Being a woman; being Black; entering the field of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM); and finally, becoming a scholar in the area of astrophysics, which as she says, is still a field primarily dominated by men, meant dealing with the intersectionality of competing identities. Further, in doing so, she entered “Ivy League” status as a newly-minted scholar, something that is far from “make-believe” for those who subsist within the walls of the Ivory Tower.
What struck me was how Isler was willing to make those perceived borders elastic by allowing herself to occupy the nexus of what seemed to be, competing dualities. For Isler, being a Black woman along with being an astrophysicist, peacefully co-habited — not in a predetermined place — but in a space which she, alone, was helping to bring into being by her very existence. Her cultivation of acceptance regarding who she was — along with knowing that she was where she needed to be — helped her to both construct and navigate a new context that had never before existed. In emerging as her Self, she constructed the canopy, by which she was accepted and existed as someone who belonged in that space.
As I think about the ways education has allowed me to traverse my supposed boundaries of class, race, and gender, I consider Isler’s idea of “liminal excellence.” According to Isler, a “liminal person” is one who understands “her place of being exactly who she was in any place she was.” Such an individual perceives herself as having a role to play within the nexus of in-between spaces. And she embraces the opportunities for conversation and insight that having such diverse lived experiences bring.
Instead of accepting such boundaries, I’ve learned to see them as in-between spaces that are on their way to becoming normalized as people learn to embrace who they are and the experiences of “liminal excellence” they bring: a welcome encroachment into established norms.