Black Boys Apart came out two weeks ago today. If you’ve bought the book or you’re considering buying it: thank you! That means a lot to me.
I’m happy with the timing of the release of the book. It came out on the eve of the American Sociological Association’s annual conference in Philadelphia. There, I dropped in to celebrate with Jason Weidemann, my editor with University of Minnesota Press, and was overjoyed to find the book on display. I was oddly comforted by the fact that the color of my shirt matched that of the book’s spine (I swear I didn’t plan this). Here I am muggin’ for the camera:
But the highs have come with some lows. The best way I can describe how I feel is:
Euphoria laced with dread.
The lead-up to the release of the book was really exciting. Surprisingly, I found myself enjoying doing what I could to help market the book (creating this website, annoying you all on social media, sharing the book with with scholars who influenced my writing, organizing a book launch party). Friends and family wrote to share that they had pre-ordered the book, which made my day. My advanced copy arrived one day after my first baby was born, and so I was already on a high that only peaked further as I sat down on my living room floor and flipped through the pages. I loved the feel of the matte cover. The compact design of the book seemed just right. I read and re-read the opening and closing paragraphs to the book, which I really like.
I immediately felt a compulsion to read through the entire book. I’ve memorized entire passages from the book, but that familiarity was met with feelings of strangeness as I held the book in my hands. Some things just looked and even sounded different bundled in an actual physical copy.
One night, after my wife and son had gone to bed, I took a seat in our new (used) gliding rocking chair and starting reading passages quietly aloud to myself. Dread crept over me as small things magnified in my mind: a typo here and there, unclear phrasings, confusing transitions, subject-verb disagreement. Soon after, I found myself wishing I could have rephrased entire arguments differently, or even stated different ones. I cringed at certain sentences. The logic behind some of my claims suddenly made more sense in my mind and I cursed at myself for not arriving at that clarity earlier. Knowing that some non-academic friends had expressed interest in the book, some of the technical terms seemed jargony and elitist.
Like a car crash you can’t avert your eyes from, I would pick up my wife’s copy whenever I saw it and would try to find more mistakes. This went on for days.
Imposter syndrome in academia is a real thing, and the release of a book, I suppose, can make you feel less or more of an imposter. I spent many years on this book and feel I earned the right to make a statement about single-sex education targeted to Black boys. But I was fighting the feeling that people would see a book full of mistakes and would cast me off once and for all as a fraud.
I took to Facebook and Twitter to ask how other authors have felt after their books have gone to press. I shared that I was feeling “euphoria laced with dread”; I couldn’t believe I came up with that phrase and wondered why I didn’t come up with anything as memorable in the book. Anyway, here are some responses I got. The word “dread” came up several times.
“I’ve barely cracked the book open.”
“I still feel dread every time a review comes out.”
“Vulnerable. It is scary.”
“Straight up dread. Haven’t brought myself to read my book after it was published because the one time I opened a page, there was a huge typo.”
“I haven’t read any of the final text.”
“Relief and denial.”
“A high for about two weeks followed by something akin to loneliness.”
A highly-respected senior sociologist even wrote, “Couldn’t have said it better.”
It was comforting to read these comments. I suppose what I’m working through is how to embrace what’s done and also to let the book go. I once heard somewhere that all books remain works-in-progress. Or as Ann Arnett Ferguson writes in her classic book Bad Boys, conclusions to ethnographies should be “open endings.” I think that’s right. Some things work, others don’t, other things will work better when future research addresses it. Perhaps I should be fortunate that readers will respond in any way to the book. And without question, I should not let go of what I am proud of in the book.
I had hoped to use this blog to riff on themes from the book. Given how I’ve been feeling, I’d like to also spend future blog posts on what I learned as a researcher-author. My book did some things well and other things less well. I’m excited in this blog to say more about both. It’s a work-in-progress.
In the meantime, please check out the extended methodology supplement, which ends with some lessons I learned during my research and things I wish I had done differently. I’ll unpack some of what I wrote there in future posts.
My next post will be on what I think of as “the first-person conundrum”: how and how often the ethnographer inserts themselves into the book’s narrative, and the consequences.