Jessica L. Johnson ’11 Knew She Was a Writer and a Poet

Jessica Johnson_T5
Jessica L. Johnson ’11 returned to the U.S. five and a half months ago (after living in Istanbul on and off since 2012) to live with the biological father she met in 2020. Though he died just weeks after they met, her connection to her new family is very much alive, as it is with the family, biological and chosen, that she grew up with for the first 30 years. Johnson is processing how she’s fundamentally changed her life every year or so since graduating from the College; honoring her desires about how to move forward is now taking up all of her time. She’s living, and keeping time with words, sounds, breath and images.

What were you like when you arrived at Columbia?

Earnest. Virginal. As in faithful. As in sure of myself, my abilities and beliefs. Unflappable. I knew that I wanted to go to college in New York because if it was the Big City, then my hometown of Philadelphia was the Medium City, and I was ready to graduate high school and locations. I knew the arts were celebrated there, and that I was a writer and a poet. I knew that I would never tire of new experiences. In fact, I’d become new and newer again. I knew that I was smart and that Ivy League schools were where the smartest kids gathered. I knew I was supposed to keep leveling up my smart and wanted to be where I could grow and be surprised, but in a particular direction. In one that would continue to set me apart because I wanted to keep being thorough in that pursuit of being the best student I could be. Learning was important to me but I had a somewhat rigid idea of where learning happened. Only finding reward for what was in my mind, I was pretty shut off from how I experienced the world in my body. But I was always striving to express what I was discovering. And I still am.

What do you remember about your first-year living situation?

I lived in a suite in Hartley. I was very grateful to have a single space to myself and to be able to socialize if the spirit moved me. But the spirit never really moved me; early on in my time, there was this white guy I lived with who let me know that being fellow College students wasn’t enough to make us really relate to one another in any meaningful way. We somehow got on the topic of Columbia’s gentrification in Harlem. (Likely because in the fall of 2007 there was a hunger strike over the Manhattanville expansion, among other issues that I felt directly affected by, including changes in the Core Curriculum and the ethnic studies department.) He said that Columbia further expanding into Harlem was “good for the community,” and when I asked him, “what community?” he said, “the Columbia community.” As a Black student at Columbia, community could never be as cut-and-dry as only being concerned about how more campus and less Harlem would impact him and me. The concept of “us” had never felt so sharp. I was having this academic experience that gave me something to talk about with whoever else took the Core but social identity could be so easily, and dangerously, wiped out. Off-campus, there was a much more pressing “we” who looked like me, but on campus there was a “we” being trained to come out as powerful, successful standouts without really interrogating our individual places in society.

What Core class or experience do you most remember, and why?

In every Core class, I had a documentary-style comedy “look to the camera” moment: My first Lit Hum class where I heard a blond girl talking about how unimpressed she was with Toni Morrison’s Beloved. My brunette Music Hum professor with the left eyebrow piercing acknowledging that we were taking yet another course full of the work of dead, white men. Walking through The Met wondering why so many of the statues had such small penises and my Art Hum professor explaining that large penises were associated with barbarism and these were meant to signify intellectualism. Taking “Major Debates in the Study of Africa,” and a white guy questioning the professor as if he’d caught him in some logic trap and Professor Mamdani just smiling quietly.

And the only time where the camera would’ve caught tears in my eyes: When I had a walk-and-talk with my CC instructor about how my semester was going and as we parted ways, so did my cool and my face.

Did you have a favorite spot on campus, and what did you like about it?

Anywhere where I was eating. I’ve only just realized that the College was the last time I shared so many meals with people. There was JJ’s Place, where we gathered to eat fried things late at night! I met my closest friend there. Once a year, I tell David J. Amado ’10 about how I never thought we’d ever grow close because he was loud and boisterous and I was quiet and observant. There are memories from the John Jay Dining Hall too. That was where my future suitey Sabine A. Lewis ’11 and I decided to enter the East Campus lottery, even though up until that moment we’d been closer with our mutual friends than with each other. Embarrassing as it is, I also remember a guy asking if I wanted to get dinner together and me suggesting Hewitt — not realizing I could’ve dreamed bigger. And while we’re airing missteps, there was a group dinner with a girl friend who seemed especially upset at the idea of me cutting my locs, and me not knowing what to do with liking that she cared so much.

What, if anything, about your College experience would you do over?

I would stop questioning my worth, adding whether I belonged or plateaued into every challenge. Everything good I experienced at Columbia was about realizing that I wasn’t alone. I had friends that I could sit on the floor and cry with, from despair to laughter. A couple months in, I went to a therapist’s walk-in hours in a dorm; I continued therapy all four years. When I was honest with my professors about my anxiety and depression, I was met with compassion, patience and options. It took me a long time to realize an extension wasn’t a failure. Even with all the complexity in my experience, I didn’t allow myself to own it. I forget that some people remember me distinctly as a writer, from a poetry performance or acting in Black Theatre Ensemble. I try to remember what [adjunct lecturer] Tessa Chandler GS’01 told me when I thanked her for helping me marry my head to the rest of my body: that my quiet, steady willingness to grapple with challenges in class did not go unnoticed. Doing it over, I’d approach any seemingly insurmountable problem curious about who I need to be to face it and what kind of support she needs.