Dana Berger explores intimacy and authenticity with Camille Borders, a senior named the 28th Rhodes Scholar from WashU.
Camille Borders, a history major in Arts & Sciences, was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship in 2017 along with fellow Ervin Scholar and friend Jasmine Brown. In September, Camille will head to Oxford University to pursue a master of philosophy degree in social and economic history. Before then, she’ll be spending time at home in Cincinnati, Ohio and celebrating her grandma’s 90th birthday. We sat down with Camille to discuss authenticity and intimacy.
The Rhodes Scholarship is a prestigious postgraduate award for students to study at Oxford University.
Do you feel pressure to fit into a certain mold of a Rhodes Scholar?
There definitely is a traditional mold but when I was applying, I knew I had to be my authentic self. If I won the scholarship without being me, I wouldn’t feel like I would fit in. The first time I felt pressure of “fitting in” was during the interview. People seemed similar in ways I was not.
What does it mean to be your authentic self?
Authenticity is the most important thing. My sister is my best friend and we have this conversation a lot. I would rather people be their real self than be fake. I aspire to be someone that other people can lean on. If I could be anything, I would be a good sister and daughter. Being good at those things helps me to be a better person in general.
Aesthetically, my style choices have evolved a lot over the past few years. I like a lot of color. My sister is more of a “gray-scale person” while my mom is more “cheetah print.” I sort of fall in the middle. I like to wear clothes that make me feel like I can conquer the day. I love jewelry. I spent the last semester in Ghana and brought back a lot of jewelry. I love head wraps or a big pair of earrings.
How do you distinguish yourself in how you study history?
There’s definitely a shift within the culture about what is valid evidence and what can be used as an archive. I fall into that shift. When I think of myself as an historian I think of using new things as valid pieces of evidence: employing the poetic as a method of navigating histories. For example, I’ve studied the lives of freed women in the deep south. What interests me is how I can articulate dimensions of their lives that are often untold.
When we think about the period of Reconstruction, the narrative often surrounds rape, violence, exploitation, and trauma. My big umbrella question was, what if I could highlight moments when women were claiming their bodies and autonomy and were creating intimate lives with each other and other people?
My thesis is interested in black widows whose husbands died fighting in the Civil War. These widows were eligible to receive pensions, but these payments were dropped because of charges of adultery. My main pieces of evidence are files of special investigations: depositions, interviews, artifacts. The interviews are between black union widows and white pension agents, recorded from the perspective of the agent. In these interviews, the widows define the boundaries of their sexual lives. The fact that the sexual lives of these women are on display in state sanctioned archives is insane to me. The process has been exciting because it feels like an archeological dig.
How does your research resonate with the dynamics of intimacy today?
I’ve spoken to countless black women at WashU who have dealt with self-esteem issues. How does a predominately white institution make black women feel inferior? What concerns me is the feeling that we aren’t desired in college and our sexuality is considered a fetish or “experiment.” This way of viewing black women’s bodies has historical roots. It was not that long ago when black female sexuality was viewed as an easily exploited commodity. When I was growing up, if black women were sexual it was always “dirty.” There’s also the idea that to be desirable as a black woman you have to fit into a specific mold. Some men can feel attacked by this, but what does it mean to be at a party and feel like no one will talk to you and that you won’t be desired? That’s hurtful. The idea of not being deserving of love is hard especially when black girls have come from white high schools with similar experiences.
How do we go about changing this?
I always tell freshman and sophomores to go off campus. It’s definitely getting better though. There’s a whole city here. I was at a party when I was a freshman and she told me, “you’re beautiful. People have not been raised to be attracted to women like you. It’s where you are. There’s nothing wrong with you.” I also believe it’s important to expand your view about what intimacy can look like. I’ve seen amazing friendships between women. These relationships are healthy and allow people to grow deeper into themselves. Those types of intimacies are often discarded but might be more important. These are relationships you remember after college.
THE BATH WATER IS STALE AND MY GOOSEBUMPS ARE GENTRIFIED BROWNSTONES STANDING SIDE BY SIDE.
MY NEIGHBORHOOD IS CHANGING, STREETLIGHTS ON MY TOES AND FINGERTIPS MAKE ME FORGET THAT WHITE PEOPLE JUST STARTED VISITING MY STRETCHED MARKED SIDEWALKS. THE OVERGROWN MOLD ON THE BATHROOM TILE IS LUSH AND SEPARATE BUT EQUAL. I’VE EATEN IT, GATHERED ON THE TIP OF A STRAWBERRY. MY GAPING MOUTH GREW SHARP PILLARS OF SALT AND SWALLOWED SLOWLY, SAVORING THE CHALKY RESIDUE IN THE BACK OF MY THROAT, WET FOR MORE AND THE BILE WENT TUMBLING ABOVE THE SURFACE, FLEEING FOR THE SUBURBS, NO MORE DARKNESS OF THE INSIDE. MY VOMIT HIT THE FLOOR SOFT AND PLIABLE. I LICK THE TILE, MY TONGUE FLICKING AND SEARCHING, BLOSSOMING AGAIN.