my real job

while listening to the taika waititi’s episode of thirst aid kit, nicole and bim played a clip of an interview waititi did. here’s an excerpt rom his tedtalk:

“i mean, all i’ve got, guys, is creativity. that’s-that’s my job. at the moment, i happen to be a filmmaker but it’s not my job. my job is to express myself and to share my ideas and my point of view. it happens to be that i’m using filmmaking right now.”

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this short clip, aired during the episode, struck a particular chord with me. i’m questioning and have questioned the things i hold dear to my heart, specifically as it relates to my career and, more broadly, where i’m going with my life. at the same time, i’ve begun to push back on this idea of my career = my raison d’etre. my identity.

what i like most about this profound statement from waititi is that it decouples who i am from what i do. he has distilled who he is in that statement. his “job” is expressing himself and sharing his ideas and point of view. filmmaking is just one of many avenues that he has chosen to do his “job.”

i began to think on what is “my job” what do i uniquely bring to every experience regardless of the format, manner, or style?

to question, to critique

this immediately came to the forefront of my mind. i am naturally curious about people and the world around me. the way it pops up most consistently in my life is asking questions. even as a shy kid that was loathe to speak in class, the questions would fill my mind. 

a companion to questioning is critique especially if the answers don’t necessarily line up with what i’m hearing, seeing, or experiencing. it is as natural as breathing.

to tell stories

while the word “creative” has entered into the lexicon, i am reluctant to label myself as such because, to be frank, i don’t consider myself creative. imaginative, yes. creative? no. how i internalize this is imagination does not necessarily translate to action whereas creativity or being creative does. the interior workings of my mind and the things it conjures up has been the most pleasant, restful space.

seriously, when i occasionally suffer from bouts of insomnia or need to self-soothe, even as an adult, i retreat to the imaginary world of my making. there are many, many characters and worlds that exist in various states of development. 

when i was younger, i would write stories that i would guard very close to my heart. why? because once i shared them, told someone about them, the act of telling it was expressed and i no longer had the desire to write the story, another form of telling. 

through the years, many friends, writing pals, and colleagues have been on the receiving end of me “telling stories.” and while the encouragement to write is appreciated, i’ve done the work. i told the story. i told a story that captivated them for five, 10, 20 minutes and they are a different person because of it. 

why do i need to write it after that?

circling back to the other half of the waititi’s statement, filmmaking is the medium he has chosen to do his job. he makes clear that it isn’t the only method by which he can do this work. this, in turn, made me reflect on my career path thus far.

in archives, i have intertwined my “job.” archival collections, the preservation and access of records, inherently will challenge assumptions. records will raise questions but records also tell a story. it tells the story of an organization, a person, an activist group, etc.

see where this is going? by understanding what my real job is i can see how archives is but one avenue that i can express this work. and if there should come a time in the future where i no longer do it, i still have my job to fall back on. 

something to think about.



Home

A few months ago, I posted on Twitter about my longing for home and asking others to define what home is to them. That tweet resonated with so many as it spawned a discussion that lasted for several days as well as I received private messages from folks sharing their thoughts.

Like most things, I filed it away and only brought it out periodically to mull over it. Give it shape and form ending, inevitably, in frustration.

I’m ready to give it form. What has taken me years of thinking was unraveled, dissected, and made clear in the span of two therapy sessions (+ the two weeks in between sessions).

Home is my peace.

Let’s breakdown that down. Home, contrary to how I originally thought, isn’t a physical place. I have felt “at home” in places that I only resided in temporarily (i.e. less than 3 years). But once I untethered it from a physical place, then what is it??

In order to understand what home is, I had to understand what it isn’t. Home, growing up, was tumultuous. There were bright spots and even fun but it was fraught with tension and abuse. I distinctly remember standing in the driveway of my childhood home wishing for the day I would leave it. I was 15. When I went away to college and experienced that first taste of freedom, it was a new sensation filled with hope. As I began to live on my own, it was a space where I did what I wanted and when I wanted, from impromptu solo dance parties, trying (and failing at) a new recipe, and having friends over to catch up. 

So what is home? Home was, first and foremost, mine. Something I create. Something that reflects who I am. Even when I had roommates, I needed to have the capacity to retreat to a space that belonged to me. I became it’s gatekeeper. A veritable “abandon all hope ye who enter here” a la Dante’s Inferno.

My domain. My peace. My sanctuary. 

But to preserve it, I have to protect it from the things, people, and circumstances, that seek to compromise it, a holdover from childhood trauma. 

Two examples come to mind. First, in my current home, I have only invited a handful of people over. These are people I genuinely like. There is conversation and laughter over food, drink, or both. Conversely, there are people who haven’t seen it and will likely never set foot in it. Why? Because I don’t like the energy they put out in the world. They bring me down and put me in a negative headspace. 

Secondly, since home is partly an environment, I am more attuned to neighbors. Anyone who follows me longer than a month or two will, undoubtedly, see me lament my current situation. Why? I am living in close proximity to highly negative, toxic people. That seeps in. That compromises. That disturbs the peace. If I hear neighbors arguing all the time, with little concern that others can hear them, that sets me on edge. I internalize it whether I mean to or not. I start snapping at folks and my fuse is short.

As someone who is a self-described sojourner, it is freeing to name “the thing.” To call it what it is. But also opens me up to be less afraid that I will never find “home.” Home isn’t a particular locale. I carry home with me (along with my cat Thaddeus and my belongings). I create it every time I leave and settle somewhere. I enjoy it with others who bring a measure of peace, love, and fun with them. In this created space, we have fun for as long as we can while I’m there as long as I will be. 

Then I will say my goodbyes, pack it up, and create it again. Even as I write this I realize I’m in a cycle of birth and death, end and beginning, creation and destruction. And there’s a beauty inherent in that. Maybe I’ll explore that bit at a later date. Who knows.

I feel settled in this realization. 

Still Processing: A Career under Review

As a follow up to my May 15 and May 22 posts, I am still processing my career and what it means. The thing about processing is that it occurs in stages.

A few weeks ago, I experienced several epiphanies that uncovered hidden feelings about my career, my current position, and where I would like to go. This came to a head in my bi-weekly therapy session last month. Funny how the biggest revelations seem to occur in the lead up to my Saturday sessions.

For twenty laborious minutes, I explained these realizations and mapped out my reflections on them to my therapist. And, I shared my vision of the type of life I want to live. I articulated my frustrations about moving toward that life now. What I love most about my therapist is that she is very hands-on. No passive listening. She glanced down at my notebook, the black one I carry only to therapy. She directed me to open it for a writing/thought exercise.

First, she had me draw up a chart, essentially my life in a week. What were the things I felt were missing from my life? I jotted those down. Then, I charted out approximations of what time I woke up each morning, went to bed, work and other activities. Time is finite but it became clear that I wasn’t using my time all that well. Yet, I had convinced myself there wasn’t time to do the things I love. Well, there it was in black and white to say otherwise. 

She encouraged me to meditate on that to which I did (and still am).

Second, she directed me to create another chart with two columns:

Archives Then vs. Archives Now

Archives Then became an expression of what drew me to archives. What were my motivations? Also to think through how my past tracked (or didn’t) along with those motivations. Admittedly, in talking about it, I felt that excitement building up inside of me. Like waking up from a dream and remembering where you are or, in this case, who you are.

Archives Now was an exploration of where I am now. What are my motivations now? How had things changed or stayed the same. 

As I looked at the chart, it became clear my frustrations and the source of my crisis-turned-angst. Crisis signifies to me the part of me that operated in the middle of depression. I made, if we’re being honest, suspect decisions about my life and health. Those decisions popped up in my Archives Then vs. Archives Now in my chart. Now that the crisis has abated (several months and counting of no depressive episode), a deep anxiety has settled in its place.

What the fuck am I doing? And why do I feel like I am living on auto-pilot in life but most especially my career?

This writing exercise also exposed the deeper reason by my dissatisfaction with my current position. I should preface and say that my job, by all tense and purposes, is not bad. It’s a solid job and recent institutional changes have hearkened to an even brighter, positive future. But the realization looming in front of me, staring me square in the face, is I’m pretty certain I’m not the person for that future. 

In my vision of my future, I firmly believe I will chart a life that infuses archives, history, teaching, and project-based work but, most importantly, it will be outside an institutional setting. It will nourish me in a way that I need while enabling me to critically engage with others.

Now how I get from here to there is still in progress.

Stay turned.


I Am

In a recent therapy session, I related to my therapist that I struggle with reconciling the different parts of myself. I’m a woman of many interests and passions. Even in expressing that frustration, I simply said “I know I’m suppose to do more.” I interwove this explanation with my faith.

That is when she hit pause. For several agonizing seconds I waited for a response. Here is a summary of what she said:

God is limitless. By placing limits on God, what he or she or they can do or be, I reflect those limitations on my own life. I limit myself. I am all of those things: an archivist, a writer, an activist, etc. So why am I telling myself that I have to be one thing? And in order to be that one thing, I convince myself I have to cut off all the others. Cut off a part of who I am. God is. I am.

The ultimate challenge: Sit in that realization.

In that revolutionary statement, my therapist challenged me to rethink how I view myself. I am.

I am an archivist. I am a writer. I am an activist. I am a daughter. I am an auntie. I am that bitch too. I am all those things at once. That I do not have to nor should I have to “give up” any of those identifiers. I exist within all of them and sometimes one of them may take center stage for a spell.

Here, my therapist introduced me to the scarcity mindset. After some independent research, I’m starting to understand how this way of thinking contributes to the limits I place on myself. Whether I like to admit it or not, I go through life seeing things as fixed. That the broader strokes of my life are determined and that to change it, whether it is toxic, problematic, unfulfilling, or flat out boring will cause too much of an upset. It also triggers within me this concern for how it will look for me to seemingly shift gears or drop this thing. What happens is that I keep trying to make the untenable situation work. It only ends up depleting my energy and undermining my self-esteem. At the point of mental collapse is when I concede that it is time for change.

Life is fluid and beautiful and messy and chaotic and joyful and heartbreaking at times and at the same time. The point is it moves.

I say this because I feel things beginning to shift. I am leaning more into my artistic endeavors. When I think of the things I would like to accomplish and do in the coming years, it leans heavily into writing.

I want to write for Bitch Media, specifically give life to the ideas, concepts, frustrations, and hopes that swirl around in my head. Don’t get me wrong, I love my blog but there is comfort and safety in it. It is speaking to those who know me and who think similarly to me. I’m ready to grow and stretch beyond that. I also want to use writing as the catalyst to embrace new experiences outside of my norm and create a dialogue with new people.

I want to write this Southern Gothic story. This story is, in many ways, my love letter to my experience growing up as a black girl-turned-woman in Georgia. I meant it when I said in my bio that it took “leaving the South for me to comfortably say y’all.” By that I mean, embrace fully being a child of the South. I have lived all over this country and even traveled outside of it. There is a sweetness and familiarity to the South that I cannot underscore. I want to see the people I know represented on the page for all to see.

I want to apply and be a part of the 2020 Jack Jones Literary Retreat. I first became aware of the retreat about 2-3 years ago. At the time, I was still in my writing rut but deep down I knew I wanted to give this an honest go. I’m partly emboldened now by the fact I wrote, finished, and published a short story in six months this year. And, this is a space for people of color to gather together and share our work….and also meet publishers, editors, and agents.

I am a writer. I have found the most freedom and liberation in the written word. And now, she is calling me like she hasn’t before. I write fiction. I always have but the last 14 years has seen the slow creep toward nonfiction, autobiographical, etc. I can trace the moment to sitting by my mother’s hospital bed. On a whim, I had purchased a journal. I had so many things swirling around inside me as a 20 year old that putting it down on paper was the only thing I could think to do. So I did. 14 years later, countless journals, and two websites later, here we are.

My writing muscles want to flex, expand, and move.

At the same time, there is a vision of my life unfolding. As I get older, I have a clearer idea, not necessarily of what I do, but how I want to feel as I go through my day. That vision is so strong that, not surprisingly, I had to write it down in my journal. Even the act of writing it, declaring it on the pages filled me with calm and a sense of a life lived on my own terms.

I don’t know how I will get from where I am to where I want to be. That is part of the journey. It is part of what I patiently tease out and give shape to. It is in the work of realigning my mind and my heart to think and truly believe the following:

I am (full stop).

And anything is possible.


A Ridiculously Long Movie Review: Unbowed (1999)

Unbowed (1999) tells the story of three Lakota Sioux men who are captured and brought to a fictional co-ed black college called Betsworth, set “some time after the Civil War.” This movie boasts familiar black faces such as Tembi Locke, who I know from the 90s scifi tv show Sliders, Michelle Thomas, aka Myra from Family Matters, and Ron Glass of The Cosby Show and Firefly fame. They were my initial entry point into this story.

I fell down a YouTube rabbit hole and came across this movie. The first viewing consisted of watching bits and pieces of it, as I skipped around, rewound, and fast-forwarded. Why? The uploaded quality is not great. The sound is meh for most of it and the color of the film gives it a 1970s color palette to me. Coupled with the exaggerated accents of certain characters (see Thomas), it felt very hokey and not in a good way. I thought it would be like every other movie I stumble upon on YouTube. Interested for a minute before quickly forgetting about it. However, this one stayed with me.

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So here’s a lengthy synopsis:

The story takes place during summer break at the college to which there are only a handful of students present, specifically six students (4 men; 2 women). One day a white US Army officer (Edward Albert) arrives with three Lakota Sioux men: Waka Mani (Jay Tavare), Simon Crow (Vincent McLean), and Jumping Elk (Mark Abbott). They were captured in Twin Forks (wherever that is) in which they attacked some soldiers. Rather than be hanged for their crimes, the officer persuades President Duquesne (Ron Glass) of the college to take them in and educate them, in order to prove that Indigenous people can be civilized. The officer adds that the three men in question have previously been educated by missionaries, thereby explaining how they understand and speak English. Their arrival brings tension between the students and the Lakota men.

What makes this movie compelling is the underlying tension between these minority groups (black and Indigenous) and the looming nature and impact of colonialism and white supremacy. Within that frame, you see Cleola (Tembi Locke) and Waka Mani positioned as love interests but it is a love story that doesn’t take center stage until midway through the movie.

I should add that this was female driven production. Nanci Rossov served as director and producer. I did a little digging and this movie was one of two movies she did as a director. The other is a 2012 movie called Redemption. Based on her LinkedIn page, she is still very much involved in directing as she is a Directing Faculty member at the Weengushk Film Institute and an Acting/Directing Coach. The screenwriter, Mildred Lewis, was executive producer for Harold & Maude, a movie I have yet to see but it’s on my Netlfix quene.

Let’s dive in shall we. My review pulls out themes that I picked up on as well as the things that irked me about the movie.

White Supremacy

The best moments, I think, took place between Waka Mani and Richard (Chuma Gault) & Waka Mani and Cleola. Waka Mani consistently points out the problems of white supremacy which he critiques through his usage of “the white man” or “white people.” He rightfully criticizes Richard and Cleola’s adherence to “the white man’s ways” given, historically, what white people have done to and spoken about black people. This is most evident in the confrontation with Richard who is initially Waka Mani’s teacher. They spar about the white man’s ways and how Richard, in pushing Waka Mani to learn these ways and Christianity in order to become civilized, is no different than a white man doing it. Their confrontation ultimately becomes physical. It ends with Richard being dismissed by Duquesne as Waka Mani’s teacher.

He is replaced by Cleola who is the only other qualified student to teach and Richard’s fiance. Here is when the Cleola and Waka Mani’s relationship begins to develop. However, their confrontation takes on a different tone. What brings the confrontation to a head is, in helping to build the anniversary stage, Waka Mani uses the n-word in retaliation to being called a savage by Junius (Catero Colbert), a black male student who despises Indigenous people. It is later that Cleola confronts him. She gives him such a dressing down that he is shameful and apologizes but this doesn’t end it. I found it interesting how education was a point of divergence for the two characters that mirror these different experiences of black and Indigenous people. Waka Mani positions education, specifically the white man’s education, as highly problematic. It is a tool and weapon of colonization. This instantly called to mind the Carlisle Indian School. I shuddered. Cleola counters with how education is a source of liberation for black people, who during slavery were denied it by white people. There is no clear resolution. Fam, whew. That was a lot to tackle in what translated into a 3-5 minute scene.

Funny how even though white people are barely a blip in the movie their presence, their history, their colonization, looms so fucking large.

The Romance Angle

Building on the previous section, I appreciated that Cleola was an established character before the romance angle kicked in. We know that she is engaged to Richard but ambivalent about it, due in part she does not love him. Also, he brings financial security whereas she lives on a “trust fund.” She is a top student at Betsworth but already experiencing the patriarchal call to be a wife and mother. This is established in the fact her final classes in the fall will not be political science and other academic subjects but sewing. Her desire to do something more, to have employment, is looked at with subtle bemusement by those closest to her. Couple that with having to lie about her “trust fund,” she has a lot going on.

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When Waka Mani is introduced, there is an unmistakable attraction. This is evident in several encounters: outside on the school grounds, the staircase, the library, the classroom. It is when she becomes Waka Mani’s teacher after Richard’s dismissal that their attraction truly builds. He finds within her not just a romantic interest but an ally. In their first lesson, he refuses to learn what she teaches him because it is not useful to his people’s survival or understanding of the white man. Cleola accepts the challenge and begins to teach him things that may help him. For example, she used math to help him determine how many rifles needed to kill a squadron of soldiers or reading the Constitution to know the basis for which the U.S. is governed. All of these are topics and approaches that Cleola, as a “respectable black woman” in the 19th century should not be doing but she does them anyway.

What further bonds the two together is Cleola’s grief at the lost of her mother and the weight of carrying that secret. Waka Mani is the first one to learn that Cleola is not really an orphan. Her mother, a former enslaved woman, is toiling away at a nearby boardinghouse to support her daughter. The money being sent to the school as part of her “trust fund.” To Cleola’s surprise, she learns of her mother’s passing after the fact. Through montages we see her move through this grief and Waka Mani’s concern grow. He wants to comfort her but a.) there is the issue of her fiance and b.) it exposes her secret. It’s only when she comes to him does their relationship pivot. What I loved about that scene in particular is that she had the space to openly express her grief and cry. He shares his blanket and sits with her in grief.

It was this whole romantic arc that made me take to Twitter to ask about the female gaze. The male gaze is the hypersexualization of women in movies and I wondered what made the female gaze different. I do not think the director overly sexualized Waka Mani but it was hard to ignore Tavare’s build and his muscles. Part of my discomfort came from how the relationship was built up. There was tenderness and compassion. It felt intrusive to watch this couple’s most intimate moments esp their love-making scene. Granted I did think it was absurd that this occurred on top of a rooftop. Like, people can see you!

Points of Connection

Outside of Cleola and Waka Mani, there are some through lines of connection between the black students and the Lakota Sioux men. The most substantive example is Simon Crow and Lewis (Rugg Williams). While other students such as Junius show contempt for the men, Lewis is genuinely curious and expresses a desire to know more about them. He and Crow, although in the background for the majority of the time, have moments where they bond and learn from the other. It is Lewis who argues against Junius’ prejudicial attitude toward them.

Lewis is also the catalyst for the one scene where the black students finally express interest in knowing more about the men. While Lewis sings “Wade in the Water,” Waka Mani joins in singing a complementary sounding song in Lakota that goes along with the music. From there, Crow and Jumping Elk join in adding sounds and texture to the music. All of these voices blending beautifully together. At the conclusion, the students and the staff marvel and clap. It is then Anna (Michelle Thomas), hesitantly, broaches the question of where they are from and what home is like. The moment is all too brief before tensions flare up again.

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By the time the movie begins to wind down, there is an unspoken respect  among both parties especially when Crow dies from a bout of pneumonia. In that scene, Waka Mani bemoans not having access to the medicine of his people. He tries to persuade Duquesne to get the doctor from town. Grimly, Duquesne replies that the doctor (presumably white) won’t “come to a colored school.” That statement and the look between the two men crystalize that feeling of helplessness and frustration with racism. Furthermore, Duquesne chastises Junius, Isaac (Aaron Knight), and Richard for laughing outside of Crow’s bedroom door, lacking decorum at such a solemn moment.

Colorism and Passing

This is an area that I wish that the screenwriter, Mildred Lewis, had delved more into. I don’t know Lewis background or race, as an Internet search yielded no information. The one Lewis I did find, who was a black woman, didn’t necessarily match up to the scant information I found of Lewis, the movie’s screenwriter.

I say this because these two topics come up briefly but not dug into. The Army officer, who was referenced earlier who is played by white actor Edward Albert, reveals to Duquesne that he is a white-passing Indigenous person. He even uses this term “passing” to indicate how he shook off the culture of his ancestors in order to move through white society. We learn that because of this choice, his son attends Harvard. But we are supposed to empathize with him because he low key gives money to Betsworth, to which Duquesne points out that he is in a financial position to give more to the failing college but chooses not to. At the same time, the officer, in passing as white, adopts the problematic, harmful rhetoric of the white man that “civilizing the savage” is the key. Honestly, fuck that noise. On some level, I get it within the context of that time but harm is harm.

Another topic that went unexplored was the latent colorism vis-a-vis social class among the black students. It was Cleola’s mother, a dark-skinned formerly enslaved woman, that made me aware of this. To the students and the president of the college, Cleola is an orphan who has a trust fund. It gives the impression that she comes from money. What we discover is that her mother is very much alive and working in a boarding house and that it is her hard work and saving that is making Cleola’s future possible. In the one scene with her mother, her mother is excited to hear that Cleola is engaged to Richard, a well to do, light-skinned man from an affluent family. Cleola wants so much to tell her fiance about her mother to which her mother severely scolds her noting “they wouldn’t want to see a dark-skinned woman like me in the family.” She directs her daughter to wait until after they are wed to tell the truth.

The only scene between Cleola and her mother.

The only scene between Cleola and her mother.

It is then I realize, in this small cast of characters, that the ones with privilege and wealth are those of a lighter hue. It’s laced in the conversation and speech of Richard, Junius, and Anna. Given that the movie is only a few decades out from the Civil War, I began to wonder about their families. Were they free blacks? Perhaps even some white-passing family members? So much left unexplored.

My nitpicks

Time frame

Honestly, I don’t know when this movie was set, hence the “some time after the Civil War” quotation marks at the beginning of this review. Based on what I picked up in the dialogue, I would surmise that this is set sometime between the mid-1880s-1890s. I based this on the fact that Booker T. Washington and Ida B. Wells were mentioned.

I questioned this, however, because I was unable to get a clear sense of characters’ ages. For example, Junius spoke of the reasons for his hatred of Indigenous people. In a short monologue, he spoke of serving in the U.S. Calvary, growing up in “Oklahoma...Indian Territory” and related quite vividly about Indigenous people owning slaves and his grandfather being killed two days after the end of the war by an Indigenous man. There was a lot to unpack here. That is further compounded by the fact the actor looks like he is in his 20s. Also, I was unsure if Oklahoma was called Oklahoma considering it officially became a state in 1907.

Location

The college is set in Ohio. However, the men were captured in Twin Forks. I have no idea where that is but presumably it was three days walk from the college and involved crossing mountains.

The few white people

The few white people we encounter, specifically the Army men, show politeness and deference to the President of the college and the students. I….did not believe this for a minute. Whatever the time frame, we were not far out from the Civil War which *checks notes* was fought over slavery. Note to white creatives, white people in history didn’t treat black people, hell any people of color, universally as the same or equal to them. Nope. Never. Not a one.

Final thoughts:

I recognize that this review is written from the viewpoint of a hetero black woman. As such, I tried to refrain from projecting authority or knowledge of Lakota Sioux people and customs. It would be interesting to hear what a Lakota Sioux person thinks of this movie, watching it in 2019. I do know that Tavare won an award for his acting in the American Indian Film Festival in 1999.

If you can get past the video quality, I suggest you check out Unbowed on YouTube.