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.


Archives, Liberation, and Black Feminist Theory

This is the third time I’ve tried to write this post on archives, liberation, and black feminist theory. The previous times delved into a long-winded explanation, a veritable literature review of my foray into readings.

Friends, that is not the post I wanted to write, although I have included at the end of this post a meaningful bibliography of black feminist theory and social justice readings that resonated with me.

What I wanted to write about, to connect on, is that place of tension within myself that, in turn, informs my archival practice.

In one of my many readings, bell hooks said simply and profoundly:

“decolonize your mind.”

In Emergent Strategy, adrienne maree brown stated:

“what we practice at the small scale sets the pattern for the whole system.”

Inevitably to change these systems of oppression, the necessary work, that ripples out must start with me. I must decolonize my mind, reckon with its toxicity wrought by a straight, white supremacist capitalist patriarchal (and evangelical) culture (S.W.S.C.P.E). How do I hinder myself? Oppress others? How do I keep drinking this poison and expecting those who are doing the harm to get sick or die?

To envision liberation, I must first liberate myself. This is what comes up most often in my readings. I’m still trying to wrap my mind around it, unpacking it in my day to day.

At the same time, I ponder the influence of this culture on archives and archival practice.

Black feminism brings stern critique, a hyper awareness of the interplay of different identities (race, class, sexuality, etc) and an understanding of power dynamics but it also speaks with love, even leads with it.

How do I bring this into my archival practice? How does my identity as a cisgender hetero middle class black woman inform my approach? How do these identifiers come into tension with S.W.S.C.P.E? After all, as discussed on Twitter, the voices and writings that are upheld as the cornerstones of archival theory are straight white men.

If I do not liberate myself by recognizing how I support the systems of oppression, leaning away from the dominant colonialist narrative/approach, and halting my tacit demand of others to adhere to it as well, I will only replicate them within the archivist-donor-researcher paradigm. That is not leading with love. That is leading with power and centuries of domination. “I know something you don’t. I am the authority.”

I am not advocating to throw the whole basis for archival theory or practice away, as tempting as that may sound. Rather I advocate revisiting it, revising it if we can, and if not, then discarding it in order to create something new.

What encourages me to propose the aforementioned statement is the present, changing landscape of archival theory and practice. It is expansive and diverse. I look at the work and writings of Jarrett Drake, Michelle Caswell, Bergis Jules, Staci Williams, and so, so many others who bring marginalized communities to the table as equal partners to share in the transformational work of reimagining archives to be an inclusive environment and experience. (Yes, it is an experience to engage with archives.) I think to myself, why isn’t this embedded in our archival theory and practice? Why does the profession persist in setting itself apart? This is work we ought to reckon with because in continuing to exist in this manner only aligns ourselves with systems of oppression. It continues to distance marginalized communities.

The work has shifted toward bringing in diverse collections but not actively and consistently creating an inclusive space for marginalized communities to engage and interact with their collection….with their own history. Is that not still gate keeping?

In response, we see the rise of community archives. The community taking ownership of their history and the preservation of their records.

How do we reimagine archives? How do we dismantle the hold of these systems of oppression and what does that look like?

Again, I return to brown, as that is my current reading and most present in my mind, what is the vision for liberation? What does it look like? What are we working toward?

From there, I ask myself and ask of you, how are we honoring that vision? How are we moving toward it? How are we replicating it now in our lives and in our encounters with others?

Why is that important? Because we are the system. These systems of oppression are us. We sustain it. We nourish it. Now hear me out, the system is predicated on people playing their part or, in the case of marginalized communities, “staying in their lane.” To continue to play the role it has designated for us, not the role we hope for or envision for ourselves.

When we stop participating the way the system (aka others) expect of us, when we recognize and assert the right to determine the course of our own lives, THAT is where change is possible. That is where liberation comes. That is when systems can be dismantled. But, that is also where the tension lies….and also the potential for violence from the most staunch supporters of said system.

It won’t be easy. It will be hella tough because this is a system that has thrived for centuries. It is a system where folks are still invested in it, whether they openly admit it or not, whether they know it or not.

Fin.

For now.

The words for this post came to me while I was eating breakfast at my dining room table. Thank goodness for a pen nearby and this envelope. I ended up tearing it along the seams to continue writing.

The words for this post came to me while I was eating breakfast at my dining room table. Thank goodness for a pen nearby and this envelope. I ended up tearing it along the seams to continue writing.

___

Meaningful bibliography

adrienne maree brown. Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds. Chico: AK Press, 2017.

Audre Lorde. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde. Berkeley: Crossing Press, 2012.

bell hooks. Ain’t I A Woman? Black Women and Feminism. Boston: South End Press, 1981.

bell hooks. All About Love: New Visions. New York: William Morrow Paperbacks, 2000.

Barbara Ransby. Making All Black Lives Matter: Reimagining Freedom in the Twenty-First America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2018.

Brittney C. Cooper. Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers her Superpower. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2018.

Ricardo L. Punzalan and Michelle Caswell, “Critical Directions for Archival Approaches to Social Justice,” Library Quarterly 86 (2016).




What do you feed?

There is a story, often attributed to the Cherokee or the Lenape peoples, about two wolves. To paraphrase, it asks of the listener what are the things, the emotions (positive or negative) we feed in our life. What do we allow to take root in our heart? What do we grow?

I realized that I have allowed harmful negativity to take root in my heart. It is there whispering in my ear in every encounter, every word said or unsaid. It blocks out everything else.

If I want to truly unpack and heal from my career crisis while reimagining (my new favorite word) my career, it is recognizing when I’m feeding the negativity.

Each morning, before I start my day, I pray. As I’ve spoken about in this post, my prayers are more like conversations with God. Nine times out of ten, these are not silent. These are spoken aloud. It is a great start to the morning and I feel off the entire day if I’m remiss in my practice.

However, one morning, as I prayed, I realized I left very little time at the end of my day to reconnect. I’m so focused on unwinding or attending to much needed chores around the house that I don’t hit pause to reflect on the day.

Over the past few days, I’ve taken the time, whenever it occurs to me (this is still new after all) to talk with God. It has occurred while I’m cooking, in the shower before bed, or even while I’m scooping out my cat’s litter box.

In my conversations with God, I make myself highlight the good things, the positive things about the day first. It forces me to wade through the negativity to find the little nuggets of sunshine.

Figuring out how to edit digitized film.

A conversation with a coworker I seldom see or get a chance to talk to.

Finally completing that folder list for a box of records.

The feel of the cool breeze from the window as I worked.

Or that 10 minutes I carved out to fit in a mid-morning walk.

With each verbalization, I feel my heart getting lighter. My mood improving. The negativity abating. My prayers are not always sunshine and roses. Some days are even flat out bad but by developing this practice, I am challenging myself to still see the good no matter how small or fleeting.

It is taking a moment to honor it. To nurture that part of myself that desperately needs it.

So I ask you, as you wade through the crises of your own life, what are you feeding?


The Career Crisis

I shared in my last post my general feelings about the state of my career. As I sat in therapy this past weekend, I had a realization, which one often does in that space: I never addressed my career crisis.

What was the moment?

I spent my entire grad school career striving for a particular goal: working for the National Archives. I made that ambition known early. In 2010, I interned at the Seattle branch to fulfill my MLIS requirement. I loved the work.

My first job out of grad school was a strategic choice. I took a one-year archives processing position at Death Valley National Park in Death Valley, CA, some 3,000 miles away from home, because it was federal government-adjacent and, I believed, would demonstrate substantive archival work. By month four, I had begun to circulate my resume to park employees to get their feedback. What was I doing wrong with my resume? Why was I not advancing to an interview. I took their recommendations and tweaked my resume. By month nine, I was actively applying. AND, I was getting interviews.  

My contract ended. I moved back to the East Coast. In August 2012, I got THE interview: an archives technician position at the National Archives at Philadelphia.

A week later, when I heard the words “we would like to offer you the position” I was in shock but also experiencing the unmitigated joy of a plan for my life coming together.

I *thoroughly* loved my time in Philadelphia, for professional and personal reasons. In spite of the 2013 federal government shutdown, I was still all in. But, in 2014-2015, government bureaucracy reared its head and my idealistic view of NARA became muddied.

In time, it came crashing down.

Rather than address the end of an idealistic dream, I ran. Running looked like applying for other jobs. I didn’t know what I wanted to do anymore as I had wrapped my whole identity in working for NARA.

I was NARA. NARA was me.

Without it, who was I?

Now that the fog of a two year depression has lifted, I see the toxicity built in wrapping up my identity, let alone my professional identity, in a place. In something external to me.

My heart, in spite of the hurt, still cares deeply for NARA, especially the people. I am still invested in its success even if that means being at odds with its leadership. For example, at SAA 2018, I took the time to address its leadership during their August 17 session regarding NARA’s “digital future” and its strategic plan. I even talked afterward with Micah Cheatham, the Chief Management and Administration, much to the chagrin of some of leaderships most ardent supporters. I have reservations and many of them grave. Why? Because I love NARA. I want the best for it. I want it to do right by the American public and its hardworking employees.

The question now is what can I do in archives? How do I channel the things I love, the causes that are important to me, and who I am now (and who I have always been) to reimagine a career that enables me to create something exciting and helps others?

So here I am, four years in the making, ready to face it.

*deep breath*

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The Act of Crying: My Complicated History

Each morning, I spend time reading my bible at my dining room table. My quiet time to “get my mind right” and spend with God before starting my day. My 10 year old cat Thaddeus is exiled to the living room and, begrudgingly, he has accepted it. He only enters to make his way to his litterbox which is located in a corner nook near my basement door. The soft sounds of Mozart play as I dive into the word, my common practice since exiting the church in 2016 (story for another time).

My studying is composed of three parts. First, I begin by reviewing my notes from my previous morning session. This is where I talk aloud what I’ve read to ensure I understand what I read. Occasionally, new thoughts pop up and I record those too. Then, I read and study for 20-30 mins. This looks like reading a few verses from my designated book and chapter out of my New King James Version (NKJV) bible. I turn to my behemoth of a commentary to review what it says. I reason and grapple with the words, the themes, the concepts. Similar to my review, I talk it out. I write my notes. My notes even include questions or comments where I agree, disagree, or need more information. Finally, I pray.

What I pray about varies from thanking God or preparing for my upcoming day or my friends and family or even the state of the world. It varies. Sometimes, I’ve started out my study session thinking I will pray about one topic but end up praying about something else entirely. I’ve even stopped mid-prayer to pray for a situation or person that came to mind. Prayer for me isn’t what is often depicted in church or on tv.

I don’t get down on my knees or steeple my hands. It’s a conversation, spoken aloud, with God. Sometimes my eyes are closed. Sometimes they are open. Sometimes I cry.

Today, I cried because I experienced one of those rare prayer moments. The kind that comes upon me. When I have been carrying something for far too long. That type of release comes out in hot tears that turn to sobs. The kind that makes my usually cautious cat venture into the dining room to let me know he is there.

I centered crying because I have a complicated history with the act of crying that I desire to unpack.

***

Early on in life, it was instilled in me that crying is weakness. Full stop.

Crying didn’t save you or elicit sympathy. It got you yelled at. A lot. It made you a target, especially a target for an emotionally abusive and manipulative father.

I was not equipped to verbally spar with a man twice my size and three times my volume when he was angry so I shut down emotionally. Friends have often described me as even-keeled, calm, unflappable, or even stoic.

It is a defense mechanism that has become adopted behavior. I learned how to retreat inwardly when confronted. Perhaps, this is part of the reason why I have such a rich interior life because when I endured confrontations I wasn’t listening. My body was there but my mind was elsewhere.

I am not one to take much stock in labels, especially personality-related ones but I find the Enneagrams fascinating. I am an 8. The issue with 8s are their fear of being controlled as a result they can be controlling. My control manifests itself with an intense desire to control my surroundings and my emotions. However, life has taught me that there is very little outside of myself I can control. That fear shifted to controlling my emotions as best I can. At all times.

Yet, this 8 fear is based in very real trauma. It is how we interact with the world. Our controlling is the result of learning early, brutally, and repeatedly, that the world is not a safe place and, sometimes, the people closest to you are are the most damaging. They are not safe spaces.

It is hard work to recognize and actively unlearn what has been impressed on your psyche from an early age. In it’s unraveling to form new pathways, it is fear-inducing because to unravel it means to, in part, remake who you are. Honestly, who wants to do that?

Crying is an extent of my emotions which I kept under control for so long coupled with a very real fear of being perceived as weak. Therefore, open to attack by anyone, even those closest to me.

***

What changed my relationship with crying was an external force beyond my control: the death of my mom in 2005.

My high school graduation. Unfortunately, my mom passed before the big social media boom. Majority of my pictures of her exist in physical, not digital, form.

My high school graduation. Unfortunately, my mom passed before the big social media boom. Majority of my pictures of her exist in physical, not digital, form.

I was a sophomore at a university about 1.5 hours from my hometown. I was gearing up for finals. My sister was home from active duty when she called me. Our mom was sick. Jenni related how she had begged, pleaded, and cajoled our mom to go to the doctor. My dad was...around and his usual apathetic self for any plight outside of his own. I told her to call me once she found out anything.

My life resumed. Went to my classes. Studied. Wrote papers.

When my sister called, I remember I was in my dorm room, mid-study session. There are few moments in life where you remember with exacting detail. Out of this entire experience, this is what I remember:

Jenni: Ashley (pause) momma has cancer.

I stood up and started to pace.

Me: How did she take it?

long pause

Jenni: Ashley, she just started to cry.

That. That right there made this moment real. That made the rising pain in my own chest bubble up. The earth had shifted. It would never be the same. My defense mechanism of emotionally shutting down kicked in and I hurried off the phone.

What would follow in the next few weeks were emotionally painful conversations with professors to reschedule or get out of taking my exams. I cried every single time and I hated it. I hated exposing myself in that way. I even hated how some of them responded not to say they were heartless but highly uncomfortable.

This only heightened my discomfort and hatred of crying.

My mom was diagnosed with breast cancer in April 2005. The last few months of her life would be spent shuttling between my hometown of Brunswick to her childhood home town of Baxley. She would have family caretakers in the form of her sisters, especially my aunt Loretta, and then me when school let out in mid-May. Her illness opened up the family chasm that existed. The tension between my father and my mom’s side of the family. They knew the type of man he was. Even now, it isn’t spoken in a substantive way. My mom was a domestic abuse victim. I lived with it for most of my life that I thought this was normal but it isn’t. It shouldn’t be.

Despite the initial diagnosis, I did very little crying. There never seemed to be any time for it. I had a cancer-ridden mom to take care of and shield from further abuse.

You thought it ended because my mom got sick?

Like any child, I redirected it toward me. The anger. The words. All of it. I couldn’t run away and I most certainly couldn’t cry. I had to be strong for the both of us, my mom and I.

My mom was losing her battle. The diagnosis had come too late. Her body too weak to fight. In late June 2005, on a Wednesday, my mom died in hospice. My sister, aunt Loretta, and I by her side. The moment I had feared, dreaded, but also prayed would come (I didn’t like to see her suffer) had come.

I was calm until she took her last breathe and then I panicked. I bolted from the room. When I found my aunt Darlene who had stepped out for a moment, I greedily pulled her to me. I needed to feel something steady in a world that no longer made sense. A world that had gone to shit in an instant.

I shut my eyes and said “my mom is gone.”

Defense mechanism kicked in again as we endured the next few hours. Family needed to be informed. My brother, who had returned home to Virginia a few weeks prior to tend to his pregnant girlfriend, had to be told. He quickly got off the phone. I learned later that he retreated to his bedroom, laid down, and cried. My cousin Shawn, who affectionately called my mom “Auntie Bernie” had a similar reaction. The information went out. None of us would be the same.

The body, formerly known as my mom, had to be prepped and taken away. I stood there watching all this happen but there wasn’t the mind/body disconnect. I was here. My mind was here watching all of it. In that moment of death, I see now, that emotional disconnect between mind and body had begun to mend. To heal itself.

I started to cry. I cried as my aunt Loretta drove me home. I cried as I got ready for bed. I cried in bed. Eventually, I cried myself to sleep.

My auntie Loretta and I. Thanksgiving 2017. She is now the family matriarch on my mom’s side. Both of her parents and two oldest siblings, her sister (my mom) and her brother (my uncle), are gone.  My favorite story of hers is when she shared how my mom, who was working at a department store in my hometown, paid her bus fare to come for a visit and bought my auntie Loretta’s prom dress. It was the first time my aunt traveled on her own and to a new city to spend time with her big sister. She loved that yellow, flowy prom dress.

My auntie Loretta and I. Thanksgiving 2017. She is now the family matriarch on my mom’s side. Both of her parents and two oldest siblings, her sister (my mom) and her brother (my uncle), are gone. My favorite story of hers is when she shared how my mom, who was working at a department store in my hometown, paid her bus fare to come for a visit and bought my auntie Loretta’s prom dress. It was the first time my aunt traveled on her own and to a new city to spend time with her big sister. She loved that yellow, flowy prom dress.

I still remember waking up the next morning and, for several seconds, thinking it was a dream. My face only inches from my green bedroom wall. My childhood room. Any second my mom would yell at me to wake up. When she didn’t, I remembered. I cried some more.

Seeing myself in the mirror startled me. My eyes were swollen from crying. I didn’t even know that was possible because for all of my life I don’t remember crying as much as I did in those first 24 hours of her death.

I cried some more when I overheard my father and aunt yelling in the backyard. Thirty-some odd years of animosity had now bubbled over. I didn’t have it in me to see what was going on or to shut down. My aunt Lois was sitting outside under our carport. She motioned for me to join her. We said very little. The air punctuated with angry words. Eventually my dad got in his car and drove away. With him gone so had the tension.

I didn’t cry much in the coming days. Erroneously assumed, I had cried all the tears I would ever cry.

But, I am not a machine. I was, however, different.

***

The act of crying became a release. A release of whatever emotion I am feeling. It took me several years to recognize this shift. In those intervening years, I hated it every time it happened. Years of stigma loomed large.

Crying signals to me that I still feel, deeply and profoundly. It also helps me to process the underlying emotion. Being the consummate 8, my controlling tendencies, as it relates to my emotions, exist. Yet, I see crying as a part of the process of processing this experience called life. I am still loathe to cry in front of people I don’t know but I’ve expanded my world to where I am able to let others in.

It also brings clarity. It is like a physical manifestation of whatever I am feeling. Once it runs its course, my mind kicks in. After all, I’m a natural born problem-solver.

I find, since my mother’s death, I cry when I’m happy too. Her death reconnected me to emotions I spent so long suppressing.

***

That brings me back to the beginning.

I’m still uncovering, discovering, and learning who I am in this world. I carry burdens, even those that are known and unknown to me. Naturally, that brings all kinds of emotions to the fore.

I cried today because I needed the release. To let go of the burden I was carrying in that moment.

Crying is not weakness.

It never was.