This essay is a part of our “Crosstalk” series featuring stories from graduate students of color. Read more in our special issue, “Crosstalk: Graduate Students of Color Reflect on Lessons Lived and Learned in the Academy,” now available in hardcopy and on Project MUSE and JSTOR.
reelaviolette botts-ward is a doctoral candidate in the African Diaspora Studies Department at the University of California, Berkeley. Visit blackwomxnhealing.com / @reelaviolette on Instagram for more.
The author with her mother.
When I said I was writing for my mother, a Black woman with two degrees, I realized that even in my intention to write for her, I still had no language to bridge the gap between my tongue and the Academy. I sent my mother the twenty-page document titled “A Vision for My Dissertation.” She, a Black woman who studied Black women’s domestic violence in her master’s program at the same time that I studied Black women’s healing in my master’s program, could not grasp the liberatory message of Black women’s autonomy embedded within the essay.
My dissertation project is becoming a disillusioned dialogue between the two worlds I frequent, the Academy and the Black spatial imaginary made real through a womanist practice of healing oneself in the midst of an antiBlackwoman city/nation state/world. As I write to mend the distance, I fail. I slip. I am unable to turn language into liberation when it is written for two audiences at once. What my mother needs to hear gets hidden between jargon. The jargon chokes up the truth and gets in the way. The words I use map her theory onto flesh and make it hard for her to find herself in my research. The texts I cite make it hard for her to receive what it is I say that I have curated for her in these pages.
My mother says this document makes her head hurt. My heart sinks. If my mother cannot comprehend this, then what is it really for? I have become so indoctrinated by the Academy that I forgot which words were colloquial and which were not. I forgot what words I did and did not know before I entered this institution. I witness myself in the passive art of forgetting. This is the cost of my degree.
When I titled an early version of my dissertation “This Sh*t is For Us,” I recognized that nothing rooted in the Academy could ever truly be for us, that this educational system was never designed for us and that any association with it, and any work produced by it, has been tinged with its blood, its particular violent history of exclusion, its distinctive space-making practices. I realize that I am asked to speak a language that my mother cannot comprehend in order to have this work approved. In this way, I am guilty of an engagement with State values, as I write this work from the Academy. The impossibility of doing academic work with your folks is that the ones whose lives and labor make your work possible will never fully have access to the words you say about them. It is not useful to be false in my aims, or delusional about who will and will not benefit from the words I write on the page. It is better that I be honest.
I wish to be accountable beyond what words on the page might do. So, how do I write for my mother, for the Black folks with one degree, with no degrees, with no high school diploma?
How do I write for Black folks who never learned to read? What words must I write on healing?
I write back and forth between the languages that I speak to Black women and the language of loveless restriction. This space between where I live and where I work force my tongue in and out of itself. My mouth knows where home is, yet my vocal chords get strained into palimpsest, into quotidian. The academy makes you forget how to write for your people. When you remember, the Academy tells you to insert relevant terms. The academy says cite theorists who never talked to yo peoples.
Over time, I begin to enjoy how big words flow from my lips. The more I learn to speak their language, the more my fragile ego is convinced that I might actually be smart enough to belong here, the more my ego convinces me that if they hear me hold my vowels like they do, I might actually blend in here. Then my spirit reminds me who I am—the unabashed ratchet, the round-the-way warrior goddess of grace, the ghetto brilliant beauty, the gold hoop rockin’, red lip wearin’, long-nailed, kinky-haired, hood healer of myself. I can’t not write from that place. This affirmation births my research methodology—an everyday round-the-way Blackgirl methodology that declares my own tongue sacred, valid, and necessary for the fulfillment of this project.
There are many different kinds of insiders, multiple degrees of closeness to oneself, one’s home, one’s community. Who we claim, what we claim, where we claim, can only be accounted for in challenging the distance between each space. Inside out. Outside in. Trinh says mother will be outside, especially when you do not make her. Says community will be outside, especially when you try to force yourself inside. The distance between my self, my mother, my family, my home, my people—that is where my work must begin.
I begin with self-portrait. I begin with auto/ethno/graphy. I start with the self who is ever present in the process of collecting data, in searching and ree-searching for answers only to find more questions. I work to lean into the self and erase the self simultaneously, to know that “it is bigger than me and it is big in me at the same damn time.”How Black folks move in and through
Blackness matters. It matters that it’s you. How Black folks see Black folks within Blackness matters. It matters that it’s you. Light-skin girl. PhD girl. Middle-class girl. Daughter-of-HBCU-graduate girl. Legacy girl. They will judge you for that. So where do I begin and end my list of identities?
I tear myself inside out. Search my flesh for answers to conundrum. Am I even an insider to myself? I am many women, and every woman in me has her own biography. So who does that make me? Do I list each adjective of privilege and social death so one might know who I am and how I came to write this work? What will one know of me by seeing my skin through the line of the page? Black. What will one know of me by seeing my breasts through the calling of my name? Woman. One will assume, and I will not mind. I prefer those assumptions over others.
Inside out. Outside in. I am Black and woman on the inside and out. Yet I could never be inside fully, never fully inside myself, never fully inside another. So how does one talk of interiority,
intimacy, and deep connectivity with a sense of recognition for these slippages? Who sees me inside is not who sees me outside. There are many things we insiders know. Like where a Black girl got her gold hoop earrings. Like whether or not she used Eco Style Gel on her edges. Like how long her braids been in. Like the hood her daddy must be from by the way she wears her jeans. We know quotidian things of each other because we see with similar eyes on the surface. Yet, there are many things we can never know of our insides. That which is unseeable. Opaque. On purpose and on accident. The many things we cannot capture of ourselves, of each other, of our mothers.
I am learning to embrace what I cannot know, of myself and of my people and of my mother. Learning to let my feet move through darkness, through dream worlds and deathscapes, skull-headed hauntings, and still-stained blues. I am learning to lean into the feeling of forgiveness for the facts of life that never add up, the truths of my life I need to project onto my project in order for it to make sense. I am learning that in remembering my self, in the recalibration of my insides, my inner wisdom, my erotic as strength, I cannot continue the process of processing my people’s pain through the limitations of my own lens. I must admit that my language will not suffice.
I am a Black woman healing, researching Black women healing. I, too, am interviewed, inspected, collected. I am implicated, deeply. How do I interrogate who I am and how my positionality limits and expands this work? / I pause between paragraphs, to cry, to comfort me, to cradle myself in my own bosom, to draw colored rainbows in my journal with my left hand, channeling the child in me who is triggered by the chilling accounts of my sisters and the language my ego forces me into. I never gave myself permission to be heavy from this, this juggling of worlds and words and weight and wounds. It was only when my grandmother said, in response to me describing my work, “That’s deep, that’s heavy, that’s hard,” that I realized the weight of writing between worlds on tryna be well. My body aches from this. There is no easy way to do this work. This labor of love costs me somethin—my holes, my ghosts, my fickle illusions of remedies. But I refuse to let it cost me my language. To do this project justice, I must do justice to my own healing, and that requires me to revisit the queasy aches in my chest that linger between who I once was and who I am choosing to become as I exist in two worlds at once.
Walker, Alice. In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens. San Diego: Harcourt. 1983.
Knowles, Solange. F.U.B.U. A Seat at the Table. 2016.
Minha, Trinh. GWS Graduate Course.
 Quote from Black Woman Interviewee in Preliminary Field Work.
Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Trumansburg, NY: Crossing Press, 1984.