This summer, I’m finally making time to go through Javacia Harris Bowser’s e-course, “How to Write and Have a Life.” The first assignment was to write a personal mission statement. I had trouble with this because I can be pretty self-centered, and the mission statement isn’t a selfish thing; Javacia asks you to think about the group you most want to help.
I’ve been trying to help myself for a very long time. I justify this by saying I’m worthy of and in need of help. As together as I can make myself look, I’m often falling part inside. I’m a grownup who still doesn’t know what she wants to be, and I feel like a child almost every day. With every accomplishment that I see my friends make–promotions, doctorates, marriage, children, home purchases–I feel more and more like I failed, like I should have/should be doing something different, like I’ve been better at hoping than planning, How can someone in so much need be of any help to anyone else?
I decided to think about what I need help with the most (besides housekeeping and time management), and it really came down to self-discovery and guidance. I kept returning to something an adviser said regarding the first draft of my second Fulbright proposal: the proposal was too focused on me. I don’t deny that my research is also “me-search,” that it is an attempt to better understand myself and my own experiences. However, in spite of the proliferation of Black feminist research out there since around the year 2000, I don’t find much about me as a Black Christian woman and feminist, at least, not when it comes to life writing. There’s plenty of theory but very little history, biography, or memoir about these particular intersecting identities. When I came across My Soul is a Witness: African American Women’s Spirituality, I was elated to find the personal narratives of women from a different generation who had thought my same thoughts. This has helped me to feel less alone and less crazy. Also, every time I get really personal on this blog or in my column, someone private messages me to say that they feel the same way, so I have to believe that I’m not alone and that many more stories are untold and waiting to be discovered.
Telling my story still seemed like a mission that was too much about me, but the next essay I read in My Soul is a Witness helped to confirm what my mission should be. I placed several little sticky notes in Mary Helen Washington’s commencement address to Regis College’s class of 1989, “On Discovering Self and Empowerment in Black Women’s Literature.” Washington “had been in school almost twenty-six years before [she] was able to read a text written by a black woman,” and in finally reading her sisters’ works, she found her own voice.
I want more black women and girls to find their voices. Writing the personal mission statement also made me think about a recent scene I found disturbing to witness. All of the boys in a class of fifth-graders reading poetry to a public audience grabbed the microphone and spoke into it with confidence. I could hear all of them clearly. Every girl except for one shrank from the mic. One girl was standing right in front of me when it was her turn. I pushed the mic closer to her mouth because I couldn’t hear her at all. In response, she recoiled her neck so that the mic was still far away. I know the fifth-grade age range is around the beginning of many awkward years of development for girls, so I understood why they would shy away, but I wanted to say, “Each of you has a voice, your voice is important, and you have every right to use it, so let me hear you!”
Finally, after a couple more days of thinking, reading, processing, assessing, and editing, I came up with this:
My personal mission is to help Black women and girls in my community discover the power and importance of their own voices by sharing my story and the histories of other Black women. Through blog posts, books, radio documentaries and podcasts, I hope to create in these women and girls a sense of belonging that inspires them to share their own stories and own their destinies.
And then, of course, doubt (and selfishness) hit.
How do I make a paying career out of this? I’ll be in debt for the rest of my life. Why can’t I just be in STEM? Is being a professor my only option? It will be another 10 years before I can get tenure, and tenure is more of a fantasy these days than people realize. What if the only tenure-track job is some place I really don’t want to live? I’ve become much more of an academic than a creative writer. What if I can’t tell my own story in a creative way anymore? What if no one wants to read it? I started writing a memoir in 2011; what if the moment to tell that particular story has passed?
Thanks to the recent #BlackChurchSex hashtag on Twitter, I am convinced the moment for my memoir has not yet passed, but other than that, I don’t have an answer to my doubts and fears. I do, however, have a mission that’s not about me. It’s not about the systemic change that I know must happen before anything can be right with the world (and that I have begun to doubt ever will happen), but it is a start. And should I find myself teaching in some Podunk to get out of debt, it provides a reason to keep going.