Transmedial Autotheories / Healing at Home: On Self-Making and Black Girl Interiors / Ree Botts

Thirza Cuthland, from Less Lethal Fetishes, 2020. Image courtesy of the artist.

Fusing self-representation with philosophy and critical theory, autotheory moves between “theory” and “practice.” It is critical and it is creative; it is experiential and experimental; it is scholarly and it is popular. It brings theory to life and life to theory. It plays with personal polemic, positing a speaking self in the act of writing “I,” and then, self-reflectively and self-reflexively, it deconstructs itself. Autotheory’s genealogies spring from the institutions it seeks to critique. It privileges thinking with over thinking against; its politics of citation unveil its relations. From social media technologies to the publishing industry, from live performance to visual art, autotheory’s escalating ubiquity in cultural production serves as a provocation: why autotheory and why now? What motivates the methodological melding of an autobiographical “I” with academic scholarship? What implications does theorizing the self have for the politics of knowledge production?

A digital companion to the special issue of ASAP/Journal, this cluster animates the autotheoretical intersections of art and art writing in time-based media. Transmedial in form and provocative by design, these works appear accompanied by autotheory’s telltale synthesis of critical-creative writing. The cluster includes film and video by Maider Fortune, Annie Macdonell, and Ree Botts; performance for the camera and documentation of live performances by Ceylan Öztürk, Calla Durose-Moya, lo bil, and Mel Keiser; web-based work, including memes, by Simon Evnine and Piper Curtis; other moving-images, including GIFs, by Migueltzinta C. Solis, and sound-based work by Arezu Salamzadeh. Off the page and on the screen, these autotheories invite as much as they imagine, contest as much as they contrive, and exude as much as they include.

— Lauren Fournier and Alex Brostoff

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i welcome you to the space on the page that is joy and levity and longing

i welcome you to the space on the page that is weight and grief and mourning

i welcome you into all the spaces on the page that exist in between

The following text is written to be read alongside the film Healing at Home: An Ode to Black Girl Sanctuary.1

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On Theory & Praxis

This is a project of Blackgirl Autotheory, grounded in A Poetics of Blackgirl Autoethnography, rooted in the truths I hold dear.

This is a project about healing, about coming home to myself, about arriving at the intersection of all the things that make us “rough around the edges” Blackgirls2 so damn misunderstood.3 The title of my book, and much of my Blackgirl musings, are inspired by her unapologetic centering of the duality of the twoness of our identities that are always experienced all at once. It is about my journey of curating a home/ a self/ a space/ a life that allows me to feel loved and safe and sacred in the midst of facing shadows. It is about the geographic discovery of home inside my body, the process of sighting and citing my own flesh as the most sacred text I’ll ever know. It is about how it feels to live inside myself, inside my feelings, inside this Blackgirl house I have made home, where I cultivate an intimacy with me, where I come to surrender and breathe.

This project is simultaneously an autotheoretical poetic narrative and an autoethnographic self-portrait. It is an artistic, experimental cartography of care that dances alongside feeling as praxis and methodology as meaning making to map my affective movement through a home-based healing praxis of pain, precarity, and possibility. I weave theories of Black feminist geography4 and visual culture into narrative-based accounts of radical creative space making to tell stories of my Black female body/ mind/ soul/ ancestry/ spirituality in place, focusing on the material and metaphysical home as a site of place shaping. Merging Blackgirl Autotheory with A Poetics of Blackgirl Autoethnography, I think about how we round the way Blackgirl theorists might assert our own self knowing through unconventional modes of truth telling. How we might hold our hoodness and our holiness at the same damn time. How we might let ourselves lean into the complexities of our own lives, and express that in all the ways that feel good to our spirits.

Throughout this work, I return to these guiding inquiries: What is autotheory to the round the way Blackgirl who writes herself into existence? What is the relationship between autotheory and autoethnography as it is experienced within the Black feminist body?

Blackgirl Autotheory

Blackgirl Autotheory asserts, as erinnae proclaims, that “Black girls been theory,” meaning that we have always theorized about the intersectional complexities of our lives outside the realm of what academia deems legible.5 We have always understood ancestral truths whispered beneath the bones of our skin. We have always mapped radical epistemologies of liberatory praxis onto concrete corners, city blocks and beauty shops. We, them everyday round the way Blackgirls who academia forgot, have always been legible to ourselves, between hopscotch lines, within swinging double dutch rope, from the earliest years of our Blackgirlhoods. We become women who understand deeply that the ghetto is sacred and the sacred is ghetto, that our work and our worth and our words must all be rooted in the rigorous honesty and vulnerable transparency that our grandmothers modeled for us.

In her introduction to Professional Black Girl, Yaba Blays names, “[We were raised] in a world that too often tries to tell us how we ‘ought to’ act. [Yet,] we know that ‘acting’ like anything other than ourselves robs us of our FREEDOM, so instead, we choose, embrace, and celebrate EXACTLY WHO WE ARE.”6 The assertion of our full whole selves, and the truths we have known throughout a multitude of collective lifetimes, becomes the site from which we theorize.

Thus, Blackgirl Autotheory, inspired by erinnae’s blackgirltheory and Yaba Blay’s Professional Black Girl, is a centering of the embodied truths that we Black women and girls hold firm within our spirits. Blackgirl Autotheory is grounded in a core belief that Black women’s survival is an artform, that the extraordinary everyday artmaking practice of curating a home of oneself by theorizing from the scraps of one’s own life is the most exquisite masterpiece. Blackgirl Autotheory is a praxis of celebration, an affirmation of the ways we make life from the depths of “social death”, a naming of that praxis as sacred and holy, scholarly and theoretical, brilliant and benevolent.7 Blackgirl Autotheory is a proclamation that what we round the way Blackgirls produce on the daily is a series of rigorous interventions into fields of study that have refused and forgotten us. Through unconventional, ghetto, and creative modes of quotidian meaning making, we curate our theoretical interventions in song, in slay, in poetics and in play. And we affirm it all as theory.

A Poetics of Blackgirl Autoethnography

Black Feminist Autoethnography is a radical methodological approach to researching Black women’s lives that allows the researcher to unapologetically center her own positionality in the process of data collection. As Irma McMillan asserts in Black Feminist Anthropology: Theory, Politics, Praxis, and Poetics, it “relies on memory and indigenous knowledge… [and is] not simply a highly reflexive form but… a particular kind of reflexive form, simultaneously autobiographical and communal, as the Self encounters the Collective.” The collective here, in this piece, is a collective of ancestral rememory, as I think deeply about what Black feminist indigenous knowledge has to teach me about myself.

I place Irma McMillan’s framing of Black Feminist Autoethngoraphy in conversaiton with Robin Boylorn’s blackgirl autoethnography to center Blackgirlhood and Black womanhood in my framing of autotheory. Boylorn engages “blackgirl autoethnography as a praxis for black and brown women to do the home/work of self-construction… to talk about embodied, critical, and culturally situated research that begins (and/or) ends at home, in the bodies we live with…”

I frame A Poetics of Blackgirl Autoethnography as an entry point into myself, my body, and my home. This poetics merges an autotheoretical conception of self study with an experimental autoethnographic methodology. Hence, my process of healing becomes both theory and praxis, data and method. In the process of producing this project, I am producing myself, I am engaging ethnography, and I am theorizing the broader implications of Blackgirl selfhood as lived within and beyond my own skin.

A Poetics of Blackgirl Autoethnography allows me to center the creativity and spirituality of Black women’s healing. Those things about living that cannot be quantified nor calculated. Only elucidated with words. Only exposed through the truths of illusive language. Poetics release me from the hold of academic rigidity.

A Poetics of Blackgirl Autoethnography8 lets me talk freely about rememory9 and all that was lost, lets me read multiple time periods as one, and allows me to map spaces and times on top of each other in all the ways they occur simultaneously in me. This poetics of transparency, rooted in Black feminist care10, opens up new modes of telling these stories that must be told with delicacy, must be treated as preciously as the archive of the heart that can only be held in song. This poetics lets me talk about how I sing to my memories, and how they respond to me, and how that is what brought me to this writing.

Poetics invite both reader and writer into an experience of truth telling that can be felt beneath the skin. Poetics invite us all into feeling, and feelings are as essential as breathing, for we must feel our way through this pain to arrive at the freedom on the other side. Audre Lorde teaches us, “Our feelings, and the honest exploration of them become sanctuaries… they become a safe-house.”11 The geographic site of my feelings, within my own interiority, expands me into sanctity and safety, allows me to curate worlds of wonder within the intimacy of my own being.  By being “in my feelings,” I am invited back into my body, my home, my self.12 And it is from this place that I theorize, through poetics and prose, in prayer and in play. It is from this place that I produce this work, and produce myself.

On Home, Healing & Interiority

My Blackgirl Autotheory is written from sacred interiors and the darkness of home, written in reverence for the mothers and the houses we always return to, with hopes that conjuring up a declaration of self might make space for a more nuanced understanding of my own Black feminist interior.

Inspired by Elizabeth Alexander’s framing of the Black Interior13, I conceptualize Black feminist interior design as a process of spacemaking that takes place on the physical body and within it, inside the physical location of curation and beyond it. Even as we Black women grapple with the impossibilities of our “material world[s], [the]… house that is only as safe as flesh,” we find meaning within and beyond our corperality.14 We learn that these bodies are the safest homes we’ve ever known, even in all of their precarity. Hence, Black feminist interior design becomes a method for living in which the design of our interiors are understood in relation to, and as reflections of, our homes. It makes space for us to design our metaphysical interiorities, with our hearts, as we simultaneously design the physical and tactile interiority of our homes, with our hands. The homes we curate for ourselves, within and beyond our bodies, become the most sacred spaces from which we cultivate our healing.

My home and myself become my primary sites of research, as the dialectic exchange between self and home is the site at which interiority is uncovered. I am at home in the field. My body is the field and my home is the field and I am at home in my own body.15 As I write myself into existence, I travel deep into my insides, moving between palimpsests16 of homespace and selfspace, as I work towards embodying a freedom this world could never give to a Blackgirl on the margins of herself.  

I write from multiple spaces and times at once, as my healing requires me to remember the homes of the past in relation to my home of the present. I write about the home I grew up in, it’s inability to hold me, my attempts to hold myself in frail hands I could not afford to cling to. I unravel my process of longing and vulnerability that has defined the reverence I have for home, the only place where I am fully safe to feel a range of emotions, safe to be a range of versions of myself. I recognize that this home is simply a reflection of me, a space that I curated by myself, for myself, with the blessing of the Black women who came before me. My home becomes my archive, and while there is deep trauma in these archives, there is also deep healing.

As I write in lingering meditation with Gloria Anzaldua’s Borderlands: La Frontera: The New Mestiza, Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, Michelle Alexander’s The Black Interior, and Robin M. Boylorn’s On Being at Home With Myself: Blackgirl Autoethnography as Research Praxis, I lean into my Blackgirl Autotheory as a medium to evoke a rigorously honest process of rediscovery.

i knew that i,
as a black woman tryna find/ know/ love herself,
needed some where to go to do that work..
that deep internal work that requires a location that feels safe& sound& free..
some where that had the capacity to reflect my light and dark back to me..
&in the journey of finding that place,
i learned that i must be that place for me
that i must mold this body, these fingers, this skin
and force them to hold me.






the wound

you started as a blank canvas
squeaks of your hinges haunted me
hardwood floors felt cold and callous
cutting through the thick of my skin
beneath my feet


i couldn’t read you
i couldn’t reach you
yearning for some form of recognition from you
to see me and set me free
lay me to rest in the rawness of your warmth
i saw potential in you
past the painful sleepless nights you caused
crying babies out my window
crack babies out my window
cracks in the paint at my window
can’t see the sun out my window
cried in my baby’s arms as i stared out the window
of this strange widowed place that felt as vacant as my heart
yet from here
is where we created art

The house was empty when I arrived. I was empty when I arrived. No bed. No couch. No table. No drawers. No heart. No healing. No sense of self. Just gnats and fruit flies left behind from the Black women whose babies shed tears here. In that moment, I was the baby of a Black woman whose home was too far away to rescue me. Whose home couldn’t never even rescue me, even when I wasn’t far away. I was the daughter of myself and I was too far away to rescue me. I fell deeply into the darkness that was myself and I feared for my life in that space.

Every night before I went to bed I felt I was not alone. I was in dark company, like some trace of someone else’s pain had been placed at my doorstep. Like Taraji, who “knows that she has lost something in her mother”, but cannot recall what, who feels the loss but “cannot see clearly what was lost.”17 Like Taraji, I sat still in space and refuted and embraced the “historical traumas of… grief and forgetting [that had been] passed down from one generation to another” along my matrilineal bloodline. The tree that hung nooses for those of us trained to touch the ancestors, those of us afraid to know the unknown, but still, knowing the unknown deeply. There was this heaviness in the room, a weight that drained me, a spiritual sickness that sucked the life and light out of me.

Deserted. Abandoned. Unoccupied. White space.

Blank space.

Black space.

Free space.

My space.

I found my strength in the strumming through old books that bound me to the borders of Black and brown and bold and bruised, battered and broken but not shattered. She, the God(dess) of my ancestral galaxy, gave me the chance to change my fate. She folded my fears into themselves and forced me to untangle the knots that had consumed me, to unweave the web of woe is me, to seek sisterhood within my own being.

It started with Alice, the fairy godmother of my internal garden. She whose “spirituality was so intense, so deep, so unconscious”, she who reminded me to never be “unaware of the richness [I] held.”18 She who asked, “How was the creativity of the Black woman kept alive” and answered “through you and me.”19 She who proclaimed, “we must fearlessly pull out of ourselves and look at and identify with our lives the living creativity some of our great-grandmothers were not allowed to know.”20

Alice told me that we Black women create, “[leaving] our mark in the only materials [we] can afford… in the only medium” we have access to.21 We create the art that has been in our souls for centuries, the art that has been choked out the throat of our grandmothers, that art that has been spit up and bled out while birthing babies, that art that’s been raped out of us, stomped out of us, beat out of us. Yet, still, we be artists. Yet, still, we sing our songs. We Black women with magic on our tongues, with power crystallizing in our pain, with euphoric melody in our menstruation, we Black women braid the world into our fingertips. We Black women create wells of water in drought, we Black women call the Gods like Saints, we Black women create.

Alice told me that I must create. Create home in spaces where I was abandoned. Create love when life gave me lynching. Create symphonies in suicide’s silence. Create the handbook for how to find Heaven in the soil of the Earth that is left for me. Alice speaks to me in a language unspoken, yet known intuitively by her daughters. She teaches me to quilt unanswered questions into the cracks of the canvas, to know the caves of my darkness.

And then it was Gloria. In all of her godly light, she left for me her darkness. She drank the blue black blood of the serpents so that I could heal. She sits with herself in the cold and winded night and she writes, still. I sense her sensing me, here in this contested space. She knows, like Alice knows, that her words have opened my wounds. Gloria invited me to the crossing between the realms of two worlds. The higher world and the lower, the internal world and the outer, the self world and the society, in and out she dances. Daunted by her display of demystified floating, I freeze, then melt, then motion my movement in the pace of hers, hearing her casually call to me, “your soul knows no boundaries, brown girl. Lean into this, lean in.” Each time I lean, I learn her and I learn me. New levels, new heights, new depths. Deep into the unwicked underworld, deep with the serpents, still sinking into doves, fantasy becomes reality and I’m floating. She teaches me not to fear my own darkness. My own dark skin. My own dark thoughts.

Gloria whispered to me, “[embrace your] Shadow, the unsavory aspects of [your]self… the supra-human, the god in [you].”22 She told me to “remember otherworldly events… [do not] ignore, forget… [do not] kill those fleeting images of [your] soul’s presence and of [your] spirit’s presence.” She leaned in closer, and a chorus of her voices echoed, “the spirit [is not] outside [your] body or above [your] head”23, it is in you.

And then it was Audre, who taught me a new spelling of my name when I had too many names and could not recall my own name. And then it was Katherine24 and Aimee25 and they each gathered around me, in my home, and held me in their warmth. They each reminded me that this is home, here in the vacant place inside my heart where my art is awaiting creation. Here in the contingent space, a space that had known horrors and deaths before me. A space where I would have to die to live comfortably. A space I would either make my own or forever be a prisoner to, a space of the Blank canvas. Overflowing with powers of ritualistic remedies, I healed the place with my own two hands. I healed the place with my art. I set the ancestors free and I gave my soul a space to rest. I became my own savior.

 the cultivation

on move in day
in order to keep sane
i decorated.
decorated every inch of every corner
placed petals of dead flowers in the cracks of your crevices
just to remind myself
there is life after death,
there is life after death
carried couches and chairs down east oakland sidewalks
to make you my sanctuary
to shelter myself from you, in you, with you
you would become who i needed you to
cause i needed you to
be it one week or two or three
i would make a home of you

Carrying couches alone. Carrying cardboard boxes alone. Carrying pain alone. Small frail body in brown bare skin stepping one foot in front of the other and carrying the weight, carrying the load, like the mule of the world26, into my house, into my home. Determined to lay down my burdens in the breeze of the wind, to open my window and let the smoke blow through my curtains and into the clouds, to calm my craving spirit and simply be.

I crafted an image of home out of clay pots that got thrown out windows of worn down women who no longer had a need for non disposable goods. Women who gave in to pressures to pretend that life was more solid than liquid, who looked like they were never slipping but deep down inside they spent their entire lives slipping into distant desires they could never make come true. Yes, I made my home out of their scraps, the pieces of their forgotten promised land, the lullabies they refused to let live. The sound boxes that now sing to me were once the junk stuff of their garage. Gradually piecing together the potter’s clay, I came to know my space. Painting a portrait out of pine, tracing a truth from the trim of forgotten curtains and stained cloth, molding a mosaic of my selfhood from the senseless waste of women who never belonged here in the first place. Through their neglectful nonchalance, I made my “something out of nothing”.27

And what might that say about the disposability of my Blackness? Might it mean that my body is as disposable as the dining wear she left behind on the dirt road of dusty Oakland back alley ways? Maybe to her. But to me it means that my being is so beyond her comprehension, so unfathomable to those who think new china might dirty the sink because it didn’t come packaged in the proper packaging, who think I might dirty the sink because I didn’t come in the proper packaging, so they don’t wash they hands after me, they think I don’t wash my hands after me, they wash they hands of me. I thank them for their hand-me-downs.

the darkness

i made my way through life through you
the day i declared.
i dared face the darkness you held
in the hollowness of your heroes
whose honest scent lingered behind
like a black widow in her wilderness
whose blood still boldly buried beneath your concrete
i could feel her fumbling in my garden when i’d sleep
i sent for you
but had to go through her first

and she never feared me
until i remembered that i must not fear her
she was the wicked of the past i left behind
she was a reflection of the darkness in me

When I got real silent, still in the way I can only be when the borders of Blackness are not closing in on me, I heard the self inside myself that told me to run away from me, to leave me behind for a new wall to wear on the ribs of my chest, to cheat myself out of my own memory, to become the black bitch I was supposed to be. When I got real still, real silent in the subtleties of my senses, I saw the shutter in my eye, like the flicker of light that went dim in the darkness, like the depths of my demons were revealed to the moon, like my meaninglessness was on display. I ask myself, over and over again, screaming in my silent solitude, am I disposable?

I wanted so deeply to know something in me beyond the layer of my visible skin. Wanted to know me beyond what others saw on my external flesh. Knew it had to come from some place real deep within, knew I walked in contradiction, existing at the crux of the flimsiness that was my identity, the narrative that could no longer hold me.

Gloria told me to make peace with the darkness in the room, for the darkness in the room was the darkness in me. If I were to fear the room, I were to fear me. But yet I still feared the room and I still feared me. I still felt stuck and afraid.

I threw myself away. I threw my self away. I threw my self away.

And my home remained.

the light

that day at the meditation center
alice waker reminded me
with her soft hands and calm smile
embracing me carefully
“you have the power, sister”

the power to cultivate a garden
to pull from the powers of my mothers
to pull from the depths of the dirt and dig out the gem
to know that light always wins
and i will always be light so long as i choose
and now i am light
and now you are light too.

Alice looked into my eyes like she remembered me, like she knew my name from the garden, the same garden I’d go to gather the garments of my girlhood, my grandmother’s girlhood. Alice touched my hands like she’d held my hurt before, like she’d heard the hollowness of my harmonious mourning. I woke the next morning and felt deeply touched by her, realizing that she had known me intimately, for we were the same kind of woman. The Black Creative woman whose womb carries poems as cartography, the woman who wanders in the wells of the water and waits for the ancestral warriors to bring her stories. Alice knew that I too was searching for my mother’s garden in the golden galaxy of girlhood self memory. Alice knew that I was thirteen when I met the moon.28

Alice taught me to embody light and the home became light because I allowed my light to live here. The light became home, because home lived here.

This little light of mine

I’m gonna let it shine

Let it shine

Let it shine

Let it shine29

the embrace of my girlhood self

physical space of sage and scents
you who ignites metaphysical space
inside my inner place of sage and scents
you are the light that reflects my light
so i must never fear you
even when i fear me
even when i can’t face myself
you give me space to embrace myself

the booty shakin
book reading
journal writing
red lip rockin
and you let me be
all of these things
all at once
with no pressure to compartmentalize
in a world that demands I compartmentalize
you are the only place in the world where my world is my own
you let me walk into my world with my name on it

you let me be
thirteen year old ree
patty-cake-pick-a-boo-little-Sally Walker
you let me wonder what life might be like
if this world loved black women
because in this alternate universe that you and i create
this world loves black women
like me
with my tongue out and my thighs out
in my two tone
red bone
high yella skin
home is here
healing is here
you cultivate home inside me

Black girl, existing in a world that defined me for me without my say, defined by environments that were never equipped to carry me, sites of injury that jaded my perspective on me. Black girl, realizing that I have the power to know a new kind of environment, the power to decide where i choose to place my body, to prioritize places where my body feels safe, to curate spaces where my body feels safe, where the power of my interior world overpower the dominance of this cruel cold world, where I create my own world inside myself and have it reflected back to myself. Black girl, who burns sage in the center of her chakras, who wades waters with the potions of her poems, whose power is ignited by the wind. Black girl, who got lost in the lessons she never got the chance to learn, Black girl, coming into her own being.

To dance freely. To feel the heat of the wave on my skin, to sink into my softness, to let my sensuality simmer in my sheets, to see my wholeness and my brokeness, and to bathe my skin in the healing waters. To be the layers of us, unabashedly. To be a girl again, to be a child again, in the world that wants me to be a woman because I am twenty five. To say fuck this world. To play patty cake and pick-a-boo and little Sally Walker while sitting in my jammies drinking purple kool aid juice, jammin to Jamaican slow jams. To be like Detroit girls dancing through the city, choreographing my own citizenship.30 To be a citizen of the city in this state in this world in my home. To let my being be magnetic. To be the “young girl [who] takes possession of the entire city.”31 To be both real and raw and wrong and young and childish. To exist in the complexities of all my contradictions, in a space that will not judge me, in a world where every aspect of my being is critiqued.

To remember that I never had access to girlhood. Like them girls getting Pushed Out32 of Oakland public schools, I never had access to girlhood. Like them girls at the Fresh Start group home33, I never had access to girlhood. Got my innocence snatched so far back, I became a woman at age thirteen. Or maybe at age ten when blood bled from my vagina and I was told to keep secrets. Or maybe at age eight when my uncle told me to keep our first family secret. I didn’t keep it. I told the county. He walked free. I was never free. I never had access to girlhood.

Yet still, Black girl I will be. I will be a girl for the little girl in me who never got the chance, because she was Black and ungendered and disposable. I will be unapologetically, childishly, #BlackGirlMagic and #CareFree. Dear little Black girl that lives in me, you deserve to take up  space in this world. You deserve to be everywhere you’re going.

 the transformative vulnerability

my sacred sanctuary of healing
you see me in all of my rawness
and you love me most here
in the darkest part
of my deepest dungeon
where the demons live and lurk
you meet me here
and embrace me here
and remind me that i am
with my ashy knees
and sheabutterless, uncreamed, coiled, kinky hair
frizzed and napped
the kitchen at the nape of my neck
collecting dust
cause i’m depressed
and dry
and stale
and lonely
but you see me
and you seek me
and you reflect me

When the stages no longer lift me and the lingering scent of audience applauses drown me in a validation seeking that sent me into a deep depression, it dawned on me that stages may never be safe spaces for girls like me. For women whose vulnerability on display is gnawed at, consumed for the craving of the vultures who vangard the visibility of Black female bodies. I wonder if Josephine and Nina ever grew tired, if the performance of the performance of the performance ever made them miss themselves.34 If their bodies were their masks for so long that they forgot what it felt like to face their own skin. I love Nina and Josephine, but I vow to never become them. I will become okay with myself even on my worst day, able to sit with my slippery slopes, able to see my beauty even when the world won’t. I will base my beauty on my insides, I will see myself in a way that no stage ever could.

I see myself and I see freedom. I see the Black girl woman whose womb is ripe with poetry, the pieces of my imperfection are the pen and I birth the rhythm in my blues, I behold the light and the dark of me, the dusk and the dawn of me, the down and the fall of me, the rise and the highs of me. I write the poems that I need me to hear and I share them only with me. I reserve the sacred sanctity of my pen only for me, free of the pressures from the stage and free from the monotony of the performance, free from the gaze of the hawking eyes that could never comprehend this celebration.

the gardens of my mother

during the holidays
when i ain’t have no family
you was my family
tucked me in extra tight that night
and nestled me into your warmth
you helped me trim the tree
and tie the bow in a knot
draped the lights across each branch
hung the stockings and danced with me
to all my favorite nostalgic slow jams
like This Christmas and Jackson 5’s
santa kissing mama under the mistletoe
and on the part when Michael come in and say
“no, no I really did see mommy kissin’ santa clause”
when i recited every word
you didn’t even laugh at me
you just let me be
weird and corky and crazy in my own way

you knew that’s the song i use to sing with mama
and you comforted me for my loss

you let me laugh at myself
and love
and grieve
and get better
and get worse
and get restless
and retreat
and retrieve
and conspire to kick myself out my own world
when i become too much for me

but when i wanna return
you always welcome me back
with open arms
no harm ever done

What comes up in the dark? What comes up in the pit of my soul when I am home alone and no one is there to catch me or save me from the haunting of my own interiority? My mother. My mother always comes up. Always chokes me up, always grabs at my throat and reveals herself in my mirror. The healing she could not do. The burden she left me. The home she tried to curate. The home she lost. Did her best but it was not enough. The home that was hard to hear one’s own spirit in. The mother whose mental illness wreaked havoc on the home. The mother who could not make the home safe, even when she tried. The burden of Black womanhood and it’s weight on the home. The mother who left me wondering how to do the thing I was never taught to do. I recall the impossibility of bringing a Black girl up in a home where a Black mother could not breathe. How the loss of the home and the loss of the self became a model of how to be Black and woman in the world.

bare as the day i was born
birthed in the basement of black
back bathed in holy water

mama prayed for pretty little fool
never wanted baby girl
to know the world like she
cruel and unforgiving

i learned to be a black mother
in the womb of my mother
learned to birth black death
as embryo
learned to let black blood
tear at the root
of the tit
as the toddler
born too black. born too soon35

So what might I find in my mother’s garden? Dusted records of Jackson 5 and Funkadelics. Golden crochet sticks and purple yarn. Preteen newspaper scrapings from miscellaneous anecdotes of a girlhood she still clings to. Yearning. Longing. Desire. Distress. What might I find in my mother’s garden? The same stuff that’s inside me. Loss. Pain. Fear. Defeat. Silence. Stillness. Uneasiness. What might I find in my mother’s garden, the mother that has forgotten me? A glow. A note. A poem written in a journal beneath her bed. No lock. Trusting us not to peek. Peace. Pieces of herself fragmented across the pansies. Pieces of me.

My mother, like Alice’s mother, “adorned with flowers whatever shabby house we were forced to live in.” She learned to adorn the interiority of her soul with sunflowers even when the sun didn’t shine. Sometimes, I would see the storm in her eyes, but she never let those sunflowers die. She tried her best to tend to her garden, gauging the amount of water her soil needed, knowing the boundaries when she was depleted. She never learned how to balance the beauty with the pain. I hope that I am learning for her.36


never knew your name was LaViolette
until age ten
all we ever knew you as was mama


never knew your name was loneliness
until age eleven
all we ever knew you as was sunshine


never knew your name was depression
until age twelve
all we ever knew you as was home


never knew
you never existed

until age thirteen.37

My hands remember, like my mother’s hands do, that making something for yoself is a healing praxis. The space between my fingertips and each stitch that shapes itself into wool clothing contributes to some space I make in me. The stitches make themselves into clothing and I make myself into an opening up of worlds. I try on each sleeve and see myself leaning into the blouse as I lean into myself. Like quilting, this praxis keeps me tied together, crocheted into a fabric of fumbling hands, of Heidi and cat nip and tangled up yarn that tore the tangled up heart of my mother back together again.38 Like my mother’s mother, I get a black cat who loves to lick the balls of yarn I collect in a corner of my living room. She named hers Heidi. I name mine Kimathi. She understood the necessity of an emotional support animal before there was language for it.

My mother grins when I tell her I done picked up the hook again. Tells me how she only reclaimed that lil thing she use to do with her high school homegirls once the catastrophe of losing to life leave you no other choice. When I was seven and I saw the woman who birthed me braid herself into depression. When the facade of having healed halted her on the inside and made an unraveling of her. When she dug up some memory of the girlhood she had forgotten and picked up the stitch and started the way she always would. With a hook and a ball of yarn and a stitch. “Yo hands just go soon as you get into it.” She taught me and my sister to model the movement of her hand. I carried the teardrop she released into ruffled yarn, I carried it with me into my praxis.

As I sat on my bedroom floor, transforming my room into an art studio, I felt my mother in each stitch. I pick up that lil thing I use to do with my high school homegirls only when my world requires me to put myself back together again. To make something for myself with my own hands and to call that care and healing. I tell my mother we are like the ancestors who quilt, who pull together coils of somebody’s afterthought and make warmth.39 We are like them women who know they hands got healing powers, like the laying on of hands into fabric, like the formation of colors on clothes.

We find a healing intervention in the creation of Black women’s artistry. Alice Walker searches for her mother in the metaphors of flowered gardens. I search for my mother through every stitch. Alice Walker and Christina Sharp and Audre Lorde all speak of mothers who made homes for their daughters the best ways they knew how, mothers who “ma[d]e livable moments, spaces and places in the midst of all [that seemed] unlivable,”40 who “work[ed] at joy,” who “adorn[ed] with flowers whatever shabby house [they are] forced to live in,”41 who “ma[d]e a small path through the wake [by bringing] beauty into [a] house in every way [they can].”42 Sarah Brooms speaks of the Yellow House, the pride her Mama took in having her own, the interior decorations of a dilapidated home, a house left staggering in mourning, a home drenched with the residue of silenced memory.43 We all know that our mothers have grown things and killed things inside of themselves. We all wish our mothers would embrace themselves, embrace us, more fully.

don’t every black woman deserve this

& don’t every black woman deserve this,
a space she can call her sanctuary?
to sit still in her magic
and make meaning of her life
to let her truth form before her
to cultivate the vacant space inside her heart
where art is awaiting creation
where her ritual of righting wrongs and singing song
soff key in her shower can occur
a place where her life can occur
where do Black women go when life lets us down?

we go home
and shouldn’t our homes be spaces of healing,
if nowhere else in this world will be?
to kneel at our altars
and pray to our ancestors
and rejoice to our gods
and give grace to our enemies
and meditate away negative energies
and embrace positivity
don’t we deserve that space?

yes we go home
to heal
we find home inside a little lot of land
where we proudly place our name and say
i curate my healing here
i escape here
and that little plot of pain in our hearts
ceases its tension
even just for a moment…

We Black women exist at the border between hurt and healed, between precarity and possibility. We Black women get stuck at the stop. We Black women at times find that our feet won’t move, that we are trapped in a never ending cycle of this land. We create new land. We create new homes. We create new hope. My home has the power to make sense of me, in all of the ways that this world never could, through the eyes of the Earth and the stars and the moon, through the mirror of the memories of the dead, the disposable, the dismissed, the damned. The transcended. Maybe we, with our homes in our hearts and our healing in our hands, can create the utopia we always imagined. Maybe we, together, with our bricks and lombard, with our feminist architecture, can alter our world by embracing the living altar that is us.

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This is one of twelve contributions from the ASAP/J cluster of Transmedial Autotheories. Read the other pieces here

Read the Autotheory special issue (6.2) of the print journal ASAP/Journal here.


  1. Healing at Home can also be found at The poem woven throughout this project, entitled Healing at Home: a Love Letter to Blackgirl Sanctuary, was first published in mourning my inner[blackgirl]child, Nomadic Press 2021.
  2. In “On Being at Home with Myself: Blackgirl Autoethnography as Research Praxis,” Robin M. Boylorn coins Blackgirl as one word to “make [the words] touch on paper the way they touch in [our] everyday existence” (49).
  3. Kendall, Mikki. Hood Feminism: Notes from the Women That a Movement Forgot. Viking, 2020: xi.
  4. McKittrick, Katherine. Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle. University of Minnesota Press, 2006.
  5. erinnae is a scholar, artist, and curator whose Instagram, @erinbecreating, serves as a site of living Blackgirl Autotheory. In 2020, she curated a series of virtual conversations entitled blackgirltheory with Black women theorists. This project is “making Black girl theory pedestrian,” in that it centers the everyday round the wayness of Black girl being. Visit for the “black girls been theory” crewneck and playlist.
  6. Blay, Yaba. Professional Black Girl. 2019:
  7. Sexton, Jared. The social life of social death: On Afro-pessimism and Black optimism. Time, Temporality and Violence in the International. InTensions Journal. Issue 5 (Fall/Winter 2011).
  8. Boylorn, Robin. On Being at Home With Myself: Blackgirl Autoethnography as Research Praxis. International Review of Qualitative Research, Vol. 9 No. 1 (Spring 2016): 44-58.
  9. In Beloved, Toni Morrision frames rememory as a traumatic form of memory that haunts the present as a never ending past. I take up rememory as an autoethnographic tool to reflect on the healing process as it unravels within the various spaces I inhabit. See Morrison, Toni. Beloved: A Novel. New York: Knopf, 1987; Morrison, Toni. The Site of Memory. Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir. (Boston; New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1995): 83-102.
  10. Hill Collins, Patricia. “Toward an Afrocentric Feminist Epistemology.” Turning Points in Qualitative Research: Tying Knots in a Handkerchief.  Eds. Yvonna S. Lincoln, Norman K. Denzin. AltaMira Press. 2003.
  11. Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches: Eye to Eye -Poetry is Not a Luxury. Trumansburg, NY: Crossing Press, 1984: 38.
  12. Johnson, Jasmine. b.O.s. 6.4 “In My Feelings”. ASAP/J 2018.
  13. In Elizabeth Alexander’s The Black Interior, she frames Black creative visuality as a space of the inner self, arguing that the curation and design of a living room space provides an entry into the interiority of the Black person who designed it. She asserts, “In the spaces we designate and create, the self is made visible in the spaces we occupy, literal ‘black interiors,’ the inside of homes that black people live in.” She then asks, “Are the living rooms of those homes, the spaces most consciously arranged and presented, representative of not only living space but of one’s self, one’s authentic self?” She plays with interiority, using the term to refer to both the interior of the home and the interior of a Black self. By engaging the Black interior as a dream space of artistic vision, Alexander invites us to ponder on the possibilities of expansion found in the praxis of making ones home as a reflection of oneself. Alexander, Elizabeth. The Black Interior. Graywolf Press. 2004: 9.
  14. McKittrick, Katherine. Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle. University of Minnesota Press, 2006: xxi.
  15. Boylorn, Robin. On Being at Home With Myself: Blackgirl Autoethnography as Research Praxis. International Review of Qualitative Research, Vol. 9 No. 1 (Spring 2016): 44-58.
  16. Smith, Christen. Afro-Paradise: Blackness, Violence and Performance in Brazil. University of Illinois Press. 2016.
  17. Eng, David L. The Feeling of Photography,The Feeling of Kinship. Feeling Photography, 2014: 327.
  18. Walker, Alice. In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens. Harcourt Press, 1983: 232.
  19. Ibid., 234.
  20. Ibid., 237.
  21. Ibid., 239.
  22. Anzaldua, Gloria. Borderlands: La Frontera: The New Mestiza. Aunt Lute Press, 1987: 59.
  23. Ibid., 58.
  24. McKittrick, Katherine. Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle. University of Minnesota Press, 2006.
  25. Cox, Aimee Meredith. Shapeshifters: Black Girls and the Choreography of Citizenship. Duke University Press, 2015.
  26. Hurston, Zora Neale. Dust Tracks on a Road. J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1942.
  27. Hunter, Marcus and Robinson, Zandria. Chocolate Cities: The Black Map of American Life. University of California Press, 2018: xi.
  28. Walker, Alice. In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens. Harcourt, 1983.
  29. Abel, Elizabeth. Skin, Flesh and the Affective Wrinkles of Civil Rights Photography. Feeling Photography, 2014.
  30. Cox, Aimee Meredith. Shapeshifters: Black Girls and the Choreography of Citizenship. Duke University Press, 2015.
  31. McKittrick, Katherine. Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle. University of Minnesota Press 2006: ix.
  32. Morris, Monique. PushOut, The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools. The New Press. New York 2015.
  33. Cox, Aimee Meredith. Shapeshifters: Black Girls and the Choreography of Citizenship. Duke University Press, 2015.
  34. Gaines, Malik. Black Performance on the Outskirts of the Left: A History of the Impossible. NYU Press, 2017.
  35. This poem, entitled Pretty Little Fool, was first published in mourning my inner[blackgirl]child, Nomadic Press, 2021. botts-ward, reelaviolette. mourning my inner[blackgirl]child. Nomadic Press, 2021.
  36. This poem, entitled My Mother’s Garden, was first published in mourning my inner[blackgirl]child, Nomadic Press, 2021.
  37. The poem, entitled What We Call You, was first published in mourning my inner[blackgirl]child, Nomadic Press, 2021.
  38. In Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad, Jacqueline L. Tobin and Raymond G. Dobard reveal that quilting was an essential survival strategy for Black enslaved women, and that it was a source of communal healing in the wake of gratuitous violence. Dobard, Raymond G. and Tobin, Jacqueline L. Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad. First Anchor Books, 2000.
  39. Ibid.
  40. Sharp, Christina. In the Wake: on Blackness and Being. Duke University Press. Duke University Press, 2016: 4.
  41. Walker, Alice. In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens. Harcourt, 1983: 239.
  42. Sharp, Christina. In the Wake: on Blackness and Being. Duke University Press, 2016: 4.
  43. Broom, Sarah. The Yellow House. Grove Press, 2019.