Defining Safe: Reclaiming power through family-archiving

Yiming Fu, Managing Editor





What do you know about your parents? Your grandparents? The generations of people who came before you? For many, the past isn’t just in the past. Je-Shawna Wholley, last year’s “Feminist in Residence” at Northwestern’s Women’s Center, led a Black family-archiving project called “Earthseed,” which walked participants through nine months of workshops, research and interviews with family members. Participants presented their final projects in June.

YIMING FU: Before we begin, a content warning. This story contains mentions of violence and death. 

JE-SHAWNA WHOLLEY: Greetings family, friends and visitors. Greetings to you and all of the elevated and benevolent ancestors that you bring with you. Whoever and whatever ushered you into this space, we give thanks to. We are so grateful that you chose to be here with us today. 

YIMING FU: That’s Je-Shawna Wholley, last year’s “Feminist in Residence” at Northwestern’s Women’s Center. From September 2021 to June, she facilitated “Earthseed,” her Black family-archiving project, with support from the Women’s Center. 


YIMING FU: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Yiming Fu. This is Defining Safe, a podcast looking at the intersection of identity and student life at NU and in the Evanston area. In this episode, we’re taking a look at Je-Shawna’s “Earthseed” project, and how for many people with marginalized identities in the U.S., confronting family histories is both healing and powerful. 

YIMING FU: Je-Shawna identifies as a Black, queer feminist; healer in the making; daughter; lover; partner; friend; sister; niece; granddaughter and divine being. She called me from her porch in the South Side of Chicago, one of her favorite places to be.

JE-SHAWNA WHOLLEY: I was born in North Carolina, but I wouldn’t say that that’s a home for me. I’m in a process of creating home, as far as a connection to a land, a particular piece of land. But my home has always been my mom, and my sister and my grandmother’s house. And, more recently, my chosen family. 

YIMING FU: Je-Shawna is still figuring out what creating a home looks like and feels like to her. 

JE-SHAWNA WHOLLEY: I haven’t felt at home in a place in a very long time. It looks like creating a sanctuary with my partner. It really looks like investing time and effort in not just my physical house or apartment but the community that I’m a part of. Part of breaking away capitalism is really the practice of creating a home for me, because I can create a relationship to a place that doesn’t have anything to do with what I’m producing. 

YIMING FU: Part of the family that Je-Shawna is building is the “Earthseed” cohort. Thirteen participants across different time zones and ages came together monthly for workshops including genome-mapping, ancestral meditating and talking with therapists about intergenerational trauma. 

YIMING FU: Je-Shawna said her “Earthseed” project was inspired by Afrofuturist writer Octavia Butler’s “Parable of the Sower.” The main character in the book has a series of visions, called the “Earthseed Verses,” on how to move through a world that’s breaking down politically, socially and emotionally. Je-Shawna said the book opened her worldview. 

JE-SHAWNA WHOLLEY: I just started to make changes in my life. I just started to decide that I wanted to be more informed — How can I really stand up and prepare the communities that I’m intimately a part of for what’s happening, for what’s to come? And in this case, these communities were like my chosen family and my biological family. And I just started to shift my focus on okay, how do we prepare for conflict? How do we start archiving our stories? How do we deepen our relationship so that we can be a resource for each other as we are preparing for the breakdown of society as we know it?

YIMING FU: I talked with Je-Shawna the day the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. She said she immediately thought of her grandmother, who did not have abortion as a legal option when she had her first child. 

JE-SHAWNA WHOLLEY: So how did she survive that moment? What choices did she have to make? What resiliency practices did she have to tap into? There are people within our lives who have lived in different worlds and experienced the same type of crumbling. For me, I don’t think it’s feasible or smart for me to try and go forward and build without their knowledge. And in order to gain that knowledge, it requires work around healing. It requires work around forgiveness. It requires work around boundary setting. It requires active work on how to listen, it requires patience.

YIMING FU: And this patience and care could be revolutionary. 

JE-SHAWNA WHOLLEY: There’s information for us to gather, particularly as Black folks, particularly as marginalized communities. There’s so much magic and information for us to gather on how to survive and create, survive worlds of chaos and create new ones.

YIMING FU: Je-Shawna brought her work to NU last year. 

SARAH BROWN: Je-Shawna’s project is brilliant, I think. I think that Je-Shawna is brilliant and compassionate. And that she has a real vision around healing that sits right at this intersection of what is artistic, poetic, activist, intellectual. 

YIMING FU: That’s Sarah Brown, the director of the University’s Women’s Center. Sarah described the goal of the Women’s Center’s “Feminist in Residence” program with a concept coined by British writer Virginia Woolf: giving inspiring individuals “A Room of One’s Own” to do their work. While the center receives many applications, Sarah said Je-Shawna was a clear standout. 

SARAH BROWN: She has so much faith in other people. She goes into this cohort experience without anyone in it yet. And she’s like, “I know that there are these brilliant, beautiful people who will do amazing work if I give them space for it.” And she’s right. And she brings that out of people. And I think that some of the most, to use that word again, the most brilliant people, that’s what they do. They find what’s excellent about others, and Je-Shawna’s very good at that.

YIMING FU: One of the participants is Jakalia Brown, a data manager living in Atlanta and Je-Shawna’s sister on her maternal side. Jakalia wanted to address what she called the “elephant in the room” in her family’s history. 

JAKALIA BROWN: The thing that I’m referencing is the fact that our maternal grandmother’s father murdered her mother — and then got the gas chambers as a result. There is just a lot of layering there right from the beginning that calls for a lot of hard conversations, people not ready to have conversations about it. And also that being a definite historical trauma point, but that not being the only trauma point. 

YIMING FU: Jakalia’s search for answers began with a deep dive on

JAKALIA BROWN: I for so long thought, you know, I would never know. And then just reading everything and having the information from, the actual articles, pictures of actual, you know, print of what they said and the pictures.  The only picture that I have of my great-grandfather is actually a picture of him on his last day of living, going to the gas chambers. So it’s just like, being able to sit with the idea of — holds more information about my family than my family holds — it was hard for me.

YIMING FU: The project also involved talking to elders. 

YOLANDE CLARK-JACKSON: A lot of emotion is tied to memory. And so people aren’t always ready to face those emotions that are tied to those memories. 

YIMING FU: That’s Yolande Clark-Jackson, a Florida-based artist and creative writer who explores Black family histories. She was also a part of the first “Earthseed” cohort. Yolande said family archiving projects are especially powerful for communities of color, because their stories have historically been erased. 

YOLANDE: Because our history has been buried, taken from us, our language, our original language was not allowed to be spoken. Because we often don’t get the credit for what we’ve contributed to the wealth of the country. Sharing and being able to tell our stories is a critical piece of reclaiming the power in our ancestry and of healing ourselves.

YIMING FU: She interviewed her mother multiple times about her sharecropping past, as well as the stories of her grandmother and great-grandmother. The conversations took place by phone across many months. And it wasn’t always easy.

YOLANDE CLARK-JACKSON: Whereas with my aunt, it was like a water faucet that I couldn’t turn off, my mother was the water pump that was like, you know, I’m pumping for hours trying to get some water out.

YIMING FU: A lot of the time, Yolande said her mother tended to avoid some of the topics or didn’t understand what the project was since there wasn’t a clear end goal at the time. 

YOLANDE CLARK-JACKSON: I do think there was some feeling of protection. That even though she trusts me and she loves me, I just think that the emotions tied to those memories for her, she felt the need to protect.

YIMING FU: A large takeaway for those looking to talk to the elders in their own family? Patience is key. 

YOLANDE CLARK-JACKSON: One of the first things we did was, we read this book by Zora Neale Hurston where she interviews one of the oldest living people who survived the slave trade. He was a child when he came to America. And so basically she keeps all of the language in? his dialect. But in the book, it teaches you kind of that you have to be patient when you’re dealing with elders. You have to come back lots of times, and you’re only going to get fragments. You know, just kind of learning to mitigate your expectations about how this process is going to go, and I thought that was critical in the beginning, to have that book. 

YIMING FU: But Yolande said the patience paid off. And Jakalia said so, too. 

JAKALIA BROWN: This project, transparently, made me realize how much I do need to lean into the elders in my family more and spend more time with them, and be more appreciative of the time that I do spend with them and record things and ask questions. And, you know, make sure that things are in record, and it makes me want to go to see my grandmother and get all her recipes written down, you know? 

YIMING FU: Yolande and Jakalia both hope to expand on their final projects from the “Earthseed” cohort and continue exploring their family histories. Yolande hopes to continue digging into the role cotton played in her family’s sharecropping past, and Jakalia hopes to collect soil in mason jars to represent the combination of earth that makes up who we are. 

YIMING FU: And the “elephants in the room?” They need to be addressed to move forward, Jakalia said. 

JAKALIA BROWN: I do believe that it’s important for us to continue on the lineage of our ancestors and to honor them the best way that we can — the best way that we know how — and to be open involving that knowledge, right? Because we don’t have all the answers. Sadly, those answers have been stripped away from us in many ways, so the only way that we can sustain ourselves and sustain that, and sustain the stories that we have within our families, are to be accountable ourselves and to teach the ones that come after us to be accountable as well.


YIMING FU: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Yiming Fu. Thanks for listening to another episode of Defining Safe. This episode was reported and produced by me. The multimedia editor is Joanne Haner, the managing editors are Audrey Hettleman, Charlotte Varnes and myself, and the summer editor in chief is Isabel Funk. Make sure to subscribe to The Daily Northwestern’s podcasts on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or SoundCloud to hear more episodes like this.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @yimingfuu


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