There was a moment in my life when I was a historian. I was seduced by the document and intrigued by the possibility of changing the world by some great discovery or at least a great book. Then I was about to finish college and needed to make a decision, what was I going to do next. It was either become a High School teacher, join the Peace Corps, or try my hand at graduate school. I chose graduate school. I was in the midst of my student teaching experience and it was killing me. It was overwhelming and taxing of my spirit, my time, and my expectations of what being a teacher would entail. I really wasn’t ready to go off to someplace to change the world one village at a time – I didn’t know how I really felt about the Peace Corps to be honest. So the only thing left for me to consider was graduate school – whichever graduate school would take me.
I got a couple of rejections and then I received two letters on the same day. One was from the College of William & Mary and the second one was from the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation (CWF). With all my self-doubt, I opened up the one from CWF, I had not applied to them, so it could only be good news. I was being offered a Teaching Assistant position at the joint archaeological field school between The College of William & Mary and the CWF, the next letter had to be good news. So, in a nutshell, I was accepted (I had no idea what an archaeological field school was or what was expected of me), packed my bags and a trunk and hopped on the train headed for Williamsburg. I was leaving behind the world of the Historically Black College life. I was leaving behind that idea of just going back to NYC to get a job and figure life out from there. I was going to take a different route, and this archaeology thing may just be what I needed.
I was scared as hell!
The summer was incredible, I was surrounded by amazing people. I was given about three and a half days to learn all I needed to before students started to arrive. This meant, how to dig, how to draw maps of excavation units, shovel dirt properly, move huge wheelbarrows of dirt from one place to another, sift the dirt through a screen and be able to distinguish between bits of roots and trees, rocks and artifacts, and that was just the beginning. Well, I am proud to say I rose to the occasion (to be honest, I don’t think I had much choice – thanks to a woman who would become a lifelong friend – Maria Franklin – she cut me NO slack). I think part of my motivation was because it was something I had never done, something beyond what was “expected” of me! I absorbed all that I could and tried to understand this thing called archaeology. I picked up a trowel, I learned to scrape the dirt at the perfect angle, I learned how to find artifacts and understand context and where things are found was as important as finding them in the first place. I enjoyed feeling the soil between my fingers and with each artifact found another possible object to learn and understand the lives of captive African people. The articles I read, the conversations that surrounded me opened my eyes to a whole new world, a world that would bring me closer to my dream of changing the world with a new approach to the past. But, that soil, being out there in the open air, it is a feeling that is hard to describe with words. It made me feel powerful and human simultaneously, however strange that sounds.
Then the Fall semester started…and everything fell apart.
I was a fish out of water, I was a stranger in a strange land. The graduate school thing proved to be harder than I had ever imagined. I was alone, isolated and intimidated. I felt that all the wonderful moments I had the summer before my first graduate seminar was slipping fast from my memory and this new thing was a reality that I could not grasp. I struggled with my readings, I froze when it came to time to write up assignments, I gasped for air when I thought about how I would communicate in the next group meeting or social event. I felt as if I was drowning – I reached longingly for the past. I kept in touch with my folks still at Virginia State University, I called home a lot (more than I had as an incoming freshman in college), I spent time at my internship at the Colonial Williamsburg Department of Archaeological Research Lab, much more than I was required to. And I cried a lot.
I cried tears of insecurity, I cried tears of anger, I cried tears of resentment. I just cried all the time.
It was the work of archaeology that saved me. It was the countless hours of looking at artifacts in the off season, visiting museums and learning about curation, it was touching artifacts and identifying what they were, trying to piece them together like intricate puzzles. It was like fresh air when I walked into the lab, because I was not being judged on my ability to play the academic game right, I was valued for being there, working hard and learning from the people around me. I was reminded of those memories out in the field that seemed at first to be so far away. Despite my struggle, it was the work of archaeology that forced me to see that I was where I was supposed to be.
The long and short of it was that I made it out alive. I survived it. There was a lot to it (maybe a separate entry later down the road, when I feel ready to open that memory box), but the end result was a Master’s degree in History. A degree that is entirely in Latin and I cannot read it, but I can read my name and that is the only thing that is important.
Then just this past year (2011) I got an email from an Anthropology graduate student about coming to give a talk at the College. And it took me forever to respond, to think it through, and once I did it took even longer to come up with a title and abstract…I was still scared of that place. To a certain extent, I was still that innocent undergrad from a Historically Black College getting off of the train with the promise of a graduate degree in her eyes and not the slightest idea of how she was going to get it. I was that insecure young black girl who wanted to change the world through history.
However, that is not who I am today. I kept going, despite the doubt that surrounded me in that place. I have written the book that I wanted to write, I have those letters behind my name, and most of all, I still have my soul intact. So, I did go. I took a plane and went and gave a talk. I hung out with great old friends and I met new and excited graduate students who saw my journey as an inspiration – and that is what really amazed me – me, an inspiration. I would have never thought that all those years ago. But, now, having taken that return journey…it is true, you can go home again.