Guard Your Heart and Your Purpose: Faithfully Writing Anthropology

(Savage Minds is pleased to run this essay by guest author Bianca C. Williams as part of our Writers’ Workshop series. Bianca is Assistant Professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of Colorado, and holds a PhD in anthropology from Duke University. She is the author, with Tami Navarro and Attiya Ahmad, of the article “Sitting at the Kitchen Table: Fieldnotes from Women of Color in Anthropology,” and of the forthcoming Duke University Press book Exporting Happiness in which she examines how African American women use international travel and the Internet as tools for pursuing leisure, creating intimate relationships and friendships, and critiquing American racism, sexism, and ageism.)

“Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.”   Proverbs 4:23

Like many others, the blank page can terrify me. Simply starting a new blog post, an essay, or a book chapter can have me tumbling into hours, days, or shame-filled weeks of procrastination. These are the times that resistance and fear triumph, and I feel myself falling into a moody mixture of anger, frustration, sadness, and general feelings of incompetence. Oh, and sometimes there is crying. However, once I find successful methods for dragging the words that are in my head onto the page,[1] I then attempt to organize them in a way that makes sense, creates “new” knowledge, and contributes to multiple fields, ever aware that in some near future a committee will attempt to quantify my publication impact and decide whether they should grant me tenure. Surprisingly, for the past three weeks Writing and I have engaged in a truce—or I should say, she has decided to get off my back, give me some room to breathe, and allow the words that infiltrate my dreams and my meditation sessions to flow a bit easier onto the page. What is interesting is that this period of writing peace has resulted in a new issue: I keep getting my best writing ideas while I’m in the shower.

You may be thinking: “How is this a problem? At least writing ideas are coming to you!” Yes, I agree. This shouldn’t be a big issue, but have you ever tried to carefully record thoughts on your phone while you’re covered in soap, trying not to get your phone wet, slip in the tub, or get water all over the bathroom floor? After a few days of repeatedly performing this balancing act, I began to reflect on what the connections between the shower and my writing might possibly be. What I learned were important lessons about vulnerability, purpose, and faith, and how they influence my writing.

Vulnerability

It has become clear to me that the shower is one of the few places in my life where I feel I can exercise vulnerability safely. Most of the time I am the only person in the shower, and unlike the rest of my hectic day, this occasion permits me a brief period to enjoy my body and consider my own thoughts. There are no mirrors, peer reviewers, blank screens, or cameras (that I know of) to judge me or remind me of the surveillance I am consistently under. I am naked, remarkably carefree, while prepping myself for the outside world. In the shower I can try arguments on for size, deciding whether that particular wording or theoretical concept will work, feeling free from critique (particularly my own, which can be the most vicious when it comes to my writing). For someone who is sometimes accused of overanalyzing, it is one of the few times in my day when I can just be.[2] My heart is open. Standing under the rushing water from the showerhead calms me, as I wash off the condemnation, disappointment, and procrastination of yesterday to start anew. I press a reset button. I let go. And I talk to God.

Purpose

The way I see it, I was called to anthropology and to teaching because these are tools that allow me to learn truths about human experiences as people view them, experience them, and express them. This is anthropology’s purpose. As I participate in research and teaching, anthropological approaches help me to learn about others, while providing insight into myself. As a Black feminist cultural anthropologist, I constantly hear the call to engage in what my colleague Micah Gilmer describes as “heartwork”—a form of “real teaching” that demands honesty, direct communication, vulnerability, and emotional investment.[3] He argues that this labor is required to build communities and places that support those passionate about transforming the world. In Gilmer’s research, heartwork is embodied in Black male football coaches and teachers who lovingly invest in their student athletes despite their hearts being broken by the strain of this emotional labor; the lack of resources available to be successful in this work; and the various ways educational institutions do not value or recognize the impact their commitment makes in students’ lives or the community. Part of my difficulty with writing was that I did not feel comfortable being truly transparent about the connections between my heartwork and my writing. In fact, being honest and open about this connection can attract enormous pushback in academic circles, particularly in publication peer reviews or promotion committee meetings. And because of the still very active role racism plays within educational spaces, scholars of color may experience particular backlash against an explicit commitment to anti-racist heartwork. But as I grow more comfortable with myself, my purpose, and my writing voice, I realize that trying to keep these passionate works—heartwork and writing—separate, in order to be validated or accepted by those in the academy, is simply killing my soul.

Faith

The anthropological truth Sienna Craig wrote about in her post last week is a knowing that many times goes beyond words. As you share your hypotheses, your analyses, your participant observed ah-ha moments with interviewees, a confidant, a colleague, or a student, there are moments when the knowing is deep down in your soul. And sometimes it can feel as if words are not enough. You may have this shared moment of knowing, but the best you can do to acknowledge it is a look, an embrace, even a collective sigh. Even though it can feel limiting, in our writing we try our best to describe these soul-knowing truths; we attempt to describe, tell, teach, and explain. It takes vulnerability to attain this knowledge; and for me, it takes faith and Faith to write it.

From my perspective, writing is about purpose and faith. In my soul, I have a deep desire to show the full humanity of Black women to ourselves and the world. I recognize that our liberation is connected to the liberation of everyone; therefore it is important to me to show how Black women pursue joy, happiness, love, and intimacy during our beautifully fierce struggles for equity and freedom. This is my purpose. Engaging this mission and writing about it requires faith. Faith that God has given me the skills, tools, and abilities to write the truths that I learn. Faith that He will protect me and guide me along this journey. Faith in myself to begin and complete this work. Faith that I can be disciplined enough to focus and not get distracted by things that can lead me to unbelief in myself, my mission, or Him. Faith that there is space to be a Christian academic who speaks and writes about her Faith. Through my spiritual teachings,[4] I have been taught that everything we do requires belief—and one can choose to aim their believing energies in the direction of fear or faith. Furthermore, as the scripture above states, I understand that belief is not something you necessarily carry in your mind, but it is something you hold in your heart.

Words are powerful. The words we hear, transcribe, and create do things in the world and act on our hearts. It is possible that the difference in my writing over the past few weeks has been that my time in the shower—relaxing, thinking, praying, and just being—has helped me begin to truly believe that there is something in my writing worth telling. During these times, I have opened myself up to being vulnerable while decreasing the judgmental energy; reconnected with my purpose; and grown more faithful that I have the ability to successfully complete the writing required to do the heartwork.


[1] Thanks to Kerry Ann Rockquemore’s Faculty Success Program, Naomi Greyser’s amazing writing coaching, and the helpful tips of Wendy Laura Belcher’s “Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks,” I have a toolkit of strategies to help pull me out of the painful territory of Writer’s Block.

[2] I am aware that for many people (particularly women) who may feel the guise of society’s oppressive standards and expectations around beauty, the bathroom and the shower may not be a peaceful place, and may in fact be a site for battle. Please know that I do not mean to minimize these struggles, but am only writing of my most recent experiences in this space.

[3] Gilmer writes about heartwork in his dissertation, “You Got to Have a Heart of Stone to Work Here: Coaching, Teaching, and ‘Building Men’ at Eastside High,” available here: https://unc.academia.edu/MicahGilmer/Papers.

[4] The teachings of Phillip F. Smith, Jr., Pastor of Colorado Christian Fellowship, have greatly assisted in my journey to connect purpose, faith, and heartwork with my writing. His sermons can be found for free on iTunes.

I am an anthropologist and historian of Tibet, and a professor at the University of Colorado. I conduct research, write, lecture, and teach. At any given time, I am probably working on one of the following projects: Tibet, British empire, and the Pangdatsang family; the CIA as an ethnographic subject; contemporary US empire; the ongoing self-immolations in Tibet; the Chushi Gangdrug resistance army; refugee citizenship in the Tibetan diaspora (Canada, India, Nepal, USA); and, anthropology as theoretical storytelling.

2 thoughts on “Guard Your Heart and Your Purpose: Faithfully Writing Anthropology

  1. Great post, I found it most interesting the way you associate your vulnerabilities with your writing process. I usually end up deep in thought about my research projects while on the bus and often end up missing my stop. Maybe consider Crayola Washable Window Markers for the shower…

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