The Ones We've Been Waiting For: Gullah Geechee Womxn, Epigenetics, and Time-Travel
"Afrofuturism is a free space for women, a door ajar, arms wide open, a literal and figurative space for black women to be themselves. They can dig behind the societal reminders of blackness and womanhood to express a deeper identity and then use this discovery to define blackness, womanhood, or any other identifier in whatever form their imagination allows…
…However, Afrofuturism as a movement itself may be the first in which black women creators are credited for the power of their imaginations and are equally represented as the face of the future and the shapers of the future. Afrofuturism celebrates women like Catlett, Hurston, and Dunham for using the imagination as a space of resistance and establishes a lineage of this history of thought." 
-Ytasha L. Womack, Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture
This year I have been exploring Afrofuturism as a means of healing generational trauma in Black womxn. I believe healing and liberation go hand in hand. Although the process has not been linear, the synchronicity assures me that we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.
I began my Public History master’s program exploring whether Gullah Geechee women had historically engaged with womanism as resistance. My paper, “Our Existence is Resistance,” details my findings. The inquiry was motivated by my observations of young Gullah Geechee womxn—my peers. I sought out the root of why women in my communities often internalize misogynoir, homophobia, and other damaging ideologies/isms that ultimately reinforce our marginalization, and the oppression of others. I, too, have internalized toxic views of self and others. History, as always, provides perspective. Looking at slavery and Reconstruction exposed me to a lot of violence. To reiterate the conclusion of my paper, after delving into the horrors Black women faced from EVERYONE during that period of time, I’m astonished that we manage to function at all. Of course we are traumatized.
We are also beautiful and resilient.
Afrofuturism seemed capable of honoring not only our brokenness, but also a reality in which we are healed. I was pleasantly surprised to find how closely Afrofuturism and womanism align as paths to liberation and safety for Black womxn and femmes. Both ideologies are deeply rooted in Africana tradition and our affinity to speak ourselves whole.
Another unexpected revelation was the connection between Gullah Geechee culture and Afrofuturism. The history and the people kept popping up without me looking for them. In her dissertation, Aiesha Turman argues “that Afrofuturism is a result of and a response to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade with particular roots in Gullah-Geechee culture which is concentrated along the South Carolina and Georgia coasts, though historically reaching as far north as lower North Carolina and as far south as northern Florida.”
I have to agree. The stories of two women lead me to believe that a closer examination and embrace of Gullah Geechee history, culture, and people may prove useful as we strive to heal and live freely. As Ruth Mayer writes, “Black diasporic history, it seems, is a thing of the future, not of the past, a subject of fantasies, dreams and speculations--the currents and changes of the sea--which is created in the process of its recuperation."
In June 2017, I had the opportunity to attend and present at the CLAW Transforming Public History Conference in Charleston, SC. While there I was able to listen to Dr. J. Herman Blake. Dr. Blake gave a presentation entitled, "'I Born Since Peace Declare' Gullah Narratives of the Post-Slavery Era," about some of the stories he’d gathered from elder Gullah Geechee people on Johns Island, SC. He'd done a series of interviews in the 1980s with elders who were 90+ years old. His concern for the vulnerability of his interviewees was quite apparent, and listeners were invited to apply their own analysis. As a scholar and a griot, he wove anecdotes of anguish, vitality, and re-membering, while always honoring the humanity of his subjects.
He spoke of an elder woman who I’ll call “Doris.” I don’t remember many details about her life. Just one. While speaking to Dr. Blake, whenever Doris referred to herself or her mother, she used the word “cow.”
This haunts me.
Dr. Blake didn’t attempt to offer the listeners an explanation. We don’t know exactly what Doris meant. We don’t know why. Yet, I am left sorting through all the reasons a Black womxn might equate herself to a cow. The breeding. The rape. Wet nurses. Being forced to breastfeed a child you are taught is superior to you. What was life like for Doris? What dehumanizing experiences had she endured? What truths had her mother taught her? And the womxn before them. How had they loved themselves?
I think of my own depression. Inexplicable feelings of sadness. Of lack. Of insignificance. Disillusion. All those times when I couldn’t exactly name the pain or the source.
Free floating pain. Generation after generation of pain. I’ve known for years that loving myself is a revolutionary act. I had not considered, until recently, that all of my self-loathing might not even be mine. Or that loving myself could offer retroactive healing to others.
An episode of The Friend Zone podcast is what first lead me to consider that the experiences of my ancestors influenced my life far more than I’d understood. This was the first time I’d heard any scientific contextualization for what I formerly considered “generational curses." As reported by New Scientist, “Epigenetics looks at how environmental factors, like diet or lifestyle, can change gene activity in a way that passes from generation to generation.”
Scientists at Emory University conditioned male mice to fear the smell of cherry blossoms by associating the smell of the plant with an electric shock. Soon the mice feared the smell without being shocked. They also developed receptors that allowed them to detect lower levels of the scent. Shortly after, the male mice were bred with females. Their offspring? Also terrified of the scent of cherry blossoms. Without ever experiencing the electric shock, the plant—or even existing during the time of the shock experiments—the descendants of those male mice were terrified by the scent of cherry blossoms. They never experienced the violence, but they carried the trauma. 
This suggests that there are Black womxn walking around today with the same despair and disillusion that Doris had. Along with the 21st century violence, we carry the internal scars of Doris and others like her who did the best they could in the world they were born into.
Thankfully, epigenetics research is as promising as it is dystopic.
Instead of mice, an article in The New Yorker points to lessons we can draw from ants:
Ants have a powerful caste system. A colony typically contains ants that carry out radically different roles and have markedly different body structures and behaviors. These roles, [Dr.] Reinberg learned, are often determined not by genes but by signals from the physical and social environment…Carpenter ants, one of the species studied by the team, have elaborate social structures, with queens (bullet-size, fertile, winged), majors (bean-size soldiers who guard the colony but rarely leave it), and minors (nimble, grain-size, perpetually moving foragers). In a recent, revelatory study, researchers in Berger’s lab injected a single dose of a histone-altering chemical into the brains of major ants. Remarkably, their identities changed; caste was recast. The major ants wandered away from the colony and began to forage for food. The guards turned into scouts. Yet the caste switch could occur only if the chemical was injected during a vulnerable period in the ants’ development. 
What does this mean for Doris? Or for us? It seems that our identities and functions are influenced by more than environment. The developmental period in our lives when we experience these external factors plays a role as well.
Stay with me, here.
Dr. Blake also talked about Alice Wine.
In 1948, civil rights advocate and community leader Esau Jenkins and other community members—including Alice Wine—founded the Progressive Club on Johns Island, SC. The community co-op transformed over the years to serve as a grocery store, financial and legal clinic, a daycare, a school for adults, a residence hall, and a citizenship school. This was considered a blueprint for other citizenship schools that would later open throughout the country. Thousands of Gullah Geechee people became registered to vote thanks to the work of Jenkins and others.
Dr. Blake said he once asked Jenkins what he considered the driving force behind his ongoing activism and community outreach. Jenkins responded: Alice Wine.
Born in 1890, Alice Wine was 90-years-old when Dr. Blake got an opportunity to speak with her. Still living on Johns Island, Wine recalled a history of grassroots movements, political activism, empowered women, and personal and community accountability.
What was Alice’s catalyst? She being a major source of motivation behind the prolific Esau Jenkins. What was at the root of her commitment to Black people’s participation in politics? Her commitment to citizenship—her interpretation of liberation?
Dr. Blake says Alice told him she remembered when her mother and the other women on the island excitedly involved themselves with local elections. Sometimes they’d pack a lunch and spend all day at the polls. The women in Alice’s life instilled a need to actively engage with the world around her. To affect change when, where and how they could. Voting was important to Alice. She shared this belief with Esau. In “The Co-Op That Changed The South,” David Thompson writes:
In his business life, Esau Jenkins ran a bus service, which served the needs of high school students and daily workers going from the island to downtown Charleston. One day, in the 1950’s one of the passengers, Alice Wine, said to Esau Jenkins, “I’d like to hold up my head like other people, I’d like to be able to vote. Esau, if you’ll help me a little when you have the time, I’d be glad to learn the laws and get qualified to vote. If I do, I promise you I’ll register and I’ll vote.”
Esau Jenkins heard her plea. He copied off the laws and handed them out to his passengers. He began a daily custom of teaching them how to read and write and learn the law while he drove the bus. Blacks could not get the vote in South Carolina unless they could pass the literacy test. Alice Wine was the first of his passengers to register to vote.”
In what childhood fantasy world were Black women on Johns Island incredibly involved in politics? Prior to the 1960s? In what world?
My earlier research of Reconstruction pointed to the environment Alice was describing. In a section of my research paper entitled “Manifestations of Freedom,” I write:
Black women took advantage of the limited safety they had under the law before the federal government pulled the [Freedmen's]Bureau out. They would also take time off from work to participate in politics. Although Emancipation didn’t give freed women the right to vote, they’d travel to the polls to ensure their men casted the right votes. In the case of an election riot in Macon, GA, a newspaper reported: “The Negro women, if possible, were wilder than the men. They were seen everywhere, talking in an excited manner, and urging the men on. Some of them were almost furious, showing it to be part of their religion to keep their husbands and brothers straight in politics. 
So, I repeat: In what world?
This one. This world. Where Black womxn have never ceased to shape the future and manifest their own versions of freedom.
Perhaps this is what Alice witnessed during her childhood. Her memories of Black women from another time shuttled a brand new generation of Black people toward citizenship. Black womxn did that.
I am moved to recognize the ways Black women/femmes and Black queer people continue to time-travel—tailoring alternate realities and versions of freedom where they can actually breathe. This, to me, is Afrofuturism in practice. This is Sankofa. Pulling from the past to shape the future.
In one of infinite versions of reality, we are weighed down by generations of trauma—lives we’ve lived, and lives lived before us.
This brings me back to the ants. Siddhartha Mukherjee writes, “All of an ant’s possible selves are inscribed in its genome. Epigenetic signals conceal some of these selves and reveal others, coiling some, uncoiling others. The ant chooses a life between its genes and its epigenes—inhabiting one self among its incipient selves.”
In another version of reality, we choose to heal.
And what about Doris and Alice?
Acclaimed West African author, teacher, and healer, Malidoma Patrice Some offers retroactive possibilities:
When a person from my culture looks at the descendants of the Westerners who invaded their culture, they see a people who are ashamed of their ancestors because they were killers and marauders masquerading as artisans of progress. The fact that these people have a sick culture comes as no surprise to them. The Dagara believe that, if such an imbalance exists, it is the duty of the living to heal their ancestors. If these ancestors are not healed, their sick energy will haunt the souls and psyches of those who are responsible for helping them. Not all people in the West have such an unhealthy relationship with their ancestors, but for those that do, the Dagara can offer a model for healing the ancestors, and, by doing so, healing oneself.
Doris deserves to heal. She deserves to be remembered in love. Our mothers, grandmothers, and the womxn before them deserve to heal. We are still carrying their pain. Let us acknowledge it and lay it down. We deserve a reality in which we are whole.
And Alice Wine deserves to be recognized as the time-traveling Afrofuturist she is.
*I have intentionally used "womxn" and "women" interchangeably throughout this essay in my attempt to be increasingly inclusive to all femme-identifying people. Some of the resources I previously wrote or cited in this piece use the words "woman"/"women" exclusively. For more info about use of the word "womxn", look here .
 Ytasha L. Womack, Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture (Chicago, US: Chicago Review Press, 2013), 100.
 Ibid., 101.
 Library and Academic Information Services, “Aiesha Turman Researches Afrofuturism at the Barnard Library,” 2016, https://library.barnard.edu/news/Aiesha-Turman-Researches-Afrofuturism-Barnard-Library.
 Ruth Mayer, “‘Africa as an Alien Future’ The Middle Passage, Afrofuturism, and Postcolonial Waterworlds,” Amerikastudien/American Studies 45, no. 4, Time and the African American Experience (2000), 556.
 Linda Geddes, “Fear of a smell can be passed down several generations,” New Scientist, 2013, https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn24677-fear-of-a-smell-can-be-passed-down-several-generations.
 Siddhartha Mukherjee, “Same But Different,” The New Yorker, 2016, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/05/02/breakthroughs-in-epigenetics.
 David Thompson, “The Co-op That Changed the South,” Popular Resistance, 2014, https://popularresistance.org/the-co-op-that-changed-the-south/.
 Sara Daise, Our Existence is Resistance, 2017, https://www.saramakeba.com/new-blog/2017/4/17/our-existence-is-resistance-examining-the-resistance-of-free-gullah-geechee-women-during-reconstruction-through-a-womanist-lens.
 Malidoma Patrice Some, Of Water and the Spirit (New York, New York: Penguin Compass), 1994, 10.