Unearthing Creativity: The Power of An Ancestral Wall
Updated: Apr 27
Lately, my late nights have taken on a different appearance. The scene is now set with my laptop open, the same Miles Davis record playing on repeat, and a halved grapefruit accompanied by a spoon.
It is only recently that I have developed a fondness for grapefruit. As a child, I was repelled by its bitter taste, but now I find myself reaching for it at the grocery store, adorning it with a touch of brown sugar, and savoring it during my writing sessions.
A similar transformation has occurred in my approach to writing. In the past, I was always writing. I wrote fiction, essays, articles, poetry, scripts, and more.
In each phase of life, my home office or writing nook has drawn its inspiration from different places: comic books, artists, inspirational quotes, random gifts, etc. You could find me skipping through a Pandora playlist while staring at multiple things representative of my interests but not always aligned with my work.
As I grew older, my free time diminished, and my moods rarely aligned with the spirit of writing. Writing curriculum, an extremely different craft, or keeping a roof above my head consumed me.
That is why the past three years of my life have surprised me. Despite insisting on a two-bedroom apartment in my 20s to dedicate one room to creative pursuits, I spent almost a decade neglecting it.
At various times, it served as a temporary home for friends in need, a laundry sorting area, a storage room, or simply an additional place to nap.
During the pandemic, the spare room in my abode has transformed into a sanctuary. In 2020, it served as a children's YouTube show studio. In 2021, it embraced new canvases and paintings with open arms. This year, it has witnessed more writing than ever before.
At midnight, I often slip away from a snoring partner or an unfinished TV show to write until the early morning hours. Occasionally, dreams startle me awake, filled with visions that demand to be recorded.
I attribute part of this creative renaissance to the world's chaos and the sudden opportunity to work from home. The other part was a deliberate choice.
One night, driven to immerse myself in inspiration, I resolved to revamp my office.
It already featured a bookshelf, a desk, and a few trinkets. However, given my office spaces' various changes—sometimes even closets—had undergone, I knew its design need not remain static. With most of my work at the intersection of Black history and pop culture, I knew that's where I had to begin.
This epiphany prompted me to gather other items for my wall that represented my family history and the diaspora: a washboard symbolizing the matriarchs who washed clothes and raised children in America shortly after their arrival; images of Jamaica and Caribbean islands that had experienced similar fates; a passport mask as a metaphor for migration; a group of my partners' ancestors sitting at a speakeasy table, a doll I received after my first visit to my mother's homeland; and artwork that resonated with the themes I was writing about. It felt like something was missing when I was complete, but I couldn't put my finger on it.
A week later, my father arrived at my home bearing a gift for me. He had no idea I was revamping my office wall, but such gestures are not unusual among the people in my life. As a collector of artifacts, trinkets, and culturally significant items, I often find others arriving at my home with presents.
He placed it on my coffee table, right side up, and said, "I thought you should have this."
It was an 8 x 11 frame, and at its center was a black-and-white photograph of my paternal grandmother, likely in her twenties. It was my first time seeing an image of her so young and beautiful. She had passed away when I was twelve, and apart from the photos in my parent's home, I didn't possess a picture of her.
At that time, I was crafting a story that reflected the community she had come from and the era in which she would have been born. I realized that her story was central to my inspiration, and while I could place her anywhere, her photograph belonged on my office wall.
I rearranged each collected item on my desk, ready to mount them on the wall. After positioning each piece in its new designated space, I realized I had assembled an ancestry wall. Reflecting on the past, my wall reminded me of the purpose behind my work: our origins, impact, and foundation.
It wasn't long before creativity surged, and the images before me reignited old habits. This time, the habits were more refined and purposeful: I started retrieving old records from my crates, eager to capture the ambiance of the 1930s script I was crafting. I stacked my reference books before me, exchanging them for new ones as I transitioned between projects. I even painted scenes from my research on small canvas pads. Connections among texts and artifacts became more apparent than ever. Their ties to my history arrived in waves, ultimately submerging me in recollection.
Something greater than myself was flowing through me.
Much like vision boards—often visible but forgotten—suddenly become revelatory when you realize that you've achieved goals set years ago, the content on my wall began to permeate every aspect of my being.
I would rearrange and add items as the spirit moved me. I dreamt of my subject matter, talked about it incessantly, hummed the era's music, and the prose flowed effortlessly. It was as if my ancestors were speaking through me.
The intentionality behind the trinkets in my office changed my creative practice forever.
For me, it's challenging to write without completely immersing myself in the world I'm constructing—often fictional, yet grounded in Black history.
I'm working on a piece that weaves together New York City, the American South, the Caribbean, and a significant historical American movement, featuring characters inspired by my family and friends. Here are the steps I took to assemble my wall:
1) Sit with your memories. Certain images emerge when contemplating what I want to write or create. I picture myself as a young child, running my fingers across the merchandise in a Jamaican gift shop. I recall touching the canvas with raised acrylic paint forming palm trees and shorelines. I remember visiting my grandaunt Doris and watching her wash our clothes in the same bucket she would use to bathe me later that morning. Images from my family photo albums and online sources remind me of this time. As I summon the original images or similar representations, I list them and strive to select a few to reprint or borrow.
Consider the following questions:
What memories align with your protagonist? Antagonist? Topic? Themes?
Are there significant visuals connected to those memories? A bright yellow washtub? A bunch of flowers? A pattern on a dress? These visuals can evoke words.
What memories or evidence of them already exist outside your mind? Think of photos, letters, artwork, and so on.
2) Remember that everything is an artifact. While many of your possessions and collectibles may seem trivial to someone else, each one holds a memory for you. Every item you collect or own bears witness to your story and existence. Our most remarkable artists have safeguarded their journals, records, and innovations, with institutions, family members, and organizations bearing their names, ensuring their legacies aren't forgotten. Octavia Butler preserved her receipts. Du Bois retained his letters. My grandmother keeps a swatch of fabric from each skirt she's made. What part of your legacy intertwines with your current work? Is there an artifact that symbolizes it?
A postcard from a friend, who always writes in long form and great detail, sits on my desk because it reminds me of the intentionality I aspire to have in my work. Once, while writing a letter from one protagonist to another, an accidental glance at the front of the postcard unleashed a wave of emotion as deliberate as my friend's.
3) Design with heart. While it may sound cliché, it's easy for many of us to become entangled in labels, such as those from the interior design industry. Whether maximalist or minimalist, the key is to display what matters to you. Shift and rearrange items until something clicks. That click signifies synchronicity. To elevate the appearance of your ancestry wall, contemplate incorporating additional decorative elements, such as wall art, vintage items, or other keepsakes that embody your family heritage.
4) Choose a wall: Once you have gathered all the necessary items, choose a wall in your office (or other space) that you would like to use to display your ancestry wall. Consider a location that is visible and easily accessible.
5) Choose frames that complement your chosen theme or color scheme. You can consider using different sizes and styles of frames to add visual interest to your ancestry wall. You can get your symmetry on and use all the same size frames.
6) Plan the layout of your ancestry wall by arranging the photos and information visually appealingly. You can consider using a theme or color scheme to tie everything together. Enter "gallery wall" on Pinterest to garner inspiration. Read a blog on prepping for this step.
7) Display your ancestry wall: Once you have completed it, display it prominently in your office for everyone to see. Use it as a source of inspiration and a reminder of your family history, heritage, and everything you hold near.
Recently, my mother visited me. She walked into my office during a writing session, and at that moment, I was eating a grapefruit.
She appeared astonished, "Since when do you like grapefruit? You used to hate it."
I shrugged, "I'm not sure. I started craving it one night."
My mother smiled, glanced up at my ancestry wall, and shared something I had never heard before, "You know, grapefruit was your grandmother's favorite snack."
We both gazed at my grandmother's picture and reached the same realization without speaking.
As we shared that silent understanding, I couldn't help but feel the serendipitous connection to my grandmother, a bond that transcended time and nurtured my creativity.