University of Minnesota Alumni Association

The Last Word

My Soul's Job

Excerpt from Traveling without Moving: Essays from a Black Woman Trying to Survive in America.

Photo by Sher Stoneman
Excerpted from Traveling without Moving: Essays from a Black Woman Trying to Survive in America. Taiyon J. Coleman (M.F.A. ‘03, Ph.D. ‘13) is associate professor of Literature, Language, and Writing & Women’s Studies at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota, and a U of M Libraries’ Mapping Prejudice National Think Tank Affliated Scholar. Published by the University of Minnesota Press, 2024. Copyright 2024. Used by permission.

On a late summer day in August 1981, my Great Aunt Reola told me that I reminded her of her late sister.

“Your eyes show too much, baby,” she said. “You feel too much. I feel so sorry for you. You are too sensitive, and you will have to learn how not to show everything you think and feel through your face... through your eyes.”

I stood there in front of Aunt Reola. After a couple of seconds, I just felt awkward and wanted to go get a drink of water.

Now, as an adult, I know that Aunt Reola saw me and felt sorry for me because she knew that I was the kid that saw, heard, and felt everything even when I didn’t understand it all and when the adults thought I wasn’t looking, listening, or feeling. Aunt Reola knew that I was the kid that boldly looked at adults in the face, despite their threats of getting a fresh green tree switch to my bare brown legs.

Today, as a writer who has aged, I can use my memory and words to return to that moment to see and understand more of what was there. I realize now that my soul’s job has always been to look and try to see the past, the present, and the future and to use my experiences, my empathy, and my compassion to teach and to write, to record and bear witness to my family’s and my ancestors’ (human) experiences, as their lives and their abilities to survive, to thrive, and to love the best way they knew how were and are the very foundation and essence of my own life, making sense of my experiences and my existence. 

In that way Aunt Reola, like many of my relatives and ancestors and their stories, were and are my best writing mentors.

How could I know that every interaction with my family members relative to their and my experiences, even the ones that I did not understand or enjoy, would become like a map, a trail of hot and spicy pork rinds or sock-it-to-me cake crumbs, which they would and were leaving me, consciously and subconsciously?

The internal and personal. The external. The universal. The human.

Their stories, joy, pain, suffering, survival, oppression, exploitation, struggles, and anger among infinite emotions were the clues and coordinates to be able to return to one day if and when I have the courage to continue looking and seeing. If and when I have the discipline and commitment to continue writing and journeying along those lines, those maps, wherever it and they may take me. In that way, I am merely honoring my ancestors’ doing what they did so that their legacies can continue, as their sacrifice and very defiance to survive, thrive, and love the best they knew how have afforded me an education, literacy, and my ability to purchase paper and pen—to write myself, my family, my ancestors, and us into existence, into freedom, and into humanity.

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