Arianne Edmonds On Memory Keeping, and Making and Finding Home

Arianne Edmonds Interviewed By Tyler Hicks
13 min read
Arianne Edmonds at Palm Moments in Osu - Accra, Ghana

Arianne Edmonds is a keeper of culture. She’s mastered the art of creating and calling upon ancestral knowledge to do so. Memory keeping - a superpower - runs deep in her lineage. From the J.L. Edmonds Project, the story of her family’s history in Los Angeles, her other projects including BLKNWS®  x Hanks Mini Mart and the Sunrise Mourning Meditation, to her relocation to Ghana, it’s clear that Arianne lives a life that carefully considers the past in her future plans. We touched base with her while in Los Angeles and chatted about her inspiration, her intentions, the sanctity of dreams and the flow of life.

Listen to the full interview on our Soundcloud.

Tyler Hicks: So I already know the answer to this, but the world needs to know... who are you?

Arianne Edmonds: I love this question. Um, let's see. I am Arianne Edmonds. I'm a fifth generation Angeleno. I, let's see... I've always been so obsessed with memories and families and why we're all bound to each other. My work is kind of like a dreamscape. 

So it's like all these disconnected pieces that come together that help remind us who we are. So, my work is at an intersection of art and history and culture. And, like civic life, government, it's a mix.

TH: That was such a beautiful response. I feel like you're already kind of getting into some of the other questions that we have. So I'm going to just jump right in and say, can you tell us a little bit about how you arrived in Los Angeles for all the folks who don't know and why you're also so drawn to Black Media and to newsmaking?

AE: Yeah, so my father's side of the family actually moved to LA in the late 1880's, around 1886, 1887. And most of them have stayed. On my mom's side, they migrated to California around the 30s or 40s, which was one of the first waves of migration from Mississippi. And so our families were some of the  earliest Black Angeleno pioneers, I should say, or cultural architects in the city.

But I took a little bit of a shift, you know, my mom got a job in Atlanta. So I lived in the South. I moved there when I was about 14. And then I lived on the East Coast for a while. And then, in my mid 20s, I had this dream. Jefferson Lewis Edmonds, who's like, you know, the centerpiece of all my research and a lot of my work, who's my great, great grandfather, and the founder of the Liberator newspaper, one of LA's early Black newspapers... He came to me in this dream. And, you know, I just started kind of getting into that research around that time. And in the dream, he asked me to come back home, come back to LA and so I did.

Jefferson Lewis Edmonds

I didn't know that I was going to stay for so long. I thought I just had this dream where he wanted me to just come and maybe do some research but yeah, my whole life opened up when I got here and I do think that he called me to come back to continue some of the work he was doing here.

You know, growing up, our family didn't really talk about how we had owned this Black newspaper, something that my grandpa really cared about. And when he passed, you know, I do have family members that saved the history, but it wasn't really something we talked about, or we really learned about. And so, after doing all this extensive research, I was like, "what is this", "we got this" and "we got that". And I started piecing things together.

And as I started reading some of these articles, which by the way, Jefferson kept all the papers, put them in bound books, and it had been handed down in our family for a long time. So we still had some of the original papers. And this, like, fascination and love of Black news and media making kind of started to swell. For me, you know, like swell up in my heart, I was like, wow, the way that he's describing things that are happening in his community feels so different from how, you know, I was experiencing the news, just in my day to day. There was this softness and appreciation, and tenderness that I hadn't really seen a lot of. 

And so it's sent me on this journey to find a bunch of other Black newspapers that in many ways, you know, do the same thing. There's something powerful about what happens when you find space to reflect back to like, the folks that look like you that experience the things you experience, and there's like rest there, you know. So, yeah, I think that's what drew me to this work.

You know, there's also, I think, for a long time...  I'm not saying this well, let me think about this. You know, when I do talks and meet with like other folks that are trying to trace their family history or are historians, there's always this [feeling that] "we have to save our history, and why don't we talk about it?" And there's such disappointment. And I think I've committed to this journey, it's been, let's see, almost 13 years now.

In the beginning, I shared that sentiment, like "we have to, why aren't we talking about it", but I realized some of this stuff is really painful. And a lot of it - a lot of the reasons why we knew it was important to save our histories and who we are - was out of survival and out of dealing with such trauma.

So I've tried to have a lot more compassion for the elders in our lives that don't know how to talk about this or process the things that they experienced. I think that there's something really radical about saving... they could have easily thrown all this away. But I think they did their part by keeping it hidden, protecting it for all these years and waiting for someone like me, or other folks like me and their families, to share. I think that this is not the work for everyone. It's a huge undertaking. So I've learned to have so much respect for those who could keep this but maybe didn't have the words to share it.

TH: My gosh, that's a really good point about acknowledging the fact that a lot of this history keeping is painful and just kind of respecting the fact that even through those kinds of emotions your family was able to protect and prepare all of the information and all of the archives so that someone like you that came through them, after them, has access to it and kind of responds to the calling, you know? I love that.

AE: Yeah. Something that actually really changed my perspective around archiving and preservation work and memory work was all the time that I spent in West Africa, and more specifically in Ghana. There is a celebration of tradition and culture and history. 

But I think because there's less of a need to preserve out of survival, you know, because, I mean, yes, it's important to be able to pass things down. But I think because us here in the States, you know, we've always, I think we were always seen as temporary that we, you know, that our contract with the American government was to build this and then essentially, like, you know, disappear, you know, not be a part of like, the American fabric or have citizenship and agency. 

And so, by us continuing to show up and demand those things, we're kind of defying, I think, America's first understanding of who we are in this country. And so the fact that we have been able to keep some of these records and protect [them] is huge. 

So my time in West Africa and seeing that there's not this life or death, survival mindset around preservation rocked me. It shook me. I think intellectually I understand that. But spiritually, and even emotionally, I had to sit with that for a bit. And it's changed the way that I think about how we remember the things we choose to remember. 

You know, the continent is still dealing with the effects of colonization and all kinds of things… it's not perfect. But there isn't this sense of desperation around their stories in their culture. That's what I found in Ghana, and it just restored my faith around how to take care of ourselves. Our stories are just there to kind of teach us how to be human, how to care for our families, how to take care of each other. Yeah, it just felt really effortless there.

TH: Okay, this response just rocked me to my core because I don't think I've ever conceptualized archiving and cultural preservation as something that isn't done out of necessity, or like a need to combat some type of erasure. So this just completely blew my mind. 

Yeah, because as you know, I've done some deep diving into my own family history. I mean, it's funny how we're both drawn to these things. And it happened completely independently. Like I did this before I met you or before I got close to you. But I've been trying to trace the roots of my own family since I was like 12, or 13. And I managed to get back to, I want to say, like 1885 or something by looking at census data. And then, as soon as DNA testing started to become normalized, I went ahead and did that. 

And I went on this wild goose chase that lasted a couple years where people were telling me really obvious stuff like West African, you know. And then going into detail of every bit of non West African ancestry that, you know, most of us Black Americans have. So even in my own personal life, I've always almost felt this sense of like, desperation or like a need to know more. And to kind of bring back that information from the edge of oblivion, if that makes sense. So it sounds like I need to visit Ghana because I'd love to experience something new.

AE: Yeah, oh, I love what you said here, you never want to lose any of it.

I think that's really what it means to be in this country. We are constantly losing things and people and really in a state of grief. And I think being on the continent for almost a year was the first time I didn't really feel that grief. You know, when you're in grief you make different decisions. You hold on to things that maybe you don't need. And that's what I felt there. 

I felt like, they're going to remember the things they need to, right? So there's a chief that's responsible for dance or a chief that's responsible for the songs.There's folks that are responsible for different parts of the culture and they hand it down to the next person and that's their job. It's just not rooted in such grief. Yeah, I don't know any other word to call it. And there's some luxury in that - there's such a luxury in not having to hold on so tight.

TH: You know, it's so crazy that I've known you for however many years now, probably like six years already, but I had no clue that you spent any time in ATL. And as you know, I'm in the process of moving there. I have a place here and have a place there, and hopefully I will be just there very soon. But what were some of the huge differences between your upbringing here in LA or in Los Angeles versus Atlanta?

AE: I love this. Yeah, I think I shocked a lot of folks. I started to share some stuff online and folks were like, "Atlanta?", cuz I be repping for LA so hard. Yeah, Atlanta.  I was there for my teenage years and it was the best. Like we had Black teachers and like, our curriculum at a public school was still like a creative magnet school. 

But we still learned from Black authors and literature and art. And it just was like, really, really Black. And, I hadn't experienced that kind of deep rooted celebration of Black culture just like, every day when I was here in LA, and I wonder if maybe some of my experiences there helped me to kind of usher some of that into the work that I do now that I'm back home.

So I'm back. Okay, I'm back. You know what, I just think, in LA, like a lot of other major cities, folks just wait and wait and are really focused on their career and focused on building. I also think there's some power in that too. I think for those who do want partnership and relationships and families, I think being in places like this, it's hard. 

I think about all the different systems, social systems and social structures, that were set up to keep families and keep Black families and people together. And I think we don't have as many of those. I know that they're still social groups. I know people still go to church, I know they're still families. I'm not saying it's impossible. It's just I think, the weight that those structures had in people's lives and the way they prioritize them is really different now.

BLKNWS®  x Hanks Mini Mart
The Liberator

And I struggled with it for a long time. And so I think myself and like so many other Black women were like, cool, then I'm just gonna, like do me really fucking well. And I'm gonna, like, get all the outfits and like, work really hard and take care of my people and take care of my community. But I'll say for myself, I started feeling like, there has to be... that can't be enough... like, I also need help. I'm not supposed to do all this by myself. You know?

The last thing I'll say about that is I also think LA in particular, and California maybe, this is a place of dreams, this is a place where you come and you put your stake in the ground and you build what you want, you know. We have Silicon Valley and we have the Gold Rush and Hollywood and like, this is where you come and extract and in many ways. 

It's where you come in, innovate and build whatever it is you want. And I don't know that a lot of folks think of LA, or even California for that matter, as a place that you also invest in and plant and build, you know, with the natural resources that are already there. And so, I always share this with folks when they first come to LA, Black folks that come to LA, is to find a campaign that's happening, you know, and invest in some of the local politics and volunteer. 

You know, that's where you'll meet the people that really care about what's happening in our city. And I don't know - maybe you'll meet somebody. I haven't met anybody who has... I don't know anyone who met their man volunteering, but hey, I might sound like a grandma... but it could happen, baby.

TH: So do you think all of that kind of informed your decision to move away? And can you share where you moved to and what was the feeling like when you realized that you needed to move or that you wanted to move?

AE: Yes. I don't think that's the reason I left. I don't think I left LA because I was like, I'm over it. I, you know, I was working on a campaign, this community campaign for the census in DC. And I was running this gallery, like I was just working, working, I was spinning all my wheels, I was doing so much.

And then I had a few friends that were like, "Oh, we're gonna be traveling through West Africa." And I was like, oh, and then I just, I remember feeling so tired. So stretched. And in some of the places I was working, you know, we weren't really talking about what was happening, you know, with all the shootings and all the uprisings.

And I remember just saying, I'm just gonna go for maybe like a month or two over the holidays, and just like, catch a vibe. And then I ended up like, I came back home for a short bit, but I ended up staying, almost a year. I think Africa will do that to you. 

You're thinking you just come in and just catch a vibe, but the continent is like, "Oh, this is actually the temperature your body's supposed to be. And these are the fruits you're supposed to be eating. And these are the people that are supposed to be like taking care of you and loving you and smiling at you and saying 'Good afternoon' when you're walking by, okay".

And I just felt a level of care that I just had never experienced. And it was just in the way that folks said hi to me in the morning or, you know, the taxi drivers telling me to have a nice day and asking me about my family. I just think it's just a different way of operating. And I think on a soul level, I needed it.

You know, it's funny, I don't think I was like, "I'm moving to Ghana." I just kept saying yes while I was there. And we're in a pandemic. And all my work was online. And I already was like, oh, let me put my stuff in storage once I came back. So I just was like rockin' with it. I don't know, I really, I hadn't really done anything like that in my life.

And I don't know that I made a plan. It wasn't like making this long plan and putting all this together. I just kind of kept saying yes. And I wasn't looking for anything in particular at all. I knew that I wanted to feel. You know, I was working on a project. I was writing. And I knew I needed to be in a place where I felt wanted. And I didn't feel that here.

TH: So you kind of alluded to the next question a little bit in your last response. But people who've returned to the motherland, always talk about this feeling that they have when they touch down and I actually experienced it myself in South Africa when I was 12. It felt like every cell in my body was vibrating. Like with this sense of recognition, almost. And I'm just wondering, did you feel it? And if so, how would you describe it?

AE: This is such a cool question. So I've taken a trip to Africa before, and my first trip to the continent was in Morocco, in North Africa, and while I don't have ancestry there, it did feel very powerful being there. But West Africa felt different. I've also spent time in South Africa, both being in North and South Africa was all so great. 

But there's something about West Africa, and I think it's just because our ancestry is there, it just... it hits different. You know what I mean? Like, it just hits different, like, the colorfulness, the aunties, they're all in your business. It's just the way people are here. I don't know. Let me figure out how to describe how I felt. 

So when I first landed in West Africa, I flew into Dakar in Senegal. And seeing some of the terrain as the plane was landing, I remember feeling something very, very, ancient. I remember feeling like I have been here before, but I didn't live here. You know, when I got to Ghana, I felt like I had been there before - like I've lived there. Like I could feel my life there. 

But as I traveled through certain parts of West Africa and really just the continent in general, my body - I could feel if I hadn't been there before. I'm not describing this well, I'm trying my best. It's almost as if it's like coming back to a place that you know really well but it had been so long.

It's like meeting family members that you don't know that are distant family members. You know - that your mom's like, "Remember them. Remember when we came on this trip when you were three?" and you're like, no... that's what it felt like. It felt like - I know these folks. And I know this land. But I don't.

TH: Okay one last question. It's a juicy one - what are some of the ways - the biggest ways - that your life has changed since you went to Ghana?

AE: I mean, one of the biggest things is that I fell in love and I got married. And it was... I mean, it felt a little wild at the time, but it also felt so natural and easy. And that's the only way I can really describe my time there is that I just kind of kept saying yes, and kept being open to what came my way. And let things flow, I think the way that they're intended to.

I keep thinking about how I have really bad allergies and like there's like all these different ailments that we have when we're [in LA]. Your back hurts if you're sleeping on the wrong mattress… and I just didn't feel any of that while I was there. So I think one of the biggest lessons is just like what it means to be in the flow of your life and what it means to make sure you're still kind of just being easy with yourself. I felt that there and that's something that I've tried to bring with me as I've come back.

Arianne Edmonds is 5th generation Angeleno, archivist, civic leader and founder of the J.L. Edmonds Project, an initiative dedicated to preserving the history and culture of the Black American West. She has curated and presented her research about Black history, memory and legacy at several cultural institutions around the U.S. Her family archives stretch back to the 1850's and her story as the keeper of her ancestral records can be found in the New York Times 1619 Project, The Root and LA Weekly. She is currently a Senior Civic Media fellow at USC Annenberg funded by the MacArthur Foundation and a newly appointed Commissioner of the Los Angeles Public Library.

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Arianne Edmonds On Memory Keeping, and Making and Finding Home
13 min read