Who's That Gal: Rayshauna Gray, Writer and Historical Researcher
Name: Rayshauna Gray
Occupation: Writer, Historical Researcher (Tufts)
Hometown: Chicago, IL
Current ‘hood: Harvard Square, Cambridge
Currently Reading: Barracoon by Zora Neale Hurston, Slaves in the Family by Edward Ball, and journals kept by my mother and grandmother
Favorite Late Summer Activity: I love, love, love campfires and making smores while talking with a group of fascinating people.
Tell us a little bit about your career path and what you do.
During college, I’d pull out a map of the States every summer, pick a city, and find a job that provided room and board. I hopped over to San Francisco, LA, and ultimately Boston. The jobs sometimes differed, the regions each had their own personality and culture, but my time always came back to my love of people and their stories.
After leaving college, I packed another little bag and moved to Central Square to run an international student dorm. New England’s rich history pulled on something in me. For the first time in my life, my interest in genealogy became a full-fledged search for the details of my family’s time in the country...and an undying urge to find language for it all.
I was working a temp job at Tufts chronicling summer courses when I saw a Black woman historian’s name. I looked up her work and was transfixed by an interview she gave alongside David Blight (Yale). It turns out our families were in the same Mississippi Delta town after emancipation. I’d grown up in Chicago with my mom and maternal grandparents who were raised there (Mound Bayou, Mississippi). I was the only grandchild who’d grown up around the family archives.
I took it as a sign.
I became the professor’s research assistant and, as they say, the rest was history. I also recently became a member of the Harvard Slavery Research Archive and History Design Center, housed within the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research.
Race and gender are obviously incredibly important issues, but what inspired you to make them the center of your work?
In short, I think it’s like Eliezer Yudkowsky said “You are personally responsible for becoming more ethical than the society you grew up in.” Growing up, I was taught that Original Sin was “anything that separated us from the love of God.” I’m not a person of faith anymore, but I held on to that nugget and made it my own.
I began to wonder about the things (the -isms, the -phobias) that separate human beings from one another. I began to think of all the ways my socialization had rendered me less able to see people, hold space for them, and affect positive, lasting change in the world.
...and took it upon myself to make my constant questioning and morality central to my life.
When it’s all said and done, institutional and interpersonal oppression dimishines everyone’s humanity and quality of life. Actively combating it saves us all Seeking justice for people targeted by specific institutions honors them and affords them the humane treatment from others (and under the law) that they’re entitled to.
If someone wants to get more involved in the social equality movement, what are some steps they can take?
I learned best in community. Some work is internal, but the labor of love that comes out of service, empathy and justice seeking happens in community. I had a blast volunteering with MassNOW’s legislative task force.
What does your average day look like?
It differs day to day but the book’s a top notch priority these days. I’ve been prioritizing listening to my intuition and that requires that I go where I feel compelled. There are some mornings when all I want to do is drink black coffee in bed and outline the chapters of the book. Other days, I want to be with friends and wave to all the cute dogs that pass me in Harvard Square.
...and then there are days when I take walks in between six hour bouts in the archive. It’s funny (and I keep hearing a form of synesthesia), but everything influences my writing style. There are specific buildings that closely resemble etymology and concepts at the center of my work.
I might take a quick jaunt to get something to eat with friends or attend a networking event too. I really enjoy meaningful conversations and connecting people.
Not only do you conduct research at Tufts, you write a blog, and participate in countless events. Any tips for balancing time as a passionate career gal?
I believe in keeping a solid calendar. It seems small, but plugging your appointments and events in immediately is key for me. When all the facets of an entry are confirmed, it’s entered as green. When something’s pending, it’s yellow. If cancelled, it still appears in gray. I attend lots of events hosted by academic institutions too, so I subscribe to their calendars so they automatically appear in the color I’ve designated for them.
You’re in the process of publishing a book (wow!), what has that process been like? And tell us a little bit about Roseland!
Roseland is the story of the last 200 years of my family’s history through my maternal ancestors. We each get our own chapter written out of the year we turned 31. I’m originally from Chicago but my ancestral roots are in the Deep South.
In 1851, I’m writing about my gggg-grandmother Martha (who was likely born and enslaved in Virginia), her daughter Lucinda in 1893, her daughter Trudia in 1918, her daughter (the first ancestor I met) Wyona in 1940, my grandmother Pearlie in 1973, my mother in Chicago in 1995, and myself last year here in Cambridge.
I want to have their voices at the center of each of their chapters, so I’m relying on their journals, audio from oral histories, and conversations I’m having with my mother about her life. I’ve also created my family’s Heritage Box that includes photos, obituaries, and records including the 1870 census, the first census that listed African Americans as people and not property.
I aim to honor them, share our stories, and encourage readers to reflect on their identities and cultural inheritance. We live in a nation that doesn’t prioritize reflection...and it’s impossible for a nation to have a conscience if it doesn’t have a memory.
This opportunity means the world to me.