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How does one look to the constellations for guidance if one cannot see the stars?

It was a dark and stormy night. My good friend Helen, a talented multimedia artist and filmmaker, had accompanied me to Detroit, Michigan, to help film an important interview for the documentary portion of my undergraduate senior honors thesis. We happened to arrive in Detroit in the middle of the annual General Motors festival, so all the affordable hotels were booked, and only one Airbnb was available. The pictures online looked lively, of course. But when our Uber driver pulled up to our destination, we discovered that the Airbnb was the darkest house at the end of the cul-de-sac.

Helen and I got out of the Uber, eager to get inside since the 30-mph-winds and dark, cloudy sky threatened a massive thunderstorm. We went around to the back of the house to retrieve the key from the dilapidated, manual-style garage, and discovered a red tricycle inside, facing outward, as if a child had intended to ride out of the garage but never did. A black Ford Thunderbird sat outside the garage, its interior coated in a thick layer of dust.

After struggling to open the lockbox in the garage, we finally went inside the house, discovering that it was, in fact, a vertical duplex, and our keys did not open the upper portion of the house. We hauled our luggage inside, and immediately stopped in our tracks. The lovely, bright furniture, classy décor, and ornate rugs that were featured on the Airbnb website were nowhere to be found. Instead, we were greeted with broken furniture, school desk chairs arranged in a circle, a record player with no records, and absolutely creepy photos of deserted dentist offices. Helen exclaimed, “This is so weird!” My thoughts exactly.

In preparation for my big interview the following morning, Helen and I retired early on the dusty mattress propped up by old milk crates. As soon as I turned the lights out, I heard a tapping on the window. “Helen, do you hear that?” I asked. “No, what is it?” Helen replied. I went to look out the window, but remembered that I have trouble seeing in the dark. Helen propped herself up to peer over the windowsill, and to our befuddlement, there was nothing outside—not a tree, bush, or even an animal to explain the tapping. “I guess it’s my imagination,” I mused.

Are there other ways of looking for guidance in the world when stars are not something that your body can recognize?

As we were finally drifting off to sleep, the radiator started to make loud clanging noises, and I heard distinct footsteps coming from upstairs. “Okay, I definitely hear that!” Helen said. The footstep sounds slowly approached the space directly above our bed, and stopped. My heart was pounding as I came to a realization. In full melodramatic fashion, I bolted upright in bed. Oh my gosh, I thought to myself. Helen is half deaf, and I’m night blind. We’re the perfect victims for a murder movie, and I’m the Black one!

I sat looking into the murky darkness, trying to pre-emptively problem solve in preparation for a spooky spirit or a chainsaw murder’s raid on our dingy Airbnb. I would have to be on auditory guard because Helen can only hear out of one ear. And if there were to be an intruder, Helen would have to go on the offensive since I can’t see in the dark. My eyes started to hurt. Gosh, I hate having night blindness! How are we going to make it out of this? I texted my boyfriend (now husband) at the time, who tried to reassure me that it was probably just a creaky old house.

As you can imagine, I slept very little that night. At the break of dawn, Helen and I scooted out of the Airbnb as fast as possible. As we walked past the Thunderbird to return our keys to the lockbox, I noticed that the trunk was wide open and the door to the garage was slightly ajar. Who—or what opened them? Although we came out of that experience unscathed, we certainly had some sort of encounter on that ominous night.

I navigate the world with a rare genetic condition called retinitis pigmentosa (RP), a degenerative eye disease that can lead to legal or total blindness. While there are therapies being developed, there is currently no confirmed treatment or cure for the disease. One of the side effects of RP is night blindness, where I have trouble seeing in dim and dark lighting. While some could think that night blindness might be akin to walking in the dark with sunglasses on, it’s more like having a sheet of moving, dim dots cast across your visual field—at least in my case. I am lucky that my case of RP has not progressed rapidly, but it still makes being independent very difficult at times. I liken myself to Cinderella, who has until the stroke of midnight before her magical night ends—for me, I have until the stroke of dusk to get home.

Like finding comfort in fairy tales, I have also tried to find meaning through the stories we choose to tell ourselves, both real and imagined. Many people reference a multi-generational approach to finding wisdom. For instance, one might suggest looking to the stars for guidance, alluding to multiple different traditions of using stars for navigation, or praying to gods or ancestors for their strength. Aisha Beliso de Jesus, editor in chief of Transforming Anthropology, recently wrote an article that beautifully exemplifies honoring intellectual ancestors as a means of celebrating the lives and works of both Audrey Smedley and Leith Mullings. Beliso de Jesus weaves together the stories of impactful Black women anthropologists, writing that “They laid the stones of our anthropology pathways and illuminate our steps, and we call upon them to continue to guide us.” One might look to the stars to find  guidance from these two anthropological giants and brilliant Black women. But what happens when you cannot see the stars? Are there other ways of looking for guidance in the world when stars are not something that your body can recognize?

Credit: iStock
Illustration of a starry night sky

Stargazing is a practice that has intrigued me, although it remains a bittersweet curiosity. In reality, I have never been able to fully see the nighttime sky. Most people do not know that this, amongst other things, is one of the side effects of my condition. When I told a group of friends in college that I cannot see stars, after being invited to go stargazing with them, their response was laughter. For some reason they did not understand that it wasn’t a joke, but an unfortunate aspect of my reality.

I have always viewed stargazing as a way of potentially connecting with my grandmothers, both of whom died from cancer before I was born. When I first watched the movie The Lion King, around the age of five, I remember being struck by the fact that Simba traveled to a remote location and turned to the stars to communicate with his late father. I, too, wanted to feel connected to my ancestors in some way, and looking to the stars always seemed like such a romantic, introspective thing to do. The ridicule from my friends stung, as they unknowingly laughed at a dream that I had always held in promise for myself.

Recently, I have started to come to terms with the fact that I cannot see stars in the traditional sense. Those small lights glimmering in the night sky, offering a glimpse into the cosmos beyond our solar system may never be something that I can visually detect. Perhaps, I instead see “stars” in a different way to those who do not have retinal conditions. Perhaps I have a different connection to my ancestors and do not need the nighttime sky to seek guidance from them, much like the main character of Tomi Adeyemi’s Legacy of Orisha series. In Adeyemi’s, Children of Blood and Bone (2018), we are introduced to Zélie, a stubborn, adventurous, and feisty teenager who wields the potential for magic. The world has been made to believe that the source of all magic, the gods who granted humans with this power, no longer exist. As Zélie finds herself in dangerous encounters—often due to her quick temper and sharp tongue—she prays to gods that she is not certain even exist. “Skies,” she will often curse under her breath, or Zélie might exclaim, “My gods!” In a world where the mere mention of the gods could result in punishment or death, Zélie constantly looks to them for strength and guidance—she interacts with the world in a way that certifies the remnants of their existence. And just as the faint dots echo across my vision, I choose to see them as star-like reverberations of my own spiritual and ancestral connections. I feel myself wrapped in the protective arms of my grandmothers in my alternative, starry universe. I feel the presence of my late mother. For decades, she conducted meticulous research in an effort to find resources for my brother—who also suffers from RP—and me. Much like family, my alternative stars can be annoying at times, keeping me up at night or obscuring my vision, but they are my only way of stargazing, and I’m stuck with them.

Much like sailors looking to the cosmos to find their way in the world, I use my own stars in a similar way. Although my stars may look different, they are a part of me. And when I need to find my way home, I know that these stars represent a rich history and a past filled with the love and care of my family that I can rely on to guide me forward.


Photograph of a woman outdoors

Alexis L. Holloway

Alexis L. Holloway is a fourth-year cultural anthropology PhD student and Dean’s Graduate Fellow at Duke University. Her research explores how the mechanisms of white supremacy operate in classical music performance, examining how racial and aesthetic hierarchies position Black bodies as aberrant in these spaces. As a filmmaker, she hopes to produce a multimodal dissertation, consisting of a written portion and an accompanying documentary that attends to the aural and performative aspects of her research.

Cite as

Holloway, Alexis L.. 2023. “An Alternate Gaze.” Anthropology News website, February 13, 2023.