It was unexpected.

And expected at the same time.

You can’t play with fire and not expect to be burned.

When I started my creative work into slavery, I thought I could remain a passive creator. You know, I thought I could do my research, read, and translate that into work. Well I was 150% wrong. I could not escape it. When reading about or engaging with slavery, there are no boundaries. The history, the people, their voices, reach out, kidnap you, and put you into their stories. These people weren’t abstract figures, they were alive, everything that happened to them was real and even worse than I could ever imagine. That is the horror, it wasn’t fiction, it was reality.

I can name about three instances when I felt a bodily response.

Olaudah Equiano’s Interesting Life of the Narrative of Olaudah Equiano (non-fiction, slave narrative)  when he describes the “pestilential smell” in the hold of the slave ship.

Toni Morrison’s Beloved (fiction), a character named Ella describes how she was bound and kept in her master’s room, where both her master and his son raped her.

Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing (fiction), a character named Esi is in the dungeon of Cape Coast Castle in Ghana and describes how other women were placed on top of her and how waste and urine from other women seeped through her legs. Another time where she is taken upstairs and abruptly raped and brought back to the dungeon.

In all these instances I remember either throwing the book down, gasping, or just dropping it and having to walk away from it for a few days.

This notion of trauma is a real one. We cannot view it in an abstract, psychological form, but in a very tangible and present one that affects our everyday lives. There have been studies in epigenetics that suggests that trauma can be passed down through family members and groups of people.

Sometimes I ask myself, am I wounding myself by engaging in this work? I am opening up the wounds made by history and passed down through generations of my ancestors. There have been times where I had to literally put myself (as best I could) into those same conditions that enslaved Africans faced so that I’m making work that is coming from a real place.

The funny thing is, I naively thought I could be safe working with a subject…an institution from centuries ago. But those stories are very much alive, have always been alive. I also know that the ghosts of slavery are still present and active. Safety is a fiction. And I was never as far removed from this history as I thought I could be. My only hope is that through this active engagement with trauma, I can move to a deeper understanding and move towards healing.

Until next time,


Song of the South

I was looking for something and I needed to find it. I didn’t know where it would be, but I felt that it could be found. In August of 2016, I embarked on a road trip through the South. I received a research grant and I wanted to take some time to travel to help the research process of my thesis project on slavery. So my mother, my 10 year old cousin, and I crowded ourselves into our rental SUV and made the drive from Hampton, Virginia.

Technically, Virginia is the South. Although some don’t see it as being a part of the South. In our cultural imagination, when we think about the South, we’re thinking about the Deep South. I originally proposed a project to travel to New Orleans and study its relationship to the legacies of slavery. Instead, I decided to go to places that had specific ties to slavery. We drove through 8 states: Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. We stopped in Charleston, Sullivan’s Island, and St.Helena Island in South Carolina. Saint Simon’s Island in Georgia. And New Orleans and surrounding areas in Louisiana.

What do all of these sites have to do with slavery? Sullivan’s Island, SC was the place where 40% of enslaved Africans came through before they were sold in other places in the US. Meaning most African Americans have ancestors who passed through this point. St. Helena’s Island was/is the seat of Gullah/Geechee culture. Saint Simon’s Island, particularly Dunbar Creek, was the site of Ebo’s Landing. And New Orleans was the site of the largest antebellum slave market in the country.

I was hoping to reconcile the uneasiness that I felt about slavery, a history that I am both inside and outside of. I was hoping that by visiting these plantations and by going to these sites, I would feel a kind of connection, or a reconnection. Instead, I felt disturbed and further isolated. Here’s why. When a loved one has passed away, you go to their graveyard and lay flowers by their tombstones. You sit on the ground, face the tombstone, and just talk and cry. Now imagine going to a graveyard with flowers in your hand, except you have no idea where your loved one is buried, or even the name of your loved one, there is no tombstone. Matter of fact, there is no graveyard. All you have are flowers in your hand and a burning fire in your heart to mourn and remember, but there is no where to go. That is exactly how I felt.

Plantations are peculiar spaces because they are, in a way shrines to their former (slave) owners. The enslaved Africans are the post script. The tour guide, dressed in antebellum attire, jovially speaks about the former slave owners and the intricacies of their everyday lives, and switches to a woeful tone for three minutes to describe the conditions of the enslaved, and brightens up to resume speaking about the china plates the masters ate off of.

I felt most uneasy when we were in Georgia. Saint Simon’s Island to be exact. If you are not familiar with the story of Ebo’s Landing, click here. I was hoping to go to, or drive by Dunbar Creek, the place where the incident occurred. I was dismayed, to say the least, when residential summer homes blocked any kind of access to the creek. There was no sign of it. The same thing happened in New Orleans, where I expected to see a plaque or some kind of tour about the legacies of slavery in New Orleans. Instead I saw Omni Hotels and casinos most likely built on top of enslaved people, their stories, and their histories.The Whitney Plantation was different. The whole plantation was dedicated to the lives of the enslaved people at the plantation. And it was extremely necessary to hear the other side of history.

I am reminded of a quote by the great African filmmaker, Ousmane Sembène, “If Africans do not tell their own stories, Africa will soon disappear.” In that same vein, if we do not remember, if we do not mourn, if we do not tell our stories and face the brutal institution that slavery was, not only will we disappear, but there will always be a part of us that is missing and incomplete. And even more frightening than that, if we refuse to understand our past, we will misunderstand our presence, and we will never make it to the future.

That is the work I’m interested in doing now.

Until next time,


Why Slavery?

Today I wanted to discuss why I chose to make my thesis exhibition on slavery. But before I get there, it’s important for me to discuss why I’m in the program that I’m in.

Currently I’m double majoring in English and Studio Art and minoring in African & African American Studies. Originally when I first started college, I thought I would major and minor  in African & African American Studies, Sociology, and Media Studies. And boy, was I wrong! By the end of my first semester of college, I knew I had to be an English major. And sometime during my second year of college, I knew I had to be an Art major. I was previously opposed to studying both of these things. I dismissed English because I thought it was only about grammar and Shakespeare and I dismissed Studio Art too because I’m horrendous at drawing, and that was all art meant to me at the time. Through my classes, I realized that art was much more than just drawing and that it held immense power in this world..

During my third year of college, I decided to apply for the Distinguished Majors Project (DMP) in Studio Art. I made this decision because I knew that I wanted to pursue art at a professional level, and I thought that the DMP would give me the much needed preparation, patience, and technique in order to do so, as well as giving me the opportunity to learn about my practice. The DMP program is an independent year long project that culminates in a written thesis as well as an exhibition. The students in the program meet for weekly seminars as they work on developing the project on a subject of their choice..

Which brings me to slavery. Why slavery? Originally, my thesis was about a completely different subject. It was on the meaning of citizenship, home, and second generation Nigerian immigrants. I turned to slavery when I realized that my true interests laid there. So again, why slavery? What is the point of focusing on slavery when there are “more pressing” issues we are facing right now in 2017? I don’t have an eloquent answer to that question, but what I know and believe is that it still has something to say to us. Those people, their voices, their bodies, that were erased from history, placed in unmarked graves with new buildings constructed on top of them, drowned in the Atlantic Ocean, mutilated, sold, forgotten, abandoned, they still have something to say to us. Something to teach us. Stories to tell us. Warnings to give us. I’m hoping that my art can be a conduit for them. May their voices be heard always.


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