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,


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