I always try to come up with a clever title to help me write the story, but right now I can’t find the words.
Today, I went to the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, MI. I must be honest in that it was my first time walking through, despite what I have told some out of embarrassment. The museum is beautiful and I thought that the exhibits were well laid out, everything really brought you into the experience from the waves of the African shore to the Detroit barbershops.
It was the content, as one might expect, that caught me the most.
I have always learned about African American history, I’ve taken full courses designated to looking at U.S. history from a minority perspective. However, nothing brings history to life than seeing it. Touching it. Feeling it.
Writing this post is hard for me because it forces me to recognize how blind I’ve been, how complacent. Even with a degree in social work, I’ve still, until now (and maybe even still now), failed to understand the depths of the pain and torture experienced by the enslaved Africans stolen and brought to a foreign land.
I wish I could blame it on faulty school curriculum, lack of national public commemoration, or whatever else will make me feel better, but in truth I know its me. I’ve failed to recognize this, because largely I’ve refused to accept it, accept that I’m a part of that history. In fact, I am that history made modern, as are all the descendants of the Africans taken and of those who held the whips.
Walking through the door of no return onto the top deck of a slave ship really stirred me. As I trepidatiously ambled through the passage into the faux sun, I had a feeling of absolute sickness. The kind of ill that makes your stomach drop. Where you’re not sure if you have to vomit or shit your pants, but neither is planned to be pleasant. I could hear birds swirling around the ropes high in the air, large plates of canvas blowing in the breeze. Calming sounds, yet mixed along with it is the pleading in foreign languages, the screams and despaired moans of the Africans in the ship’s hold below.
There’s a piece you see before heading down the stairs into the underbelly, and it’s two white men holding down a Black man. The man is begging his captors to stop. He knows what comes next is horrific and brutal, he’s seen it happen multiple times already that day. After blatantly ignoring the man, laughing at his submission, they pull a hot poker from the flames and brand him with the initials of the boat’s owner. The only thing worse than the man’s screams of searing pain are the sizzling noises the iron makes as it lays on the skin. I can only imagine what the smell must have been like. A wreak of cooking flesh that flowed straight down into the prison where all of the other people were kept. They could not only hear the torment, but practically taste the charred meat of a man.
I cringed away from this piece of the exhibit, tears threatening. I attempted to busy myself in learning more about the Zong Massacre, a disgusting yet significant bit of history – more of that on another post – but the screaming filled my ears and soul which started to chill my heart, numb my fingers, and race my mind.
To stop the physical symptoms, I went down the stairs and made the first turn into the cargo hold and the visual was… There is no word. Jarring is not enough, startling is too simple. Disturbing still leaves much to be said, but it’s the closest I’ll get for now. Disturbing to see the rows of people jammed together. To see my people laid out in every nook and cranny, all the better to get as much money from them as possible. No matter their… anything! No matter their anything. They are not valued in any way other than the compensation they will bring in at the markets once they arrive in this new land.
I went through the rows and found the tears to flow quickly. I knelt to touch the heads of children, offering a silent prayer of seeing. I fingered the plastic dreadlocks attached to the women who looked like me and touched my own growing locs for connection. They all stared at me, their words came to me, known. I knew them, I know this story. I can feel it. There’s one whole half of me that has been missing and I found it in their eyes and cries, I found it in my own, and it was anger.
I’ve always felt angry, terribly terribly angry. Like kick holes in the walls of my bedroom angry. Constantly confused about who and what I am, finding ways to throw that anger back onto myself. I am nothing, I am wrong, I am a horrible person. What was wrong with me? I had fantasies that I would go on killing rampages, huge destructive dreams of bringing down buildings and toppling governments. Whole countries brought to rubble from my outbursts of rage. In the end, I was the only one turned upside down by these feelings and my refusal to seek their source.
No pity party here, instead quite the opposite. As I left the hold of the ship and stepped into the new world, I felt it. Empowerment. My rage previously my own enemy turned into passion, an enemy of history. What was a huge realm of shame for me had, in a single moment of connection. drawn a spotty outline for the path I both need and want to take forward. The one I’ve only brought to life in dreams. While I may never take down an empire, I now understand the reason why I would. I feel, if not in full, at least a tiny bit liberated. On a path of no return. And still we rise.