Many black travel narratives focus on racism, ignorance or exotification. Other damage-centered stories focus on forced movement or displacement. When we only hear and tell these kinds of stories about black movement across land, we showcase narratives of black bondage. One impact of these narrow appraisals is it keeps black people us in the same place, preventing us from experiencing the freedom that moving can also bring.
We have been blogging about black people on pilgrimages as a liberating and authentic relationship to land. Another story about moving across land we hear is about moving from the city to the country.
Leah Penniman moved from Albany to rural upstate New York, where she and her husband began to build their own home and farm. Penniman vividly describes the complexity of this move:
“I hated this land a lot too. We bought it. It’s beautiful. It’s a spiritual vortex. It’s amazing. It’s the only place with fields and the whole mountainous area. But the work, the work and the money almost killed me. It almost made me kill [my husband] actually. I think that he almost killed me too! But we’re here so, it’s good…. The thing is that it’s hard to make a decision to live early on land because … it felt like it was leaving the Black community.”
Penniman’s account of moving across the land is balanced. It is not a story about force. She talks about the beauty, the building process and the freedom while still acknowledging the losses , complications and the getting used to a new place. Penniman’s relationship to moving across land is complex and all desired centered.
In what ways have you or your family moved across land because you were going toward something you wanted, instead of moving because you were being displaced or getting away from something ?
Check out Leah’s Soul Fire Farm Black and Latino Farmers Immersion courses this summer!
The last several blog posts here have followed Joan Southgate and Ingrid Askew through their movement across land. Pilgrimage is a very specific method that black people use to seek their own definitions of land and their terms of relationship to it. Those self-definitions are important. It says something significant that “hope” and “hospitality” are the relationships Southgate names for her freedom seeking ancestors, not “slavery.” Askew juxtaposes beauty and poverty, and contrasts owning land and working the land, to tell a different story about the ways black people hold complex relationships to land.
But whether it is in the background or the foreground, these black land narratives also contain stories of trauma and pain. And writing about black experiences of historical trauma is tricky business.
Any time we listen to black people describe their relationships to land, stories of damage are abundant. It is important for us to share and unpack these stories in order to understand how a history of violence and dispossession becomes a repeating legacy of land loss.
However, many people interested in Black/Land are frighteningly eager to hear stories about suffering, and eagerly await a narrative about degradation and pain. Their interest in historical trauma comes from an idea that black people’s bodies are essentially suited to hold, endure and symbolize suffering. This poisonous notion is internalized by black as well as non-black people. Other non-black readers, particularly those early in the journey of dismantling racism, still see black people as resources for extraction: if not for extraction of labor, then for extraction of authentic culture or as opportunities to extract emotional catharsis.
So I sit here at the keyboard trying to puzzle this out: how can I write about how black people understand historical trauma among ourselves when I know I may hear these words back from mouths that do not mean us well? How can we claim space to tell each other our stories without putting all our business out in the street?
Dear Reader, what counsel would you offer me?
Continuing our theme of historical pilgrimage a way to explore black relationships to land, we return to the Interfaith Pilgrimage of the Middle Passage (read more about the pilgrimage here). Ingrid Askew led this twelve-month walk through the eastern United States, the Caribbean, Brazil, West Africa, and South Africa, to reverse and revise the direction of the Middle Passage symbolically and geographically. The pilgrims were a multiracial, interfaith group that included Ingrid’s daughter, Raina.
Much of the pilgrimage was a reckoning with the historical trauma of enslavement and colonization as a transnational experience. Many African-Americans know about the history of slavery in the United States; yet embodying the Middle Passage and confronting the emotional scope of this historical trauma in very personal terms transformed them. Ingrid described helping her daughter through such a moment of confrontation and understanding while the pilgrims were encamped in Puerto Rico.
I got in the tent one night, and [Raina] was crying her eyes out. And I was like, “What’s the matter? What’s going on?” She said, “I get it now, Mommy. I get it, I’ve learned enough. I don’t want to know anymore, I don’t want to learn anymore. I just want to go home. I don’t want to do this pilgrimage anymore” she said. “It’s too painful. I’m not going to go to Africa, I’m going back to the states, Mom.”
And I said, “No you’re not. No you’re not, I can’t allow you to do that, because I don’t want to spend the rest of my life regretting not making you do it, and I don’t want [you] to spend the rest of your life regretting not having done it. No. You’re going. When you signed on for this pilgrimage, you didn’t sign on for yourself, you didn’t sign on for me, you signed on for your ancestors. That’s who you’re walking for. That’s why you’re learning all this painful stuff. For them. Think about them. Think about the pain they felt. You’re going. I’m sorry, honey.
Guided by the fierce determination of mama love and an intuitive understanding that the emotional trauma caused by slavery must be fully faced before it can be released, Ingrid asked what brought on her daughter’s feelings of being overwhelmed. Raina told her:
“Mommy, I’m just thinking about Haiti.” She loved Haiti. She said, “And I’m thinking about every place that we have walked on this pilgrimage so far. Mom, it’s been 6 months, and every place that we went, the people [who] were suffering, look like me. But I get it now. I get it. I get why there’s this, why there’s all this wealth for such few people, and why there’s such dire poverty in the world. It’s all about the greed. I get it, but I don’t want to know anymore. Cause it hurts, it just hurts.”
Ingrid pauses at the memory of helping her daughter cross the threshold from thinking about the historical trauma of the Maafa to knowing it. “And I just held her in my arms all night. And she just cried and slept, and woke up and cried some more.”
Relationships to land are complex. They exist in a physical place that can be mapped, but they also exist as an emotional relationship to an historical landscape, a history that is often flattened when describing the experience of black people. Exploring the fullness of black relationships to land requires a consideration of what place means across the dimension of time, and the emotional impact those stories hold for us today.
One way African-Americans explore the geography of blackness is by retracing the historical movement of their ancestors across land. Earlier this year, we wrote about Joan Southgate, who walked a northern route on the Underground Railroad, recovering a story of hospitality and hope. (Joan was recently named one of Yes Magazine’s “Grandmothers We Love”- check it the story here.) Such pilgrimages thread themselves through many black land narratives, but none more fully than the story told by Ingrid Askew.
The founder and leader of the Interfaith Pilgrimage of the Middle Passage, Askew began her Black/Land interview by telling me she didn’t know if she had anything to say about land and place. I found this remarkable, considering that Ms. Askew led a group on a two-year journey, by foot and by boat, from the mill towns of New England, along the slave ports of the Atlantic coast to New Orleans, and then to Haiti, Puerto Rico, Brazil, Senegal and southward to Cape Town, South Africa. Her journey 1998-99 journey to retrace the route of the Middle Passage was a way of deepening her understanding of the many places people of African descent have learned to call home. Those places evoked a history of wonder, discovery and deep spiritual awakening; they also required facing a contemporary experience of deep pain.
The U.S. leg of the journey threw the economic history of land ownership into sharp relief. I asked Askew what it was like to retrace the steps of slavery across land in the rural south:
Seeing a lot of the poverty right in my face, and seeing a lot of the wealth. And seeing how gorgeous this planet is, and how beautiful this country is, and how unfortunate and how unfair that we all can’t share in this together, you know. Because it’s certainly enough for everybody, you know. And, so it made me think a lot, made everybody think a lot, about racism. About our connection to each other, and to this place. And to land, and see who owns it and who’s working it.
In the south, we passed a lot of cotton fields and saw who was out there working… I remember one time there was a field of cotton on this small country road we were walking on, and some of the pilgrims actually ran out there and started picking with the people, and talking to the people about this particular farm that we walked by. And they weren’t the owners, you know. So, it’s … still [the same].
Askew highlights the difference between the pain of facing the ongoing economic and social legacy of picking cotton, yet defines her relationship as more than that pain. Aware that she was free to enter and to leave those emotionally laden fields, Askew describes her relationship to that land as a complex understanding of wealth and beauty, injustice and bounty, racism and connection. While those who worked that land and those who owned it have not changed, moving across that land changed Askew’s relationship to it.
Pilgrimage – moving across land – is a way of moving across time, witnessing what is changed about the land while observing what is changed within the self. For Askew, the pilgrimage helped her to acknowledge the pain associated with race-based enslavement and sharecropping without being defined by it.
It went beyond the idea of examining racism, you know. All the other stuff just opened up: what this world is, and how I fit into it. How I fit into it.
“Now, power properly understood is nothing but the ability to achieve purpose. It is the strength required to bring about social, political, and economic change… What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and that love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power, at its best , is love implementing the demands of justice; and justice, at its best, is love correcting everything that stands against love.“
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
from Where Do We Go From Here?
Delivered 16 August 1967 at the SCLC Annual Convention in Atlanta Georgia.
Read the full text of this speech here.
When we ask black people about their relationships to land, churches are a primary consideration for African-Americans. When asked “Where do black people in your town call home?” a frequent answer is “Church.” A black pastor described his relationship to land and place by saying “Where I live and this church are inextricably bound together.”
Stories of fried fish dinner fundraisers leading to mortgage-burning celebrations mark the history of black churches as a form of collective land ownership. Black church archives hold not only the history of births and baptisms, but also the histories of community leadership and church funds loans to members for the purchase of homes and land. They remain one of the few private spaces for black people to hold community conversations about aspirations for social and economic self-determination.
With this ear to black churches as markers of black autonomy and authority, we watched this Southword multimedia story, broadcast on NPR, of the Centennial Baptist Church in Helena, AK. Their relationship to land emphasizes the economic and cultural value of black controlled places, as well as the value of the history of the people on that land. This quest for a self-determined future in the face of an under-resourced present is a story greater than Helena Arkansas: it is the story of the values of an African-American community, and the values of those who would be their allies, and the very different relationships they hold to black land today.
Thanksgiving Day is a day of return, the day when we re-weave the threads of our diaspora around the tables of family and friends. You may be undertaking a journey, across town or across the country, in order to get to that bittersweet place you think of as home.
Home is perhaps the most primary relationship to land: land as memory, land as gathering ground, land as the place where we bind ourselves in relationship to each other. One Black/Land interview participant from rural Ohio recalls her father’s purposeful making land and family memory one:
“I don’t know where this came from in him, but [my dad] started planting trees and bushes for major events in our lives, the death of one of his brothers, the birth of a baby. So every tree and bush in our yard has a meaning, has a purpose. There’s one — Caitlin has a tree, my nephew has a tree. There are trees for all of his siblings who passed away. So it’s this beautiful piece of land, all these great trees and bushes and evergreens and they all have a history, a purpose. You ought to see it now. It’s beautiful.
As we gather to reflect upon what gives shape and meaning to our lives, may we be attentive for the story of the land upon which we gather. When you assemble at Big Mama’s homestead; bow your heads in a room overlooking a suburban yard or a city block; or arrive back home to the family farm, take a moment this Thanksgiving to listen for, and to pass on, those black land stories. They tell us who we are together, and for what we must give thanks.
The folks at the Black/Land Project are deep in research. We’re working with collaborators at SUNY-New Paltz to turn the dozens of interviews we have gathered into data to describe the complex experiences, self-definitions and desires that form black relationships to land.
We began a recent work day with a walking meditation around beautiful Lake Minnewaska about the meaning of research. What does it mean to turn stories into data? What does it mean to create research that might be used against us? How do we produce research that doesn’t reinforce the idea that blackness is solely a condition of deprivation or damage?
Black/Land believes that our communities should be able to produce and control information and knowledge about the things that are important to us. Because of that, we’re wrestling with some heavy ethics. How would you answer these questions?
- From the Tuskegee syphilis experiments to Henrietta Lacks, research in our communities has often deceived and hurt black people. Are there ways to do research that do not cause harm?
- Our colleague Eve Tuck writes: “the time has come for our communities to refuse to be complicit in our further categorization as only damaged, as only broken.” How can our research tell a story that includes both recounting black pain and assertions of black sovereignty and self-determination?
- Are there some stories that don’t belong in research, stories we should not tell? Which ones? Why?
- Why should we turn our stories into research, anyway? To whom does such “research” belong?
The Black/Land Project is seeking applicants for our Fall 2013 Internship.
We have two challenging hands-on projects for one motivated, skilled student who wants to turn academic skills into practical achievements and resume-building experience.
Applicants can reside anywhere, and should have comfort working in a virtual environment. (Black/Land does not have a physical office.) High- contact supervision is available via conference call or web-conferencing. Hours are flexible but with firm project deadlines.
Interested? Please review the full Internship Posting here. Applications that do not follow the instructions in this posting will not be considered.
And we have fifty new Twitter followers, tweeting about the presentation by Allison Guess & Tavia Benjamin on land based historical trauma during the Tierra Y Libertad panel at the Allied Media Conference #amc2013. Missed the conversation? Our good friends at HAFA-DC captured those tweets in a Storify here. Looking for the slide show that Guess & Benjamin presented? Find it on our Offerings page, here.
Oh, wait. We get it. You want a chance to talk with us, not about us. Stay tuned for some tweetups and Google Hangouts with the Black/Land Project this fall. Drop us a note about a topic you would like to discuss in the Comment box, below. And follow us @BlackLandProj for a conversation near you.