I know what comes next in this story, but I’m not sure if I should write it. I could really use your advice.
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?