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 changedAskew’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.