In the last days,
it rained peach-sticky rain in lines
through cotton four hundred years
of thunder ringing
karmic bells strung
up in trees
of water swelling
bodies under bridge over
passed by shooting
I walk gingerly over soiled land, sidewalk
cracks meted in
sinuous mesh and iron
by film of apathy,
Before I arrived in Atlanta for the John Lewis Fellowship, I set intentions. I was unsure of how the program would manifest and wanted to ground myself so that, regardless of what did or did not take place, I would have a clear understanding of how I could use the Fellowship to guide my growth. Throughout the United States, it feels as though our bodies are wracked with despair—despair that not only stagnates and suffocates visionary hope and liberating imaginations but limits our ability to survive by dimming our joy and urgency. Because of my sense of despair’s embodiment in and around me, the three most important intentions on my list were to cultivate new visions of hope, to learn new ways of understanding impact, motivation, & knowledge, and to cry. This is to say, I wanted to re-learn how to heal.
I descend into the marta station, mourning if I look too long at my hands I see Nia Wilson’s dead (1)
and dying body
crumbled three times (2) over every step
taken without care
I press my ear against the ground and find
myself taken, too, death (3)
folded over watched
closed eyes as the train barrels past
On the way to the Legacy Museum | National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Al- abama, I was despondent. Thinking of the lynchings of my lifetime, digitized and replicated into an oblivion of trauma made spectacle, how could I face the weight of a hundred years of breath stolen, crying out in exhaustion, sorrow, loss, always, cut too short.
The Legacy Museum is built upon a site where enslaved people were kept prisoner in warehouses. It is a block away from one of the most prolific slave auction blocks in the United States. After having gone through the entry space, where the trajectory of the Transatlantic Slave Trade is mapped, the first exhibit of the museum is a dark and compressed hallway that is lined with facsimiles of the slave pens that existed on that very soil less than two hundred years ago. Inside the slave pens are projections of humans retelling real narratives written by enslaved people, children crying for their mothers, and women & men singing, over and over and over again. Looking from the distance of less than a foot, the projections look like real ghosts.
As the museum traces slavery’s transformation into the prison industrial complex, the museum pays particular care to the role of the law and of lynchings in crafting and cultivating narratives of fear that led to a perpetual and uncompromising violence. In this, the museum interrogates the culture of fear that has been constructed in the united states and examines the ways in which this narrative has been utilized as a justification and way to commit genocide, institutionalize slavery, and erect borders.
On a set of shelves near the center of the museum, there are jars filled with soil from the sites of lynchings. An act in memoriam, an act of grounding, in order to remedy historical amnesia. In Lee Lewis’s jar, Atlanta, Texas, October 26, 1891, there is a small sprout peeking out from the soil and pressing itself against the glass. In this, we are immortal.
From the memorial, laid across the top of a hill, you can see a parole office, a high-rise bank that shadows the [former] slave auction block, and houses with confederate flags. It is nearly suffocating to walk amongst and descend into the boxes of weathered steel, inscribed with endless names, endless bodies; buried, floating, hanging in their signification. But here, their names and bodies are no longer forgotten, no longer erased and subsumed by the dominant narrative of collective amnesia. Their bodies no longer belong to the malice of secrecy and silence, but to the love and reverence of remembrance. And as I emerged, from the museum and the memorial, despite the weight and the terror, I could imagine them living, I could imagine us living. Speaking amongst ourselves through wind-song, calling out a mantra of affirmation that we deserve liberation and that, despite the need for a perpetual fight, we have the power to embody the self we want to be in the world we want to exist in. (4)
neck unnoosed (5) cranes
toward cotton candy clouds, wonders how birdsong carries the spin of the sky with heart
for lungs not yet birthed
here underneath the rhythm
they shall grow, cradled
by hands soil-dark
flesh, never unmade
In Dr. King Jr.’s final address titled “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” he says that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars. Assata Shakur says that “Black revolutionaries do not drop from the moon. We are created by our conditions. Shaped by our oppression.” But what if we did drop from the moon, what if the darkness of our conditions could be understood as the backdrop of the stars, what if we were shaped by our dreams of home in an outer space so liberated that burden and boundaries could not even be imagined. Alice Walker writes that “we should be allowed to destroy only what we can re-create. We cannot re-create this world. We cannot recreate ‘wilderness.’ We cannot even, truly, re-create ourselves. Only our behavior can we recreate or create anew.” I take this to mean that, if we want to liberate ourselves and one another, we must destroy the narratives that bind us to our judgments, our violence, our unkindness, despite. Destroying and re-crafting a narra- tive requires that we burn against the ever-darkening landscape, bright enough to imagine that we are from the moon, that we can make our home back on the moon, make our home here a little bit more like the moon. And so, the seedlings of stars we see in the sky and in the glints of hope and empathy and joy that sparkle in one another’s eyes ought to signify the beginnings of trees from wherever we believe home is, wherever we believe home should be.
four Black girls hum (6)
in unison or discordance or mourning or — joy
hums lifted in joy, brightly, colored
a cadence of joy that ruptures
and the bark of trees
who have borne witness
and therein the truth
are peals of laughter and convulsions of tears,
hand-clapping games, revolving as fast or slow
as they wish the world to spin
On the last Sunday in Atlanta, I find myself swaying like a tree in the sanctuary of Ebenezer Baptist Church, among the descendants of Dr. Martin Luther King’s congregation. Weeks ago, at the beginning of our Fellowship, Dr. Tanya Washington told us to “stop trying to control when and how [our] seeds grow.” Today, the pastor tells us to be like a tree and live like a leaf: unfolding to catch light in sacred arrangement, at angles and in spaces that make room for those who need nourishment, to bear fruit, regardless, so that we may continue to give and grow unbounded.
And there amongst the amens and the uncertain hums of hymns new to my fellow leaves, I saw that hope doesn’t always have to be optimism, it can be forgiveness, a belief in joy, or making space for others. My hope is in healing, in crafting a love deeper than the scars of wounds centuries deep. (7) In remediating historical amnesia by planting my feet in the ground, bloody or fertile, and calling at the top of my lungs for a narrative of a shared future that holds history and the promise of the stars, of laughter, of home cooked meals and kitchen-table conversations, all the same. Because you can’t heal what you won’t acknowledge. You can’t heal without a grounded a narrative of love that understands trauma and anger, guilt and sorrow just as well as it meets people with patience and attentiveness, nourishment and stability.
And so, in this spirit, I come of a future embodied, a future that seeks to imbue the trees of liberation that we plant with the grace and joy of the stars and the imagination of hope.
seeking absolution or,
you would be
sustained echoes that
in you are
a ceaseless truth
- [St. Félix, Doreen. “The Very American Killing of Nia Wilson.” Cultural Comment, The New Yorker, 1 Aug. 2018, www.newyorker.com/culture/ cultural-comment/the-very-american-killing-of-nia-wilson.]
- Homicide is the second-leading cause of death for Black girls and women ages fifteen to twenty-four. Black women are three times more likely to die by homicide than white women. — [Centers for Disease Control, Leading Causes of Death by Age Group, African American Females—Unit- ed States (Atlanta, GA: CDC, 2011).]
- A self-identified white supremacist kidnapped and murdered a Black woman forty miles away from where I live and go to school. — [Lond- berg, Max. “FBI Investigating Killing of Black Woman in Shawnee as Possible Hate Crime.” Crime, The Kansas City Star, 24 July 2018, www.kansascity.com/news/local/crime/article215431265.html.]
- “You must say to yourself, ‘I imagine that I stand for a world wherein ‘X’. And then embody that. Find what possibility you represent. Find who you would be in the world you want. You can’t wait until this world becomes a place where you can be that you.” — Dr. David Hooker, Professor at University of Notre Dame
- “In this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don’t love your eyes; they’d just as soon pick ‘em out. No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder they flay it. And O my people they do not love your hands. Those they only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty. Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them. No, they don’t love your mouth. You got to love it. This is flesh I’m talking about here. Flesh that needs to be loved. And O my people, out yonder, hear me, they do not love your neck unnoosed and straight. So love your neck; put a hand on it, grace it, stroke it and hold it up. and all your inside parts that they’d just as soon slop for hogs, you got to love them. The dark, dark liver–love it, love it and the beat and beating heart, love that too. More than eyes or feet. More than lungs that have yet to draw free air. More than your life-holding womb and your life-giving private parts, hear me now, love your heart. For this is the prize.” from Toni Morrison’s Beloved
- Four girls from viBe Theater Experience, which provides girls with “free, high-quality, artistic, leadership, and academic opportunities by em- powering underserved girls of color to write, produce, and perform original theater, videos and music about the real-life issues they face daily,” wrote and performed a play that imagined what the daily lives of the girls at the Leesburg Stockade were like. In 1963, fifteen Black girls were kidnapped from a nonviolent protest in Americus, Georgia and imprisoned in Leesburg, Georgia for over two months. Their parents had no idea where they were; the girls had undercooked meat twice a day, no water, shower, toilet, beds, or change of clothes. At one point, someone threw a rattlesnake into the single room where they were imprisoned. They were released only after John Lewis sent a SNCC photographer to find and photograph the girls that that there would be proof that they were there and they couldn’t be “disappeared.” Upon their release, the girls’ families had to pay the equivalent of $50 to the government for “boarding fees.”
- Adapted from Dariann Rickerson