One is not defined by one’s past, but I would argue that one is defined by one’s relationship to it. What sort of hold does your past have over you? Do you obsess over it? Relive it? Pull it out and examine it under new lights, through new lenses? Do you suppress it? Do you attempt to excise it from your sense of self? And, when that fails, do you try to transmute its meaning, control its significance? These are questions, of course, but they are also suggestions for tackling a difficult problem that attends the human mind and soul. I suggest these not with sincere belief in their efficacy; rather, I suggest them with regret at having tried a few of the more self-violating ones. I suggest them ironically, as a warning.
When I visited Gund Gallery to cover Sympathy for the translator for the Collegian almost two months ago, I could hardly focus on the notes I was trying to take because an awful howling permeated the gallery. I put my headphones in, trying to ignore it, trying to focus on the job I had at that moment. When I was done making my notes, I went looking for the source of that awful sound. It was Dawoud Bey’s Evergreen, which I found in a dark room containing a long bench before three video screens. With this installation, Bey aimed to tell the repressed history of slavery in visual form, so that, as he put it, “the viewer is inexplicably pulled into the past.”
I sat down on the bench. For about 11 minutes, I watched as the camera roved and panned over idyllic Southern landscapes with hints of darkness: old crooked trees interrupted by empty slave cabins. I bore witness to a landscape I have never visited, hearing, all the while, sounds that were somehow familiar: the howling, yes, as well as singing — the two of which were occasionally inseparable, one melting into the other, beauty and horror emerging from the same source. And the whispers: “Someone’s praying.” “There is peace in the valley for me.”
I feel as though I recognize the voices because, as a Black person, I have a specific relationship to the history of slavery in the United States which the voices represent. As the child of Jamaican immigrants, it is not exactly a genealogical relationship, but it remains a thematic one, a socioeconomic one and an emotional and mental one. My life is buffeted this way and that by the winds of this history, as is the case for all Black people in this country. Where we differ from one another — because we are, of course, not one and the same — is in trying to chart our own courses amid these gales; that is, in trying to answer that question which I posed before: What sort of hold does your past have over you?
Though I have never visited a plantation like the one in Evergreen, the American South is the place I see in my mind when I think about the worst of slavery — and so, perhaps, in recalling my national past (if not my literal one), I have been there.
While Jamaicans at home told me stories of a beautiful island on which I would never live, it was in my elementary school classroom among mostly Black peers that I was taught my national past, the past of my skin color. When I realized this past was the story of something which I could not control and which did not define me, but which others considered to be essential, I put that past in a box, to be brought out when needed.
It was in my secondary school classroom among mostly white peers that I formed my relationship to this past. It was in this classroom that the past was brought out and touched and held and gawked at, with or without my consent. It seemed to mean more to them than to me, so I handed it to them one day and said “Here. Put it somewhere you can get to it easily. Give it back to me when you think I need it. I don’t want to see it otherwise.” And whenever they did not need me to perform that past to educate them and grant them absolution, I hoped to simply forget about it.
This took place in Manhattan, where these white peers considered this manhandling of my skin and its stories “allyship.” And I played along and performed — in the classroom, on diversity panels — drifting farther away from the true effect of my past on me, while they learned all it had to teach them.
The second time I visited Evergreen was with one of my classes, with mostly white peers. I felt that I could not watch the installation with them, fearing tokenization much like what I experienced in secondary school. I watched it alone, took notes alone and never joined my classmates for the discussion. I thought I was protecting myself, but in the end I felt somehow that it was not right; I did not get anything out of it that way. I cannot yet explain any better my belief that I made the wrong choice, but I feel confident in pointing to that moment in my secondary school education, when I turned away from my past, as the problem. In trying to escape something my classmates had not done, I alienated myself. Unable to understand why I was feeling the way I did, I realize now that I was also alienated from myself. I found myself sitting in the lobby of Gund Gallery, alone and angry.
Bey’s Evergreen whispers and prays and sings from the depths of the earth because the United States has buried that past there, unwilling to confront it, not even in the self-serving way which I witnessed in secondary school. Like me, the United States has tried to excise this past, fearing that it would in fact destroy its sense of self. What this country does not seem to know is that banal principle which I have somehow only recently discovered, and which intimidates me with the depth and complexity of its challenge: It is ignoring one’s past that threatens to destroy one’s self.
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