Writing Through Historical Trauma: Finding Lifelines

September 18, 2018 at 10:15 am Leave a comment

“And, there is risk in the archival encounter. Confronting sources that show only terror and violence are a danger to the researcher who sees her own ancestors in these accounts. To sit with these sources requires the capacity to hold and inhabit deep wells of pain and horror. One must persist for years in this “mortuary” of records to bring otherwise invisible lives to historical representation in a way that challenges the reproduction of invisibility and commodification. This process of historicization demands strategies to manage the emotional response one has to such brutality in order to persist with these subjects-to be willing to take up and sit with this aspect of human degradation and to find meaning. […] To spend time in this temporal and geographical space is to risk emotional strength. It obliterates the possibility of objectivity. It is an exercise in endurance.”
– Marisa J. Fuentes, Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive

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A few weeks ago, a friend suggested that I keep a bowl of salt in my writing area to absorb the harmful energies that come with keeping myself immersed in historical trauma. She is an artist and re-connects regularly with her roots by traveling to West Africa.

As a descendant of enslaved people, I wish I had known about certain resources before I began my dissertation research on memorials to lynching violence.

My academic sources included many historical accounts of lynchings. I’ve read about so much killing. Sometimes I communicated with the authors. I recall meeting three white male historians who couldn’t understand why anyone would feel overwhelmed by this topic.
I’ve often sat alone in my office or in library special collection rooms examining lots of vile images.

Typically, these interactions have not involved care.

In academia there’s a tendency to pretend all history should be engaged the same way. Yet the violence of historical trauma is ongoing. We are living it today. When I started this journey, I had no idea how intensely I would feel the pain and horror. It is generally a lonely study because most people are not aware of the complexity of the topic and many do not want to feel it. They don’t want to know.

I hadn’t encountered perspectives from Black scholars about their personal responses to researching the afterlives of slavery or their strategies for managing the dismal nature of the research while simultaneously living with the reality of ongoing state-sanctioned anti-black violence.

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At the close of 2015, I found a lifeline. I read Courtney Baker’s then newly published Humane Insight: Looking at Images of African American Suffering and Death. Through this book, I met someone who knows what it means to put herself, her Black self, in this work. Earlier this year, I came across several more books by Black women scholars that negotiate slavery’s afterlives through a praxis of care. I’ve learned that this orientation is a tradition of Black feminism.
These books resuscitate me. They make it possible for me to continue, to attempt to make sense of something that is beyond sense.
They make it possible for me to envision my writing also as a form of care for myself and others.

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A strong beginning for one’s soul and mind:

Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route, 2007

Saidiya Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth Century America, 1997

Christina Sharpe, In the Wake On Blackness and Being, 2016

Courtney Baker, Humane Insight: Looking at Images of African American Suffering and Death, 2015

Marisa J. Fuentes, Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive, 2016

Dionne Brand, A Map to the Door of No Return: Notes to Belonging, 2001

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Entry filed under: Art, History, Lynching, Public Humanities. Tags: , , , , , , , , .

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