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CONJURING MY ANCESTORS

FAYEMI SHAKUR

Today is Juneteenth, a national holiday commemorating the ending of slavery in this country. The weather is beautiful here in Woodstock, New York. I’m here for a month-long artist residency. I can’t quite put my finger on the reason why I have been experiencing an uneasy feeling. I’ve been working through it ever since I got here a little over two weeks ago. I’m supposed to be writing, but I’m doing more feeling than writing.

 

Part of me wishes I was home, surrounded by familiar, loving faces that look like mine. The people here are mostly kind but disinterested in me. They don’t talk to me or bother me much. I feel hyper aware of my Blackness when I walk around town. Whenever I see another brown-skinned face, I wave and grin like I’m greeting a long lost friend. They smile back. The scenery is hard not to love but the uneasiness persists. I remind myself that I am on a path of taking up space and honoring the visions that come to me. Sometimes I am challenged by or hesitant to enter white spaces, even if those environments are liberal or progressive. It’s a thing we deal with. I know many Black artists and writers try our best to push through. We always have to remind ourselves that we belong.

 

Every night when darkness falls, I sit outside in quiet meditation on one of the rocking chairs on the porch to confront this sensation in my body. The first night, I couldn’t sit more than five seconds in that chair. I thought I heard or saw something rustling in the trees, so I hurried right back inside the house. Each night I forced myself to sit a bit longer to gaze into the night. My beautiful Kuwaiti-born housemate is not the least bit intimidated by the darkness. She listens to my stories. I tell her how Harriet Tubman comes to mind when I sit on this porch and when I walk through the woods. I’m amazed all over again, recounting Harriet’s story.  

 

I tell my housemate I wonder, how did Harriet feel the first time she ran? How completely brutal was the torture and abuse that caused her to flee into the night? It is this darkness that drew me to remember her. Sitting with these emotions, I feel humbled and small and grateful. I am careful about romanticizing her resistance, but staring at these stars, I feel the courage and the fear of those who escaped. I think too of photographer Dawoud Bey’s beautiful work, “Night Coming Tenderly, Black,” a series of black-and-white photographs that reimagine sites along the last stages of the Underground Railroad. Dawoud said Roy DeCarava’s mastery of dark tones gave him a model for depicting the uncertainty that those fleeing slavery confronted as they traveled northward. He wanted to hold darkness itself in a tender embrace. He is a genius.

 

When my housemate and I go on hikes, each time I am excited to breathe in this fresh air and walk beside the streams. But even then, the uneasiness returns and I feel memories that are not my own. Are these ancestral memories? I can feel their journey through these trees, their fear, trepidation, and determination. I imagine bare, bruised and bloodied feet, the sounds of dogs, and being chased through the woods. The moon is the same as it was then, the brightest light in the sky. This land is talking to me. I think the mere sight or smell of something can conjure or stir up long lost memories, transporting you back to another place and time. It isn’t always something you do intentionally.

 

I ask the locals if there were ever any plantations in this town and no one seems to know or want to answer me. Someone tells me of a Native American reservation that welcomed those seeking freedom from slavery and offered them space to take refuge. I tried to visit the local historical society and library to find out more but no luck. On the news, folks were giving their testimonies before Congress, talking about reparations. I listened, proudly.

 

If these trees could talk, I wonder, what would they tell me? Can we be more present for these stories or are they still too painful to sit with? Maybe this is why so many Black folks don’t care for hiking or being in the woods. But more of us are returning, understanding why land matters so much, appreciating the profound ways nature humbles and guides us to our most powerful source inside. In this space I learn to appreciate the sublime, to appreciate our connection to our ancestors, and I am grateful to be reminded. Others are returning to the continent as a reminder that our history did not begin with slavery. Perhaps one day, others will fully understand this story and embrace this history. I don’t assume everyone will but for now, we find our own peace. Before I head back home, I will write more and take as many photos as I can, then, I will visit Karma Triyana Dharmachakra, a Tibetan Buddhist Monastery that sits on a cloud-covered mountain.

"In the case of artists, like myself, rooted in alien or marginal cultures, symbolism becomes a kind of metaphysical bridge building. The very real dilemma of carrying one culture internally while having to operate in another makes symbol an instrument of choice." - Paul Gardère

fayemi shakur is a writer, interdisciplinary artist, and arts advocate. She serves as the Arts and Cultural Affairs DIRECTOR FOR THE City of Newark, New Jersey.