Black Feminist Reflections from Goree Island, The Reproductive Potentials of the Middle Passage Waters, and the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade
we will wear
new bones again.
we will leave
these rainy days,
break out through
into sun and honey time.
-Lucille Clifton, “new bones”
In Search of Our Mother’s Waters: Forced Water Crossings and Chosen Water Burials
To approach the dock of Goree Island from the city of Dakar, Senegal by way of New York City (for me, Michigan by way of Hazlehurst, Mississippi and Kansas City, Missouri) was a catapulting amalgamation of several reverse migrations--90 percent of which I can only imagine and speculate about, the other 10 percent of which I can inquire with my 84 year-old grandmother and 102 year-old great-aunt.
Matrilineal tears made a flood under me as water beat the belly of the boat--we pulled close and the voices of women were already raining into my womb like how a hard pitter patter would sound if you are near the attic or any low hanging roof somewhere in Southern America. In “The Site of Memory” Toni Morrison writes, “Occasionally the river floods these places. “Floods” is the word they use, but in fact it is not flooding; it is remembering. Remembering where it used to be. All water has perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was.”
I held my breath and listened. I responded when necessary, and otherwise sank into memories I did not know I had.
The women’s voices made a thud against my ear--they sounded all too familiar, and all too distant. I heard water hitting the belly, or the womb of the boat, that carried us from one land to the next. Before I knew it we were arriving to Goree Island, the mother to the House of Slaves or Maison des Esclaves, the Godmother to a Trans-Atlantic Era, the Grandmother-Earth and water-Mother of Ancestral futures. We were between the thighs of a historio-spiritual birthing of ancestors. Approaching the island, I thought of the water beneath of us, the ancestors that jumped ship, the ones that resisted, and the ones that were thrown overboard against their will.
I was traveling with my organization, Black Women’s Blueprint, where I am the Gender Justice and Human Rights Projects Manager. We were attending a four-day conference with the International Coalition for the Sites of Conscience of which our historical site of memory, Museum of Women’s Resistance, is a part. The agenda for the convening was two-pronged: first, to convene several meetings, trainings, and learning exchanges between the African sites of conscience, and second, to discuss the revitalization project for the Maison des Esclaves, or the House of Slaves.
We found ourselves a minority at the conference: Black-American, Haitian-American, and woman. In addition, we later learned an added distinction that the majority of participants did not identify with: that we were descendants of slaves in a way that was undeniable, inescapable, and without question.
This was a fact that we embraced before our visit to Senegal was proposed, and a knowledge that is used in our individual and collective practices of self-awareness, acceptance, and connection to the ancestral realm. We have all made individual journeys to this fact that largely predates this trip. We were/are used to confronting the monstrosities of slavery rooted in our own relationships to the diaspora and our homelands.
Even before stepping foot on the plane we were dreaming of the water, of touching it and connect with it, as well as listening to it’s stories and hearing the voices of our foremothers come through in the tides.
Upon arrival, we were between broken tongues and broken worlds. We were witnessing in a process of rememory--the waters, an heirloom of several generations lost and found.
As Toni Cade Bambara’s The Salt Eaters shows us, the lived and learned experiences of Black women are those of “soul gatherings” and piecing together of the spiritual and the body as we search for our mother’s rivers, waters, and oceans.
The ceremony of returning ‘home’ or homegoing has double meanings in our Afro-diasporic traditions--it symbolizes both was has been lost and buried as well as an embodiment of unburial, rebirth, and baptism.
Bodies of Water, Bodies of Slaves: What We Came to Know
We do a disservice to Afro-diasporic communities, and specifically communities that are descendants of slaves, when we do not consult the water spirits of Africa and its diaspora.
The meetings around the revitalization process for the Maison des Esclaves largely erased the stories of women as well as the narratives of resistance. In the assessment process, expressions of spirit, ancestor, and ritual were completely disregarded and understudied. There was little to no consideration for what Black theologian Delroy Hall calls “the middle passage as existential crucifixion,” or a space for discovering the potentiality of full freedom. This search for full freedom also becomes the complete relevance of any resonance the Door of No Return could hold for descendants of captured slaves. The Door is not only a concern of Black past(s) but a potential window for a black feminist archeological space for digging up new bones, a refreshed anatomical understanding of Black futurity, and a framework for rendering re-conceived notions of Black self. Scholar Whitney Battle-Baptist, a Black Feminist Archaeologist, lays the groundwork and gives license to Black feminist doing their own independent as well as collective work in search of their mother’s gardens, waters, ships, and all other inhabited spaces in land and in water. She reminds us of Barbara Christian’s words, “If Black women don’t say who they are, other people will say it badly for them.” This is true for Black women and for the water spirits born of them.
Those water spirits give us access to undoing the fictions and myths that have been told passed down regarding the feminine, and deliver us into the complex network of slave narratives, enslaved women’s stories and the trinity of existence, resistance, and healing.
To only survey the materials, artifacts, and remains on land and above the water line dismisses of body of histories and herstories of resistance that made meanings of freedom in the ocean and surrounding waters.
More importantly we must make the connection between bodies of water and bodies of women, holding placentas full of narratives and teaching tools that draw the connection between embryonic pasts baptized in slave rebellion and resistance, towards the birthing of new futures, As Henry John Drewal writes in “Mami Wata: Arts for Water Spirits in Africa and Its Diasporas,” the aquatic deities of the African Atlantic Slave Trade provide us with language for rebirth and the fertility of the new meanings undiscovered by mainstream historians.
The tides of the Atlantic Slave trade are tides that bind peoples, rituals, heritages, diasporas,and histories. Environmental studies, underwater surveys and reproductive histories cross paths more often than one might expect, and the “water” that might be considered to be contaminated or polluted with enslaved histories becomes the medium through which liberation occurs. Consider the water a womb— ready to birth forth a history that the novel carries in the bodies of Black women’s narratives.
It is the truth, the birthing bodies of Black women and the waters that they break (and break into) that frighten historians the most.
Let us consider the agentive Black body. One who is agentive even under that iron fists of white supremacy, is agentive even still. Ancestral pasts hold truths that the majority of academics do not have access to.
During our stay on Goree Island we inquired with the women in the market about their relationships to all that we were learning about it’s history. We participated in an African Womanist Tradition named by scholars Omolara Ogundipe-Leslie as Stiwanism. This tradition stands so social transformation including women in africa, which is about the inclusion of African women in the contemporary social and political transformation of Africa. Ogundipe-Leslie tells us “Women have to participate as co-partners in Africa’s social transformation. While many women were consulted on the project of revitalizing the Maison des Esclaves, we made it our business to learn their stories and to hear their ideas on the prospect of revitalizing and preserving the cultural memory of the site. This African Womanist Tradition was adopted by us as a form of resistance to the patriarchal structures that actively and adamantly chose to ignore the needs and concerns of these women on the islands. That structure was reinforced by academia, social and historical conditions, as well as religious customs.
The historians staking claim in whether or not the Door of No Return is the door unto which slaves used to board a ship that took their eternity are not listening to the voices of the ancestors echoing a holler so deep that ocean surveys are required, that only an honoring a ritual can evidence, that solely listeners can hear--not just scholars.
In “Black Studies: In the Wake” Christina Sharpe discusses the complicated politics of Black women’s wombs. She describes this obligation to the role of maternity for community and the historical traumas of Black women’s reproductive labor. She writes the following:
Reading together the Middle Passage, the coffle, and, I argue, the birth canal, we see how each has functioned separately and collectively over time to disfigure Black maternity, to turn the womb into a factory (producing Blackness as abjection much like the slave ship’s hold and the prison), and turning the birth canal into another domestic Middle Passage with Black mothers, after the end of legal hypodescent, still ushering their children into her condition; her non-status, her non-being-ness (Sharpe, 63).
Sharpe delivers a reading of Black women’s bodies in relation to the Middle Passage through a recognition of the Black womb’s factory-like function—informed by reproductive economies of Black women’s bodies that forced breeding and labor reproduction.
My deep connections to unpacking past Afro-Diasporic pasts is strongly invested and reliant on accessing the parallel worlds of the ancestors that occupy them. The lost voices that ride the waters (above, beneath, and between them) are worth diving for, particularly if we are even minimally interested in understand a world that is build out of their emotional, physical, and physical captivity, labor, and survival.
Alice Walker’s “In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens” convinces me that we should too be in search of our mother’s waters. Instead of turning into the academy over and over again for the redemption of our own slave narratives, let us take heed to the words of Walker (who has a complicated relationship to academia as well), “ Slavery forced us to discontinue relating to each other as tribes: we were all in it together. Freedom should force us to stop relating as owner and owned. If it doesn’t what has it all been for? What the white racist thinks about us, about anything, is not as important as this question.”
The Signares: Women and Goree Island
Even more problematic in the culture of the Coalition is the erasure of the full narratives of the Signare, otherwise known as Mulatto French-African women, who lived in the House of Slaves during the operations of the Trans-Atlantic Slave trade. The women were and are presumed by historians to have held such strong economic power and are even historically held responsible for the captivity and torture of slaves. White historians like Mark Hinchman write extensively about these women, painting romanticized narratives of their lives, the assets they gained from the slave trade, and the power they exerted over other slaves.
What Hinchman and other historians miss the mark on is the power dynamic exerted over these women, and most importantly their conception stories. Historians fail to ask under what circumstances these women were conceived and born. The popular narratives leave out the Black women, virgin mothers of signares, who were raped by ship captains. There are only a few names that we have. They are Victoria Albis, Hélène Aussena,Anna Colas Pépin, Anne Pépin, Mary de Saint Jean and Crispina Peres.
Archivists rave about their social mobility and social status. They even attempt to claim the Signares were liberated in the marital practices that they were actually forced into. Signares were thought to be powerful in trade and the economics of slavery, but their stories of violence and generational trauma are not dealt with by cultural and architectural historians.
What is at Stake
What coils beneath the surface of this historic amnesia is a patriarchal vastness that knows no longitude or latitude, a probing masculinity that knows no time or place or appropriateness, transphobia, homophobia, misogyny, and the disappearance of women, their stories, and their legacies.
There is a correlation between the lose of spirituality and the dismissal of the stories of women and girls who build, keep, and secure the sacred narratives of spirit and religion that was carried in their very bodies and waters. In “An Indisputable Memory of Blackness,” Kevin Quashie makes clear, “ Memory, this thrilling Black female body: it impairs and is susceptible to impairment. Is past and present and even future. Dead and Alive and ailing. Material, partial, and immaterial. Elusive and allusive. Is stable and collapses; hard to trust and impossible to ignore. Fully alive but not always engaged and hence can be, or appear, deadened. Improvisational. Essential” (Quashie 105). Quashie allows an understanding of Black women’s bodies as a site of collective memory and materialized survival.
The continued silence of Black women’s voices, dead or alive, is dangerous to the continued progress and sustainability of community and the spiritual familial relationships we hold with our ancestors as descendants (and even non-descendants of slaves). As stated in an excerpt from Audre Lorde’s “Litany for Survival:”
“And when we speak we are afraid
our words will not be heard
but when we are silent
we are still afraid
So it is better to speak
we were never meant survive.”
We still do not know what has happened and is happening to some of our bodies. Black Queer and Trans bodies are disappeared and their stories become daughters of dust rather than that which is owed to us. No, we are not an ecofeminism, but we are a reflection of someone’s healing, buried or unburied. We are the ‘new bones’ of our ancestors. We are the sun and the honey, made warm by the telling and retelling of generational triumphs and tragedies. We are the struggle multiplied, to borrow language from Assata Shakur.
Call to Action
We need more Black Feminist Anthropologists who are connected to the parallel chorus of ancestors to not only do the work of unburying women’s narratives but centering the survival narratives of those who survived sexual violence and terrorism, looking into their narratives to tell us more of the story that connects the bodies of women to bodies of water and bodies of more survivors who are not identifying as descendants of slaves and keepers of the sacred truths of the African Atlantic Slave Trade. In this effort we can liberate the narratives of enslaved and captured women as well as the survivors and descendants of tran-Atlantic daughters. As bell hooks writers in “Black Women: Shaping Feminist Theory,” “The formation of a liberatory feminist theory and praxis is a collective responsibility, one that must be shared.”
The House of Slaves has daughters begging to be heard. The screams of their mothers are seated in the walls and in the hallways that held bodies upon bodies of enslaved and captured women. The doors hold the last cries of sisters releasing babies into the ocean below, of mothers holding the pieces of their lives between their hands, of grandmothers weaving the remnants of fabric that tells the thousands of stories at the seams of each woman of the Transatlantic journey.