If You Want to Understand Slavery It Helps to Visit the Places Where Slaves Lived

tags: slavery, racism, Roots

Pearl Duncan has two upcoming books, one about the DNA roots of African American ancestors and another about colonial ships, Wall Street and New York and New Yorkers.  

Forest Whitaker, left, stars as Fiddler and Malachi Kirby as Kunta Kinte in Roots. Steve Dietl

Scientists now say if we can name the emotions we experience, the experience is better. Emotions clearly identified by a name are more pleasurable if they are good experiences and less long-lasting if they are damaging. They discovered the seat of emotions in our brains by connecting research subjects to computers. One writer-researcher, Tiffany Watt Smith in London, even wrote a book about nameless emotions that should have names. The Book of Human Emotions is about cultures that give a name to emotions for which we have no name in English. I was thinking about this research as I read and listened to our reactions to the miniseries, “Roots” rebooted.

I wrote an article about my takeaway from the remade miniseries, and I now write about how the actors in the series say they responded to the emotions: Actors who portray ancestors tell stories of “the unexpected collision of emotion and history.”

It is powerful reading what the actors in Roots experienced. Their descriptions are raw, physiological and vivid. The young British actor Malachi Kirby, who portrayed Kunta Kinte in the remade series reacted to the plantations, saying, "It felt like [I could see] every other person who went through that. . . . I could hear all their screams and I could feel all of their pain. It was the weirdest experience. To the point where, I'm not ashamed to say, it brought me to my knees. They stopped rolling the camera and I was somewhere else for about 15 minutes. I couldn't stop crying. But I wasn't crying because I was upset; I was crying because I could feel all these people's pain."

Those of us who have traveled, touring historic places in the U.S., in the Caribbean, in South America, in Africa, even in Europe, have had similarly vivid experiences. We have read accounts of how African Americans, including Alex Haley, the author of Roots, reacted to the slave forts in West Africa. (In my writing, I call them slave forts, because they were military bases, though other writers and West African tourist boards call them slave castles.) My most dramatic reaction was not at historic slave places in West Africa, such as Gorée Island, a slave fort on the coast of the capital city of Dakar in Senegal, nor was it the Door of No Return, the restored prison gate from where enslaved ancestors were shipped, but it was standing in the shadows of a sugar mill on the island of St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands. My visit to St. John came after I read numerous journals about African American Maroon rebellions, including one on St. John, and reviewed documents and slave traders’ journals.

After taking that tour of a sugar mill I went on a walk down the rocky, steep mountainside of the Laurence Rockefeller donated rainforest, leading down the Cinnamon Bay Nature Trail. The experience was so intense, so vivid, after that, I switched from writing travel and adventure articles to writing nonfiction history. I can now describe the walk as transformative.

The sugar mill in the Virgin Islands National Park, which stands as an encased artifact, triggered feelings of suffering, rebellions and resistance the way it did centuries ago when enslaved men and women rebelled in 1733. The mill stands as a recovered artifact, and the physical experience is alive. Blanketed by the thick rainforest treetops, there is no sun, no air, no light. The Caribbean heat is so stifling breathing is hard. I took short, shallow breaths and tried to find oxygen in the hot, thick mugginess of brittle dry wood and parched soil, a breath saturated with moisture that was human sweat.

The National Park’s tour guide explained that when the sugar mills were first built in the 18th century the traders used horses to turn the giant timber spokes, but the environment was so stifling to anything alive, the horses died and had to be replaced frequently. So traders replaced the exhausted, dying horses with human slaves from Africa. Just as the horses had died from heat and exhaustion turning the giant timbers that produced the sugar at the mills, so too did the human slaves who replaced the horses die from heat and exhaustion and were replaced as they died. The traders relied on a fresh supply of humans to frequently replace the ones who died.

As I stepped unsteadily, sliding down the mountainside, visualizing Cinnamon Bay, where there was air, I felt the physical strength, courage and choking sweat of the ancestors. Longing to reach air, light and water, I pledged to continue researching and writing about what these and other ancestors must have endured. That was when I realized that all the ancestors resisted, not only those who waged military rebellions, and were Maroons who resisted and rebelled, but those who resisted, just to survive, or to get a breath of air.

The experience was riveting. It changed my research and my writing. I can now accept this history and the emotion that it carries, because I experienced it as physically and as mentally and spiritually as I could.

I encourage others to visit the physical places where ancestors survived. It is empowering. It is transformative. It makes us unapologetic in the face of new modern challenges. I commend the actors in the remade Roots, who described their experiences on the three plantations where the series was filmed.

We cannot visit Creedmoor Plantation in St. Bernard, part of southeastern New Orleans, Louisiana as they did, because it does not have tours, but Felicity Plantation in Vacherie, near New Orleans, Louisiana, and Evergreen in Edgard, part of New Orleans, Louisiana, have tours. We can examine the mystery of why so many of the slavery places in Louisiana have survived intact. We can visit enslaved people’s historic places in other parts of the Americas.

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