“In my own case, a fuller awareness of what I needed to find out about people and their lives had to be sought for through another way, through writing stories. But away off one day [traveling] I knew this anyway: that my wish, indeed my continuing passion, would be not to point the finger in judgment but to part a curtain, that invisible shadow that falls between people, the veil of indifference to each other’s presence, each other’s wonder, each other’s human plight.” ~Eudora Welty
On the surface, a passage from Eudora Welty may seem an unlikely place to start an essay about ancestral inquiry. Although I have never met the famous Southern White woman, and my aspirations as a writer notwithstanding, it is to Welty’s legacy as a photographer that I have an affinity to her and claim her as a cultural ancestor. Welty took many wonderful, candid photographs of people in Mississippi, her home state, during the 1930s. But it is Ms. Welty’s photographs of black people, men, women and children captured in their authentic splendor and with their dignity and humanity intact that most reveal her compassionate heart. When I consider an inquest into slavery, into Southern culture, into our collective ancestral roots as a nation, it is with just such a generous heart, that of the non-judgmental witness that I wish to document my excursion into historic New Orleans in search of peace.
On the eve of embarking on the first-ever Roots Retreat to touch the earth in New Orleans with five Dharma teachers, I find myself looking at my existence and my particular station in life with fascination: As a Dominican-American woman in the land of the free, I can’t help but imagine some parallel version of myself if my parents had not emigrated from our small island to the United States when I was a baby. What if I had been left behind with extended family, or connected to the island of my origin in any significant way as I grew up? Marked as odd the length of my childhood for the many discernable cultural differences to those around me, the idea of roots for me is a source of profound curiosity. Until the recent past I have drifted between worlds, unsure of my foothold in any one identity. Like a leaf on the wind, a life of adventure, moving geographical location frequently, I’ve only just begun to feel tethered in community. In the trajectory of my life I am only beginning to comprehend my past as I work to remember the land that raised me, as I glance into a murky past in the hopes of seeing where I come from.
These are difficult times: much of what we read and hear on the news has to do with conflict and pain; hate-filled presidential hopefuls get more press than compassionate socialists; civil unrest and economic inequality are polarizing our communities. There is a good deal of violence and suffering, but there is also, I believe, the space to transform the energy into something good.
To change the climate in our nation takes awareness and the willingness to look within ourselves as the source of answers. This interior space may well be the true final frontier of civilization. Though for some this inner quest may be a fearsome prospect, there is much to gain from sitting in silence with what ever arises, witnessing without judgment. Understanding the past is yet another tool for change.
Working with and thinking about what our collective and unintended inheritance may be, I carry my own history delicately, an object of fascination of which I know too little, leading to questions that may never be answered. In truth, there is a kind of freedom in knowing I don’t know. It allows me to seek and coax out stories. It is from this gentle holding that my inquiry flows: Who am I? Who are my people?
Lifting the Masks of Shame
If writer Tobias Wolff is right that “Unacknowledged shame enters the world as anger,” so much can be understood about what we carry to and fro, unaware of the explosive emotional storehouse within, undaunted by the burden of awareness. Even unexamined, the weight and presence of shame can be transmitted inter-generationally—the shame need not be immediate—we need not own it for it to do its work within us. Because o the way humans internalize shame, and all negative emotions, is powerful, trans-generational trauma can destroy individuals, families and societies, acting like a corrosive agent; we can carry shame for things we can do little to change, as well as for our own actions and behaviors. Ignorance is no remedy; nor is denial. All shared history—the shame, the pain, the trauma and the joys—must be touched for the healing process to begin.
Like many people of the African diaspora whose descendants were transported to new lands during slavery, my past holds many mysteries. As a woman who was born in the Caribbean, I know some things about my family of origin, but family stories are convoluted, riddled with holes, and bursting with secrets. It’s difficult to unravel the reasons I did not know my grandparents, or why our family is oddly scattered. To me this is rooted in our history in ways we have not yet begun to examine, but because I live in this country and my skin is dark, I am detached from the geographic reality of my birthplace. But if we are anything, we are where we come from, even if that origin is obscured.
For many African-Americans, who embody the site of subjugation, the unknown past, broken lineage, families fractured on auction blocks, the shame is visceral and deeply internalized. Yet the same identity is also an identity brimming over with resilience, creativity, ingenuity and self-determination. The triumph of their survival mirrors the intensity of the degradation of a people linked by a legacy human bondage, unnamed ancestors brutalized in the light of day in a carefully choreographed system of oppression. From that grotesque saga is born elegant music, spiritual fortitude, loving connection, personal reinvention and enlightened resistance.
But the people on both sides of this trans-Atlantic trade have suffered injury, injuries that must, first, be acknowledged, and subsequently, healed. We are caught in a binary of pain with a slippery narrative, one which no perpetrators wants to own, nor the millions who have profited from slavery’s stealth stepsister, White Privilege. To transcend this chronicle of pain, we must be willing to own the legacy, not just the most convenient parts.
I’ve noticed how many White Southerners champion the Confederate Flag as cultural heritage, embracing it publicly as beloved treasure bequeathed from father to son. But in that selfsame clasp of the Confederate Flag is stored the emblem of shame: the bloody war to continue to traffic in black lives for the profit and wealth of white people; the mortification of seeing a black child with a husband’s face; the remorse of imposing abject poverty, torture and bondage on the people who raise your children. There is no way to hold the flag as a source of pride without its shadow side inflicting deep discomfort and humiliation that is too easily converted to violence and resentment and calcified into unjustified anger.
I find it impossible to believe that knowing that one’s ancestors beat, raped, sold and trafficked in human beings for profit is not painful, shameful and denigrating to many White Americans. It is the other side of the pain, shame and denigration that African Americans endured and remember. So I see that the unwarranted hate of black people by white people is a mask to cover the shame. And a new question then arises. Is there hope?
Touching the Earth
The pilgrimage of compassion to a plantation in New Orleans with people of African-American, Vietnamese, white East European Jewish, white Northern European, and Caribbean ancestry to look and listen deeply into the heart of our nation’s history, to a geographic place of both the suffering and joy of slave and slaver, black and white, rich and poor is one of hope. Such an undertaking is only possible because healing is possible.
In the company of Dharma practitioners, who are committed to peace, the work of inner looking can unfold in a harmonious manner. The journey is a sacred pilgrimage into the heart of suffering that has given the world endless joy. We can cry there. We can laugh there, too, a the site of an institution founded with the intention of remembering and honoring that real human beings, black people stolen from their mother lands and transported thousands of miles away in dehumanized conditions, sold, hunted, bred, and shackled for centuries; we go to witness for their blood, sweat and tears, all absorbed into this our earth, our America, these United States, land of the free.
Dedicated to fostering peace in the world, Mindful Peacebuilding’s 2016 Roots Retreat is quietly leading a voyage to transform a society in pain. In the tradition of Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, traveling to New Orleans to “Touch the Earth” is a way to honor the memory of the victims of slavery; remembering is part of the work of healing historical trauma. Acknowledging the historical harm that transpired at places like the Whitney Plantation, is a way of embracing our collective heritage. Whether or not we have directly participated in those transactions is less important than simply bearing witness to the truth of our ancestors.
Even though I was born in Dominican Republic, I see a very strong connection with people, who like some of my ancestors, migrated centuries ago. This is a story of suffering, but it’s also one of triumph—one of power and transformation. Wherever I go, I carry my ancestors and the charge of my descendants. It is for that reason that a roots retreat is relevant to the study of my own history. We are not separate. We are bonded on the earth, witness to all, teacher for all times. The lessons are deep, and there are many. We go to listen.