I participated in two remarkable healing rituals this past week that involved intense conversations with people of color. In addition to gaining important new perspectives on race in America, I also got a better understanding of Octavia Butler’s Kindred, which I wrote about Tuesday.
Mercedes Zandwijken, a Surinamese-Dutch woman, was on campus with her Keti Koti Table, a ritual modeled on the Passover Seder with the goal of promoting reconciliation between whites and the descendants of slaves. (You can find further information on her facebook page.)
Because we still carry around the scars of slavery, Zandwijken says, we need to address our history, and her rituals provide a safe and healing way to do so. I participated in a three-hour dinner where whites and people of color talked about where our ancestors had been touched by slavery and what it felt like today to have or not have white privilege.
In addition, there was a 24-hour conversational relay, involving one-hour conversations moderated by Zandwijken and her partner Machiel Keestra. Whites and people of color paired off before microphones on the campus center patio (anyone could stop by and listen) to answer certain questions and probe continuing pain.
The conversations were remarkable. Before giving you a sense of them, however, I turn to Kindred since it concludes with a powerful image of this pain.
As I reported Tuesday, Kindred is about an African American woman who, in 1976, finds herself in 1815 Maryland. What appears at first a plot gimmick—Dana is dragged unwillingly back by her white slave-owning ancestor whenever he faces death–proves to be something much more. Butler is essentially saying that we remain joined to our past and must face up to it if we are to become whole again.
In the final chapter, Dana stabs her ancestor when he attempts to rape her. He reaches out to grab her as she returns to the 20th century, however, and as a result she loses her arm. She has to be rushed to the hospital and is maimed for the rest of her life.
Readers want Dana to return safely to the present and resume her regular life, as though returning from an exotic trip. The maiming, however, reminds us that the past cannot be set aside so easily. The vestiges of slavery are still with us.
Many have written about how this is so, most notably Ta-Nehisi Coates in his National Book Award-winning Between the World and Me. I won’t explore here some of the more prominent instances, such as police racism and the mass incarceration of black men, where we continue to witness the legacy of slavery. Instead, I want to relate a quieter story, one that I heard from one of my African American partners. It is all the more powerful because it is so personal.
Leah recounted how her grandmother used to wear a wrap around her hair. She did so, Leah said, because her grandmother, a slave, had done so. The reason for the original wrap was a rape.
Apparently Leah’s great-great-great grandmother was impregnated by the master of the house, and her daughter, having fair skin, was made to wear the wrap to mark her as a slave. (Zandwijken said it might also have been to make her less attractive so that she wouldn’t undergo the same fate.) Leah said that hair issues were still a thing in her family—her mother had mixed feelings about her straight hair, and Leah feels relieved that she herself has the tight curly hair of her father. In short, events that occurred in slave times still play a role in Leah’s view of herself.
Americans, especially white Americans, often avoid discussions of our slave past because we are afraid of encountering anger and pain and of being rendered uncomfortable. What the Keti Koti Table and the 24-hour conversational relay revealed, however, is that pain arises from closing our eyes to our past. Only when we open ourselves to it can nourishing friendships and conversations arise.
In the epilogue to Kindred, Dana does not entirely realize this. Although she and her white husband return to the place where she was assaulted over a century before, she feels that she cannot tell him everything that she went through. After my experiences this past week, I now see this as a missed opportunity. The two of them need a session with Mercedes and Machiel.
But that being said, I understand why she feels compelled to journey back, Healing requires a return.