Author: Robin Bates
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.
Every year on the first of july people from the Dutch Caribbean and Suriname celebrate the abolition of slavery in 1863. During the last 40 years there has been a steady migration from Suriname and the Dutch Caribbean to the Netherlands. As such, Dutch culture has slowly been infused with Caribbean and Surinamese elements in popular culture. Aside from the influences on popular culture there is also an increasing call for a more transparent dialogue about Dutch history and the role of African slaves. It is the general opinion of many descendants of African slaves living in the Netherlands that the role of the Dutch in the slave trade and colonial slavery has been severely downplayed. For some this blind spot in Dutch history is a source of anger and results in harsh criticism on contemporary Dutch attitudes towards a multicultural society that others who have a more moderate approach to the history of slavery see as polarizing. Whatever path descendants of African slaves choose to walk in regards to the history of slavery, it is clear that feelings and opinions are like a palet of shades of gray between black and white, all shades fully entitled to its merits.
Keti Koti Table
Enter the Keti Koti Table, an initiative by Mercedes Zandwijken and people around her to find a way to make dialogue between white Dutch people and Dutch people of Caribbean and Surinamese descent happen.
I participated in my first Keti Koti Table today at the Joods Historisch Museum in Amsterdam. Today was the end of their exhibition called “Joden in de Cariben”, an exhibition about Jewish life in the Caribbean that also dealt with the role of colonial Jews during slavery. It was an interesting location for the Keti Koti Table since Jewish people have a 3500 year old tradition of celebrating the end of their slavery in Egypt: Pesach. During the Seder which is held on the first and/or second night of Pesach Jewish people commemorate on the twin themes of slavery and freedom with rituals and food. The Keti Koti Table is similar to a Seder as in that the participants also take part in rituals and eat food that evoke the themes of slavery and freedom. As this Table is a relatively new tradition there is a guide for a basic set of elements one can follow. A tori means the story and is a directive for this ritual as in that the participants pas on the stories to each other and the next generation.
The elements of a Keti Koti Table
The elements are:
The StoriesSharing stories is one of the most important parts of the Keti Koti Table. During this session we were asked to share a personal family story that shows the connection with slavery. One of the most profound stories I heard today [note: per request of the narrator of this story, I have decided to remove this part of my post. Even though I think I had good intentions with sharing her story, those intentions are secondary to her opinion and feelings about including it in this blogpost. As a descendant of the people of this narrative she has the full right to request censorship from someone who cannot claim this descent and as such I feel I have to honor that request. I also misrepresented her full ancestry in my description of who she is and for that I apologize. I should have asked for and verified the info I was going to share.]
There was another story by a woman who shared that she is the granddaughter of a Jewish woman who had a Black father and a Jewish mother. Being a biracial child of an unwed Jewish mother and a Black father meant that the mother disowned her child officially but that the child still had a status aparte in the Jewish and Black family. Although she was never formally recognized as the daughter of a Jewish mother, she was treated with the respect of an unofficial Jewish daughter. It was a gray area of being given a certain standing in the Jewish family but not being able to claim that spot.
The story that I shared was that I have discovered through research that the history of slavery is more complex than just a case of White/Jewish slave owners and Black/Colored slaves. I have discovered three generations of free women of color, two of whom I am fairly certain were born as slaves, who themselves have had slaves at one point in their lives and who all three have also bought freedom for those slaves. Discovering that information has given my family history more body, more stuff to think about and thus more to reflect upon.
Breaking the Chains
I saw a clip this morning from bishop T.D. Jakes on Oprah’s life class where he says:
“When You Hold Onto Your History, You Do It At The Expense of Your Destiny.” He basically advises to forgive the past to look to the future. When I reflect on todays experience I think that in a way this Keti Koti Table can help us reclaim our past, accept what was by forgiving and then fully embrace our destiny. There can be a tremendous power in sharing stories and connecting with people. There is an even higher power in discovering commonalities with people from other walks of life and colors. Let’s ignite this dialogue!