I live near Mountain View Cemetery in Vancouver. When my daughter was young enough that she was taking her naps on me, I often walked its paths, reading the odd gravestone, admiring the beautiful trees, composing poems in my head. Now my daughter takes all her naps in a crib and I leave her with my husband to run those paths, admire the beautiful trees (especially this season), and compose poems in my head.
While there recently, I ran by some art installations that compelled me to stop. Two trees: one dressed in red, the other in white.
The project has been installed in public spaces throughout Canada and the United States as a visual reminder of the staggering number of women who are no longer with us. Through the installation I hope to draw attention to the gendered and racialized nature of violent crimes against Aboriginal women and to evoke a presence through the marking of absence.
It is not an accident the dresses are red. Red is for blood. Red is for love. Red is for anger. Red is for warning. Red is for stop, look, pay attention.
The other tree’s branches hung with white baby carriages, fabric stitched taut over stick frames, weightless and rocking in the wind. The installation was next to the infant’s cemetery, where each stone in the river commemorates a baby lost. There are many stones in the river. The oldest one I saw was inscribed with the date 1902.
It is not an accident the carriages are white. White is for innocence. White is for milk. White is for purity. White is for a fadeout screen in a film. White is for ghosts. White is for baby shoes. White is for a blank page, an empty photo album.
Two trees dressed in grief. People have remarked that running through a cemetery is creepy. I have never experienced that feeling until the day I saw those red and white trees in broad daylight. They were haunting.
They have become more haunting after reading theologian James Cone’s 2011 book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Cone connects the cross Jesus died on with the trees that thousands of Black people died on in the United States because of white supremacy. Cone writes:
The conspicuous absence of the lynching tree in American theological discourse and preaching is profoundly revealing, especially since the crucifixion was clearly a first-century lynching. In the “lynching era” between 1880 to 1940, white Christians lynched nearly five thousand black men and women in a manner with obvious echoes of the Roman crucifixion of Jesus.
While not ignoring the historical and theological differences between the cross and the lynching tree, Cone concludes:
The lynching tree is a metaphor for white America’s crucifixion of black people. It is the window that best reveals the religious meaning of the cross in our land. In this sense, black people are Christ figures, not because they wanted to suffer but because they had no choice.
These are powerful, haunting words. Reading Cone’s short and accessible book (for non-theologians like me) was illuminating, horrifying, and necessary. Just like the red dresses and white carriages render presence through absence in Mountain View cemetery, Cone writes for America (particularly Christian America) to remember what it has all too easily forgot, ignored, or even justified.
He reminds us of the strange fruit hanging from trees that Billie Holiday inscribed on the ears of anyone who listened to her sing this indictment.
Listening to the song and looking at the cemetery tree photos, I wonder what the late Cone would say about Canada’s collective violence towards our Indigenous peoples, people we have sought to kill, assimilate, dehumanize. We have our own strange fruit, our river of stones, our Highway of Tears to reckon with.
Yaw, one of the many characters in Yaa Gyasi’s book Homegoing, begins his history class with the words: “History is Storytelling.”
Gyasi—who was born in Ghana, raised in Alabama—gives us a book of stories in this epic debut. Each of the sixteen chapters is named after a different character who all trace their lineage to a woman named Maame, an Asante slave in a Fante household in West Africa. The book moves chronologically through eight generations from the 18th century to the present day, alternating between two bloodlines. Maame has two daughters by different men: Effia (who lives in Asanteland in the interior of what we now call Ghana) and Esi who lives in Fanteland along the coast. They know nothing of each other. Effia is married off to an English official involved in the Atlantic slave trade at Cape Coast Castle. Underneath its whitewashed exterior and palatial rooms lay separate female and male dungeons that African slaves were packed into for weeks before boarding boats to America to work on cotton plantations. This is the fate of young Esi who is captured in a raid on her village.
The half sisters and their descendants live very different lives. The strand from Effia stays in Ghana; the strand from Esi unfolds in America. And yet no character has it easy. Gyasi shows how each character and bloodline is implicated in the devastating legacy of slavery. A character reflects: “The Asante had power from capturing slaves. The Fante had protection from trading them.”
With Homegoing, I felt like a student in Yaw’s class. Not a boring class but a riveting, I-want-to-know-more kind of class that often happens when I’m reading fiction and realize I’m also reading history. With each chapter/character, the author takes on multiple Black histories: the African-American slave trade, Britain’s colonization of West Africa and the arrival of Christian missionaries, the Anglo-Asante wars, slavery in the American South, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, also known as the “Bloodhound Law”, convict leasing, Jim Crow laws, the Great Migration of Blacks from the Southern US to the North between 1916 and 1970, the Civil Rights Movement, the heroin and jazz scene in Harlem in the 1960s, the “war on drugs”, and the racism that underlies it all and still exists today. This incredible scope of time, subjects, places, and characters make Homegoing a contemporary classic and a must-read, especially now in the wake of George Floyd’s death and the resulting racial protests.
With each character, I (probably foolishly) hoped, Surely this person will have a better life than their parents. What’s a better life though? Each story had sad parts. Each choice (when there was a choice) had repercussions. Some stories brimmed with sadness. As Gyasi took us through the uneasy family tree, I noticed the racism grew slightly less overt but no less damaging.
When I was at a North American arts marketing conference in Seattle a couple years ago, I had dinner with a small group of attendees. One woman was Black and had studied Psychology. She told our group she thought all Black people should go to counselling by nature of being Black—to process what their people have been through. I didn’t fully understand her comment at the time but after reading this book, I have a clearer picture.
Yaw goes on to tell his history class:
We believe the one who has the power. He is the one who gets to write the story. So when you study history, you must always ask yourself, Whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? Once you have figured that out, you must find that story too. From there, you begin to get a clearer, yet still imperfect, picture.
The last two stories in the book, Marjorie and Marcus, provide the most hope. After just reading through how these modern-day characters came to be, the reader has a deep appreciation that the closing scene ends with laughter—play, even.
In keeping with the theme of split families (“A Tale of Two Sisters” is a moniker that comes to mind), Gyasi pairs each bloodline with a recurring natural symbol: fire on the Fante side, water on the Asante side. The novel begins:
The night Effia Otcher was born into the musky heat of Fanteland, a fire raged through the woods just outside her father’s compound.
From there, the author continues to play with fire and water. How these symbols develop and culminate through her prose is as layered as the family’s storyline. I began to see fire and water imagery everywhere, even in a line like “a wave of missing hit her, separate and sad.” It’s as if Gysai reminds us that the memory of slavery is always present, breaking through the surface, breaking into speech.
While Homegoing‘s subject matter was far from enjoyable, Gyasi’s use of language certainly was. I would read this book a second time to pay more attention to how she connects characters through word choice. In the following examples, the emphasis is mine.
Yaw’s daughter Marjorie has an Asante name, Abronoma, which means “little dove.” The author writes:
She had always hated it when her father called her Dove. It was her special name, the nickname born with her because of her Asante name, but it had always made Marjorie feel small somehow, young and fragile. She was not small. She was not young, either.
Later in the book, Gyasi transforms Marjorie’s African name from noun to verb when another character describes Marjorie:
He had learned not to be surprised by how forthcoming she was. How she never gave in to small talk, just dove right into deep waters.
To layer the connection even more, Gyasi has Marjorie enact this metaphor in the closing scene of the book. She dives into the ocean.
Another example of linked language:
Marjorie muses about her parents who are watching a movie:
Maybe her mother was sleeping too, her own head leaning toward Yaw’s, her long box braids a curtain, hiding their faces.
When a character later meets Marjorie at a party, Gyasi writes:
At the mention of her name, Marjorie lifted her head, the curtain of wild hair parting to reveal a lovely face and a beautiful necklace.
Gyasi scatters family clues like Hansel and Gretal, and this reader loved picking them up. Another purpose these language connections have is unifying a book that could be criticized as resembling a collection of short stories more than a novel. I experienced this primarily in the first part of the book, but in part two, more preceding characters are present in various ways, strengthening the book’s cohesiveness. That being said, each character was so richly drawn, I wanted to follow them longer. To achieve this effect sixteen times is no small feat. Gyasi could write sixteen separate books for each character. Yet she provided just enough material to grasp each person’s essence. The choices they made, the choices made for them. Who they love, who they hurt. How they love, how they fight. Their small acts of defiance and compliance. The contradictions of the human heart. Split identities.
I had the sense Gyasi could have kept writing this story forever. When do you stop a family lineage? When does that better life materialize? It’s what every parent wishes for their child. It’s why there are Black Lives Matter protests. If Gyasi were to continue with this family tree, what would the stories of future descendants say?
I scan the books on the shelf of my 7 month old’s library, all gifts from family and friends. Most are about animals, but the two below feature people—specifically, people of colour. I am reading them a lot more to my daughter these days when Black Lives Matter has moved to the front of white people’s minds.
Like many white people, I am asking myself what can I do? Now that I am a mom, I feel a heavier responsibility to do something because I am raising a child in this world and the question of what kind of person I want her to be is no small thing. I think the answer is hidden in the question: A kind person. An empathetic person. An authentic, courageous, compassionate, and self-aware person. I can read my daughter stories and give her dolls/toys of people with different types of bodies: Black bodies, Asian bodies, Indigenous bodies, disabled bodies, etc. Apparently as young as three months old, babies start showing a preference for the race that matches their caregivers. My husband and I took a trip to Kidsbooks the other day to address the gap in our daughter’s library. I am thankful we live in a diverse neighbourhood of Vancouver where we interact with different races. I am teaching her to wave to people we walk by. Babies are great at breaking down barriers.
While my husband and I need to educate our daughter about racism, I also need to educate myself and reflect on my own covert racism. To be honest, I haven’t known where to begin the past several days. And not because there isn’t ample information out there. There is. I’ve bookmarked webpages with resources by Black authors such as this one and have felt overwhelmed in choosing a starting point. And then I felt immediately guilty, because what a privilege: that I have the luxury of deciding whether or not to educate myself on racialized experiences when it’s a daily lived reality for people of colour. I read Ijeoma Oluo’s book So You Want to Talk About Race after hearing her speak at the 2018 National Arts Marketing Project Conference in Seattle, and that was the first time I really thought about my privilege: white, middle class, educated, stable family, etc. and how this plays a huge role in how society treats me over someone who doesn’t have these privileges. After the protests broke out in the US following George Floyd’s death, I wondered what to do now.
My starting point happened last night, and rather unintentionally, I will confess. My husband gave me a book for my first Mother’s Day. It only arrived the other day and has been sitting on our coffee table. It’s called Motherhood: A Confession by Natalie Carnes who’s a professor at Baylor University. This book converses with Augustine’s Confessions. Carnes wonders how that seminal piece of writing for Western Christianity would have been different if it was a mother writing it instead of a man. I picked up her version last night and began reading.
She addresses her daughter in the first part. I am in the midst of writing a poem to my daughter and easily slipped into Carnes’s hopes, fears, and concerns that the birth of a child elicits in a mother, particularly the desire to protect your child from the suffering of the world.
I see that there is domination, at least, in my own dissipation, that my attempt to suffer for you is also an attempt to control your life by limiting its exposure. The temptation to save you from suffering can express a lust for domination and yearning for control over what is ultimately uncontrollable. The domination of diffusion derives from the illusion that I can absorb the world for you and so by my love create for you a painless world. ‘What madness,’ as Augustine writes, ‘not to understand how to love a human being with awareness of the human condition!'”
Natalie Carnes, Motherhood: A Confession, p.65
What kind of person does Carnes want her daughter to be? The kind that resists racism, patriarchy, and injustice. And so she talks about exposing her to an ugly piece of local history where they live in Waco, Texas. She tells the story of a young Black man named Jesse Washington who was lynched in front of the courthouse in 1916. Wait a minute. I’ve been to that courthouse. At this point, I put the book down, get on my computer. Yes, here it is. You may even remember that I shared this picture on a previous post about Waco.
I stood near the spot where a 17-year-old Black teenager accused of murdering a white woman whom he worked for was beaten, chained, stabbed, dismembered, dragged, and finally hung and burned alive on a tree while a mob of 10 000 white people watched and cheered.
This Guardian article shows more pictures and the text of the original story that ran in a monthly magazine put out by the country’s oldest civil rights organization called NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People).
I felt sick to my stomach. Not just for what happened, but for my ignorance. I remember walking up to the courthouse to read about it because I was interested in its architecture.
Maybe I missed it, but I didn’t see any sign in the area that addressed Jesse Washington’s lynching. And why would the City want to remember this death at their hands? It’s an act of erasure—white people wiping out Black bodies and memories. And I feel guilty because I visited the city as a tourist, consuming this site like any other. What would my posture have been if I had gone to remember, to pay respect? I wish I had known this story prior. I like to think it would have changed the way I moved through the city. And how was I to know if our cities don’t tell the (whole) truth, even if it’s unpleasant and inconvenient? This article describes efforts to have the lynching remembered; Waco has made strides to do so in recent years, though I am still uncertain if there is a marker at the site. A Black man who shares Jesse Washington’s name has been advocating for it and documents his story here.
Also on my previous post about Waco, I shared this postcard image from 1911, a piece of City marketing to attract residents to move to Waco after it had earned a bad reputation for crime in the 19th century.
The figures imitate George Seurat’s 1884 painting La Grande Jatte. How do you reconcile this image with Washington’s charred body hanging from a tree six years later?
As Andrew Belonsky writes in the above Guardian article, the NAACP used racists’ images of Washington’s lynching—which were bought and shared like trading cards—to awaken their country to the horror. Not unlike Emmett Till’s mother in 1955. Her 14-year-old son was abducted, tortured, shot, and drowned in a Mississippi river after a white woman in a grocery store claimed he grabbed and propositioned her (which she later admitted was a lie). Carnes tells this story and I am back on the internet, researching another Black life that was brutally ripped away. The body was so mutilated, Emmett’s mother only recognized her son by a ring he wore.
She insisted on an open casket. The image of her dead son (graphic image warning) was pivotal in the Civil Rights Movement. Rosa Parks said when she was asked to give her seat up for a white person on the bus, she remembered Emmett and that gave her the strength to resist. Who else had an open casket recently? George Floyd.
By the way, Emmett’s family is still waiting for justice. After 65 years. His two killers were acquitted by an all-white, all-male jury. They’re dead now, but the grocery store woman, Carolyn Bryant, is still alive. Read the story in The Guardian, published this spring.
In the nature of Carnes’s honesty, I too want to confess. I didn’t know the names of Jesse Washington and Emmett Till before. I didn’t even know about lynching had it not been for my husband reading Black theologian James Cone’s book The Cross and the Lynching Tree, which I’m going to read next. Approximately 3000 Black men were lynched between 1885 and 1915. That’s a staggering number.
My evening of reading didn’t turn out at all like I expected. Upon going to bed, I said to my husband with a weary voice, “I hate your country.” And the guilt came back, because of course my country, Canada, is no better, as this Huffington Post article reminds me. Racism and erasure happen here too. Slavery happened here. A vibrant Black community in Vancouver once lived and worked in Hogan’s Alley, before urban planning displaced it. I was talking with a friend the other day and we were trying to recall if we even learned about residential schools in our public education. How many places in Canada have I visited without knowing or remembering the atrocities that took place on their soil? What pictures have I seen in history books that don’t tell the truth? This one comes to mind:
A last confession before ending this: I was scared to publish this post. Scared of saying the wrong thing. Scared of repeating things that have already been said and by much smarter voices. But worse, scared of saying nothing. And so even though I don’t have a big platform by any means, I want to use what I do have to share my journey of self-reflection and education to be a better anti-racist. We all have a journey to go on to help dismantle systemic racism, to inform ourselves, to be people of kind character. It starts with you and me. It starts now if it hasn’t already. And writing makes it more real, helps keep me accountable to committing and continuing to learn. Thanks for reading, friends.