Rebuilding the Slave Ship
We meet three times.
We were invited to the Bakhita Project. It begins with an invitation from Bakhita, a name for an unnamed young woman from Africa captured as a slave, who arrived at Rio de Janeiro and died at the harbour before she could get to the plantation. Bayo Akomolafe tells us that he stood at her grave site where she was dumped and buried with thousands of other bodies. At that crack, that fissure in the ground of forgotten slaves, he received the call to “rebuild the slave ship.”
Katabasis, he says, is a Greek word that means descent. When the surface is troubling and the earth is shaking, we are asked to descend underground. In the dark crevices and the dirt, we may find other forms of knowing, other ways of responding.
We meet for the first time as five strangers brought together by shared time zones and a shared course: We Will Dance With Mountains. We all felt called to be part of the first phase of the Bakhita Project, described by the course hosts as an action research project: an invitation for us to get lost in labyrinthian paths of our inquiry. That, and to rebuild the slave ship.
We check in and introduce ourselves with the awkwardness of first meeting. We ask: Rebuilding the slave ship? Why are we being asked to revisit such a terrible and shameful thing – this ship that held humans as slaves, as objects?
The prompt deeply disturbs us, shakes us, makes us confront our colonizer identities and the painful histories held in our bodies. There is a desire to avoid the awkwardness of the prompt. We tell each other that we don’t want to rebuild the slave ship – and wonder if resistance is a response?
One of us, ziysah, has two young children and their shy smiles fill the screen. One of them asks: “what if we’re re-building the slave ship to carry the slaves back home?”
This kicks us off. Even if we don’t have answers, we have many questions.
I remember feeling impressed with our pretty collection of questions, images and metaphors that we gathered at the end of that call. Questions are a safe launch point from the harbour: perhaps from here, we can kick off our journey together, even if we do not know what the destination is.
So we set sail,
“This is research worthy of our time, and it begins with a crack: it is an instigation, and a place where the world kicks back. It’s the place where the world calls on us and says your agendas and imperatives are not the only things in the room, and we insist on being heard. It is sometimes very uncomfortable, and might take us in directions we’re not used to.”
-- Bayo Akomolafe [Introduction to the Bakhita Project]
In the week before our second meeting, I feel a growing itch like I want to pull something together to help guide the process. I’m a facilitator, a designer after all. I wanted to make a map – just a little one – a straw dog of a shared exercise to help us get started and cohere. The group can rip it up if they want. I scratch this itch by pulling together a document of research, ideas, and provocations (What is the Slave Ship was Noah’s Ark? The Ship of Theseus? Our bodies?), as well as an invitation to the group to create our own parts of the slave ship. Perhaps we can piece it together? I email it off and ask for consent from the rest of the group.
We meet again, a second time. One of us can no longer participate, so now we are four. We all consent to the exercise, but agree that this is a journey of disorientation. Someone recommends exploring the question through a medium that we are uncomfortable with.
I knew immediately that for me, the modality I am least familiar with is embodied movement. I am only recently rediscovering the territory of my body, but feel awkward with the relationship, so I ask for help. One of the group members, Tyler, is a movement artist, and generously offers to create an exercise.
We commit on another date to meet again, before the deadline. We will share back whatever surfaces with each other.
Bayo Akomolafe tells us, “the heart of making sanctuary is inquiry.” But who is the researcher, who is the inquirer? Thinking is not exclusively human, so how does the world, the more-than-human, inquire of us? Shake us? Move us?
I procrastinate on the exercise over the Holidays, so I wake up early at 6:30AM on the morning of our third meeting and read two articles in bed:
- A National Geographic article about the discovery of Bakhita’s bones in the Cemitério dos Pretos Novos in Rio de Janeiro:
“Unlike other remains found at the site - largely fragmented and reduced to small pieces - Bakhita’s skeleton remains almost intact, its features recognizable. Bakhita is real physical evidence of the black holocaust caused by the slave trade in Brazil.”
- “My Great-Grandfather, the Nigerian Slave-Trader”, a New Yorker article where the writer Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani works through her ancestral ties to her great-grandfather Nwaubani Ogogo Oriaku, who was a slave trader:
““It’s like building a house,” he told me. “If you don’t get the foundations right, if you used substandard materials or if the stones were not laid properly, the building will inevitably develop cracks and collapse.”
Afterwards, I read Tyler’s invitation to movement:
“Allow yourself to be directed into movement by this part of your body - and allow yourself to be led by this motion… whatever happens, know that what is most important is your listening and surrender into being led by your body.”
I get out of bed quietly, trying not to wake up my partner, and walk downstairs. I switch on the camera to record the process of letting my body move me. It is awkward, but I close my eyes. I pat, and then brush my body with my hands. Sleepy limbs began to awaken. My body starts swaying as though I am in a boat.
I am pulled away from home. I die. I compost. I am buried. I am digested. I am forgotten. Again, and again, in cycles of movement.
Afterward, I play the video of my strange body moving in silence for fifteen minutes. It is embarrassing and difficult to watch, because I’m unused to seeing my own body move in this way. But my self-consciousness dissolves away, and I witness.
We meet for the third time.
This time, I feel weird and shy, I can barely speak. My chest is stuffed full, knotted with something. When I open my mouth, my words fall out jumbled and confused. I am frustrated with my loss of eloquence, with my inability to speak.
Between broken, fragmented words, salty streams of tears run down my face. I am drowning in an ocean.
Someone in the call shares something and her voice is shaking with passion – or maybe I am shaking. She admits that she didn’t feel safe at the beginning, in our first two meetings, because she noticed the desire to stay abstract, to stay “meta” in how we were circling around the prompt. How do we love each other, if we look away from the truth?
Truth, I realize, is what cracks me open.
The Ship (The Container)
We are asked the question: “How might we rebuild the slave ship?”
What a mortifying, scandalous thing. Everything in my body reels back in resistance. So my automatic instinct, a culturally learned survival mechanism of Modernity, is to investigate it with my mind, poke it from a distance with a stick, analyze it under a microscope. I create a map, a detailed architecture of questions to keep it in a vacuum-sealed bell jar.
This is the tragedy and outrage of disembodiment – why is it so difficult to let what my mind maps and encircles, to touch my heart and body? Because when I touch the red hot surface, my entire body jumps, bristles, recoils, seizes, shudders, cringes, shakes, moves, in response to the pain of it.
“To have great pain is to have certainty; to hear that another person has pain is to have doubt.”
― Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World
So we harden ourselves against the pain of truth and history, and we bury damaged bodies under the ground to be forgotten. Yet even as flesh decays, the bones stay – and the skeletons of our histories crawl through the cracks in the ground.
Slavery is a black hole. It’s a black hole in the hull of the ship that attempts to carry promises and dreams – of efficiency, of productivity, of freedom from suffering. The ship sets sail, but the foundations of this container are not well built, and it hides a deep dark secret: this yawning, spiralling vortex.
In the middle of the ship in the middle of the ocean, the ghosts under the floorboards pick up momentum with their growing, gnawing hunger. And the ship is caught in a whirlpool of its own making, it cracks and collapses in the spiralling gravity of the black hole. Wood splinters. Bodies are torn asunder. Everything falls apart.
But where things fall apart, all that is hidden spills out: bones, guts, viscera, shame, fear. Yet even as flesh decays, the bones stay – and the skeletons of our collective body crawl through the cracks in the ground.
What if instead of sailing away, I crawl down to the parched ground. What if I press my body against the dust and push my ears to the cracks. What will I hear? What are the hungry ghosts whispering to me?
Let us create the channels to let silent bodies speak, to give form and shape to that which is unspeakable. Perhaps then, we will hear the hungry truths. Perhaps then, the truths will set us free.
side to side
hands tied, immobilized
soft breath, soft breathing
walking, dying, curling,
Once again, picked up
side to side
earth and skin hold hands
hands tied, immobilised
we sleep, and forget
Once again, picked up
flung side to side
my body howls, it
curls up in pain
we pick ourselves up
we sway and sway
like the waves
until we spin down into history
the flesh decays
bones left behind
ocean, not boat
human, not slave