"Why am I chained? Why have I been beaten? Why is there no sky above me? What has happened to the air around me? Where is the laughter?"

October 3, 2019

The week before our Uncomfortable Journey to the Legacy Museum: from Enslavement to Mass Incarceration and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice (September 13 to September 15), we held two facilitated sessions so that we could set expectations and prepare ourselves for the experience.

 

On Sunday, September 9, we held our session at Second Baptist Evanston and were honored to have Senior Pastor Michael Nabors welcome us. Pastor Nabors is also President of the Evanston/North Shore Branch NAACP, which partnered in our journey, along with the Evanston Community Foundation and Evanston Cradle to Career.

 

Pastor Nabors read to us from a journal entry he wrote in 1991 during a visit he took with a group to Goree Island off the coast of Dakar, Senegal, which served as a holding place for captured Africans before they were shipped across the ocean and into slavery. In it, he imagines himself captured and chained in a holding cell on the island.

 

"I hope," he said at the end of his reading, "I hope when you are in Alabama, you all also close your eyes and imagine what it must have been like."

 

Thank you, Pastor Nabors, for hosting us, welcoming us, and supporting our Uncomfortable Journey.

 

"I had a chance in ‘91 to go to Goree Island, which is just off of Dakar, Senegal. It was a holding place for slaves before they were moved forward across the Atlantic. I journaled my experience, and I’d like to share it with you because I think you may be experiencing something like that in Alabama in a few days.

 

"Goree Island has just been felt by some delegates. It reminds me of how the ancestors must have felt when they were herded onto boats to be sent to the island so long ago.

 

"We arrived at 9:30 a.m. and were told to be back at the dock within an hour. Our march from the ferry to the streets of the island was like a death procession. No-one rushed, no-one wanted to be the first there.

 

"We walked into the narrow alley leading toward the building, a pale reddish-pink, a holding facility for slaves on their way to the new world.

 

"Here millions of slaves were taken in preparation for the passage from home to hell. The rooms have been left in tact over the years but they’re not really rooms, they’re holds, pens.

 

"I walk in and the illuminated rays of light from the morning sun are blocked out by the cold stone ceiling. Each hold had a slit in the wall that allowed only a sliver of light and life to steal its way inside. Eight feet by eight feet are the dimensions of the pens housing up to 100 slaves. One hold had no slit; it was called 'the Hold for Those who Rebelled.' It was a French word.

 

""I slowly walked through the hold, methodically. I think, in every step and every move that I take and make, the chances are quite likely that my mother or my father or both were somewhere in this building from 1526 to 1848.

 

"I walk toward the back of the building. There’s a door. Light is beyond it, and certain death. As I angle my way toward the door I feel pain and fear. 'What can I do,' they must have said to themselves. They headed for the door called the Door of No Return. Once out that door and into the awaiting ship, never to see Africa again, never to see family again, never to see familiar sights or smell familiar aromas again.
'Door of No Return.' He calls it the Door of Many Returns, for we are here, today, representatives of those who made the one-way journey so long ago.

 

"I wander back and forth. An intriguing meeting is taking place in the center of the building. The guide has begun to talk about Goree Island. I stand in the small entrance of one of the pits, eyes closed behind my Ray-Bans, listening.

 

"Ten to 15 million Africans stolen from the land and brought to this place. Cries that went up into the night, punishment for the rebels--hanging with a noose tied around the waist instead of the neck to prolong the agony of death.

 

"On and on he goes in a sweet and tender voice that lost nothing through the interpreter.

 

"A few sobs rise now around me. When the guide concludes, Congressman Walter Fauntroy begins to speak from the steps leading to the master’s cabin upstairs. He asks that we might all close our eyes. He takes us back, cries out, "I wish I knew. I wish I knew which one it was that went for me. I wish I knew."

 

"I grow an image in my mind, carrying myself across the corridors of time. No longer standing in one of the entries, I am now packed into the one for rebels. I’m not the only one there, there are many. They are there for rebellion. We’re chained together hand upon hand foot upon foot. We are naked. No place to relieve ourselves. The smell is unbearable. No air to breathe. The heat crucifies. We do not cry out from our pen but we hear cries around us. We hear the infants as they moan with baby sounds of despair. Torn from loving arms they have their room cleaned out once a day.

 

Watered down. But no-one there to hug them, to pick them up, to soothe them, or to hold them close. The mothers wail in another pen, wailing for their babies, their loved ones, crying for someone to come, please come, begging for their tormentors to leave them alone.

 

"What thoughts must be running through my mind as I sit in this pen crouched, chained as an animal? What tribes do these strange people come from? Who originated such cruelty? What have I done to displease their gods? Why does no-one come to stop the crying? Will my village warriors come to the rescue? Where is my father? Where is my mother? Where is my wife, my children? Where are the priests? What am I doing here? And why can’t I run with my face to the wind, to just smell the scent of my village once again? Why am I chained? Why have I been beaten? Why is there no sky above me? Wha has happened to the air around me? Where is the laughter? Whose sister did I dishonor, brother did I kill in battle that I would be so treated?

 

"Goree Island, a must for every African American who can make the journey.

"Walter cried, Dick Gregory consoled him. New moans rose around me mixing with the echoing cries of the distant years. I could not cry. My soul cried, but my eyes shed no tears. Now they are many below in the hell that must have surely opened wide to receive them. I must rest now as we soar above the blue divide. I have a weary body, a tired soul. My spirit has been tested but I have found that fewer clouds hover over Africa."

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