Eyes That See, Bodies That Break Free

 

Sitraka St. Michael

“Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history.”
—Abraham Lincoln1

“We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”
—Toni Morrison2

In the fall of 2116, “freedom” will have been available for nine years longer—and, perhaps, will be stronger and more courageous—than slavery for the first time in America’s recorded history.3 I will not live long enough to witness the fall of 2116 with my body. But I have faith that by 2116, HDS will have unleashed an army of eyes and bodies to give voice to a vision: that the vitality of slavery may find itself eyeball to eyeball with America’s history—and continue to perish.


The only work of art that hangs in the cocktail lounge The Aviary in Chicago is a large, towering, and self-effacing painting called Flight.4  Flight shows you a human body that is valiantly and desperately hanging on. The body is desperate to take flight. The sight of the body in midair is riveting for two reasons. It makes something inconceivable—human flight—available. Even so, it withholds something. Offering only a profile of the face, Flight does not let you see the body’s eyes. The eyes are consumed by and fixated upon something else, some other place that eludes the viewer.

Undoubtedly, the body held in midair remains caged—bound and informed by its own limitations and by the lines which, though necessary, will not release it toward the vision that so clearly draws it. And yet, the painting’s title—the artists’ conscious choice of language—claims the last word. One can take flight. The body takes flight by drinking from the wellspring of its life’s energies, by hanging on to the lines of its language, and by looking to the place where it is bound. The body can fly away. The body can be free, one day.

Much like a bird, the body in Flight recognizes and claims its capacity for flight. But what capability enables the caged body to soar into the air? There is one answer that my Harvard Divinity School education has made excruciatingly plain for me: language. Language transmits and translates the signature touch of an HDS education—namely, the cultivation of a willingness to see. Much like a bird that is destined to take flight, willing eyes that foster soaring language require nurture and nesting. Bodies and stories that are called to soar in midair need a season to grieve and grow wings in order to set the future free. That is what HDS has been, is, and ought to remain for all the stories it touches: an aviary.


HDS is the aviary where I have become willing to see America’s history, in all its costly glory, and it is the sanctuary where my heart has had to touch and be touched by the brutal vitality of what Condoleezza Rice aptly calls America’s birth defect: slavery.5 HDS has educated me to become willing to see many dimensions of the American story’s attempt to escape from history. HDS is the aviary where my story has encountered America’s history, and then a little more—where it has dared to love it. And, like any lover, America’s history has filled me up and broken my heart.

It happened in Baltimore the summer after my first year at HDS. Baltimore and Ferguson might have conspired to commence history’s work on my immigrant’s heart and opened my eyes. It felt like the stories of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray wanted to show me something about history. But I met Ferguson and Baltimore with familiar twin emotions—evasion and denial—bundled up in an unwillingness to see.

The invitation to go to Baltimore came through a scholarship to attend the Annual Meeting of the Union of Black Episcopalians. This meeting was going to be one for the ages. Black Episcopalians were going to pray, gather, and dance to celebrate a moment of glory in the history of the Episcopal Church. Bishop Michael Curry was our new presiding bishop-elect. He is descended from the enslaved. I did not want to go. The smoke, rage, and paralysis Baltimore and Ferguson had wrapped like a ribbon around my first year were enough. I did not want to see, feel, grieve, or remember more. But a budding willingness to see through the smoke, rage, and paralysis urged me to go.

The opening hymn during the procession at the closing Eucharist was “We’ve Come This Far by Faith”: “We’ve come this far by faith. Leaning on the Lo-o-rd. Trusting in his only word. He never failed me yet. Oh oh oh oh oh oh oh can’t turn aro-oo-und. We’ve come this far by faith.” There was something electric, mournful, and mature in the atmosphere. A black woman was presiding. Behind her were three black men bishops and two black deacons—one black woman and one black, bisexual man. Those who were gathered were standing and singing with their heads held high. Soaring in the faces and in the eyes of the older, black women in the room was the freedom of joy. Their mouths were singing with pride. And their eyes were smiling with ferocity. Maybe their souls were basking in the warmth of the sun that history continues to hold up in the darkness. Mine was.

And then it came—because slavery has not died. During his homily, Bishop Curry wanted to pay tribute to the ancestors whose unyielding hope had brought us this far along the way. His soul had intuited that, at this particular time in history, there could be no homily without history. Curry retold a story that many of the elders had heard and seen, and that not enough of the young ones had. It was the story of a high-minded ancestor who had stood out among the enslaved on his plantation because he had refused to go by any other name than his birth name, Kunta Kinte—the subject of Alex Haley’s novel, Roots. His enslaver insisted on another name for him—Toby.

Kunta Kinte’s pride and high-mindedness inspired many minds among the enslaved. And the enslaver decided to teach those minds a lesson. The enslaver would have Kunta Kinte flogged until his mind yielded. Episcopally clad, Bishop Curry moved from beyond the lectern to the center of the stage. And he allowed everyone in the scene of Kunta Kinte’s flogging from Roots to visit with us in his body.6

What is your name?
Kunta Kinte
Bishop Curry sends out one lash into the air.
What is your name?
Kunta Kinte
Bishop Curry sends out another lash into the air.
What is your name?
Kunta Kinte
Another lash.
What is your name? Another lash. What is your name? Another lash. What is your name? Another lash.

Presiding Bishop Curry sent out one lash after another, over and over again. Meanwhile, the women whose eyes had been singing and shining minutes before were weeping—heavy, silent tears that seemed to flow from the river of tears across time. And in the absence of words, tears came rolling down my face.

I had not wept for over a year. These tears were peculiar. Their indifference to my self-control was incapacitating. The history that had sent them rolling down my face was a history that my story had stubbornly refused to touch. Touching it, becoming willing to see it might, I feared, debilitate something within. When asked, “How do you identify?” my well-rehearsed talking point was, “I’m not black.” Answering in the negative had felt safe and strategic. It allowed me to protect dimensions of my story from the brutal vitality of slavery. I feared that the minute I started calling myself “black” in America, I would invite an upheaval of emotions inside that would make me feel worthless, doubt myself, and shut down; an upheaval of emotions would cripple and crush my spirit with the things history would force me to see, mourn, and transform.
Still, I wept, hearing about a scene involving an enslaved body I had never heard of and that was from a miniseries I had never seen. I was not born here. Madagascar is not Africa. Malagasy are not Africans. “You are not African.” “You are not black.” Thus spoke those who raised me, as they recited our islanders’ creed of “ethnic ambiguity.” I have taken advantage of my ethnic ambiguity. And it has taken advantage of me. It kept me from connecting and offering my story to a larger history. It stopped me from recognizing and vocalizing my sense of linked fate and shared joy with the enslaved. But, thank God, we cannot escape history. The episode of tears in Baltimore flooded and cracked the wall my story had erected around itself. Those silent, unstoppable, soul-piercing tears had claimed a home for America’s history inside my story.


The Baltimore tears made manifest something important to the eyes of my heart. They contained an insight that could unleash me. My own eyes have been laboring sorrowfully and ferociously to soar in midair ever since. HDS has touched my story by incubating and cultivating in my eyes a willingness to see the terrible, living beast of slavery, and then a little more—the freedom and courage to defang it. I have embraced the long, fragile, and bold task of defanging the brutal vitality of slavery. I see this now to be a crucial dimension of my life’s work.

I taste and see this work in my language. A year ago, my academic advisor asked me if I identified as black. “I feel a growing responsibility to do so,” I said. That stifling, paralyzing, and crushing sentence—“I’m not black”— had died. Another, more American, form of language had taken its place. I cherish HDS as the aviary where my heart grew wings to set itself free from its tendency to escape history and to become capable of mourning. As for you, reader, what you have come to see in the fall of 2116? And what ways of seeing have you become responsible for growing? And what ways of escaping have you become capable of letting die?

Speak and then a little more: Soar.

 

Notes:

  1. Abraham Lincoln, “Annual Message to Congress—Concluding Remarks,” December 1, 1862, transcript, http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/congress.htm.
  2. Toni Morrison, Nobel Prize in Literature lecture, delivered in Stockholm, December 7, 1993.
  3. I begin counting slavery’s age from August 1619, when the first African slaves were brought to Jamestown, Virginia. For a synopsis of the periodization I use, see History.com, “Slavery in America,” http://www.history.com/topics/black-history/slavery, accessed May 9, 2016. I locate the day Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation—January 1, 1863—as the day the era of “freedom” began. These two points in time make slavery 244 years old in 1863, and “freedom” 153 years old in 2016. In terms of years, “freedom” will become older than slavery in the fall of 2107.
  4. For an interview with Thomas Masters and Adrian Leverkuhn, the makers of Flight, about the ambitions they brought to The Aviary, see Amalie Drury, “Art at The Aviary: Five Questions for the Man behind the Signature Painting in the Nation’s Hottest Bar,” Chicago Magazine, April 27, 2011,
  5. http://www.chicagomag.com/Radar/The-Chaser/April-2011/Art-at-The-Aviary-....
  6. See Condoleezza Rice, Condoleezza Rice: A Memoir of My Extraordinary, Ordinary Family and Me (Delacorte Books for Young Readers, First Edition, 2010), 11.  
  7. The scene was made widely popular in the miniseries adaptation of Alex Haley’s novel, Roots, available online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1CpJpGF8lS8, accessed on April 13, 2016.

 

 

Sitraka St. Michael is an MDiv candidate at HDS who plans to graduate in May 2017. This is an excerpted and edited version of his submitted essay. He dedicates this piece with gratitude and joy to the following historians, writers, mentors, and friends whose willingness to see has expanded his being: Karen King, Laura Nasrallah, Tomiko Brown-Nagin, Martha Nussbaum, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Mama A, and Grace.

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