Recently a tweet on #Twitterstorians caught my eye:
I replied twice, but soon realized there was so much more to say.
I’m a historian of the Atlantic Slave Trade. There’s nothing but depressing things in my research and writing. Just when I think I’ve bottomed out on the amount of cruelty humans can inflict on one another, I find a new, more grotesque piece of evidence that proves me wrong. After a decade of researching this, you would think that I would grow numb to it, but I haven’t. Some days are definitely harder than others.
Our political climate compounds that- I know for certain that the racism pervasive in every element of our society today comes from what I’m studying- the horror of slavery for which we as a nation have never fully taken responsibility. The racism perpetuates itself because we haven’t had any reconciliation. We tell our children that we are all equal, and expect the descendants of our enslaved populations to pretend that the very real trauma they still face as the result of this history is all in the past and best forgotten. This perpetuates the mental violence of our slave society, to the detriment of all Americans now.
So when I see these depressing things in my source material, the weight of the terribleness is magnified. Not only am I crushed for the people who never had a voice, never had justice, but I’m so conscious of how this unaddressed act of violence I’m reading about reverberates into the present. Our current systemic racism is made possible by these millions of historic acts of race-based violence that went unaddressed.
So what do I do with information like that?
I sit with it.
I sit with the discomfort and take notice of all of the feelings it brings up.
There is something very powerful in being a witness to past injustice. Even though you cannot intervene, being present, watching, and affirming what you’ve read is a transformational thing within your own self. Just as the act of injustice itself created ripples that make it hard for black Americans to get justice now, witnessing the injustice and giving it a piece of your consciousness creates ripples that make you more determined to be the best accomplice you can be. Each act of past violence that I read strengthens my understanding of what we as a nation are facing. This clarifies my role in helping to rectify that, through both the inner work of addressing my own prejudices, and work with the outside world educating other white people and challenging the systemic issues.
I tell my students this as well. I’m not assigning them this reading because I want to depress or disturb them, but because I want them to feel the power in being witness to injustice. I want them to grapple with discomfort and lean into it rather than away from it. That’s where the personal growth comes from.
The other way I deal with difficult subjects in my research and writing is to act on it. There is still so much primary source material about the slave trade that has never been read by anyone currently alive. Often when I’m reading my archival sources, I’m the first living person to read them. And, if I write about them, I’m the person uncovering the story. All of the enslaved people who labored under inhumane conditions, who were subjected to physical torture and psychological and spiritual warfare, and who committed suicide rather than live that way- they were forgotten, but the trauma of these acts lingered on. Writing about them- including their names, their histories, and bringing that horror to light is one small step toward the justice that could not be obtained in life. The vast majority of the enslaved in these records never got any justice, and many of their descendants still aren’t getting justice.
And this is why depressing material is so important to read, process, and write about. Those of us who can, have to be the witnesses. We have to share the stories. We have to uncover past crimes against the spirit of humanity for a better future. We have to let this process change us.
When we do, we might find that we can’t change the past, and for those of us who are white, we cannot change how we have been complicit in the system of white supremacy. But seeing this documentary evidence and working with it, allows us to better understand how global injustice was built, and how to get that across to others. I truly believe anyone who understands this past can’t want to perpetuate it in the future.
There’s a lot of power in this process. It changes you, and it changes the world.