Bending Toward the Sun
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
In his recent talk with Holocaust survivor Rita Lurie, NPR’s Michel Martin conducted what has to be one of the most sensitively handled interviews on talk radio these days. Moreover, the powerful words in this interview and the books discussed here find new meaning as more Americans scramble to find ways to deal with trauma—terrorism, modern cultural pluralism, the recession, the sandwich-generation taking care of kids and parents, loss of work, resources, benefits and status. The authors graciously and courageously bequeathed us powerful inspiration.
This interview was incredibly powerful, and reminded me of reading Linda Brent’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, first published in 1861. The writer seems better able to recapture her voice on paper after being holed up in a space too small to move her limbs for seven years during her journey to escape the slave-holding American South, amidst the uncertainly of freedom in the North due to the active Fugitive Slave Law. Nowhere felt safe, and like the Holocaust survivor Rita Lurie—holed up in a Polish farmer’s attic—each day was riddled with the fear of “not knowing if we were going to live another day.”
It also occurs to me that Blacks and Jews should come together in remembrance in spaces of reverence for the purpose of breathing new life into the present, charged with the energy of our ancestors and loved ones gone by. We must pray together and help each other—and the wider/whiter America—to remember our past, not to be consumed by forgetfulness, and not to fear being overwhelmed with grief (guilt or shame) from accepting our past.
Our past is our collective global heritage. Our modern consumer culture is quite apt at focusing on the new, worshipping youth and disrespecting age, the elderly, and our past, treating them all as burdens. Just as easily as the nuclear family model too often segregates the living into a minutia of distanced groups who never, then, truly get to know and understand one another across ages, races, religions and classes, so too do we each eschew the responsibility of remembrance. NPR host Michel Martin prompts Rita Lurie to remember and speak-out, what Black folks call Witnessing and Testifying:
That’s right. I couldn’t talk. The letters sounded funny. When I went into the attic, I was only five years old. And after having had pillows stuffed down my mouth, that taught me, or the message was you can’t talk, you can’t express yourself. So, it took me a long time to actually speak clearly.
One often reads of how living under oppression reflects on people’s voice and speaking out, speaking truth to power, where power has almost always silenced as a means to impose oppression in our societies and hearts both literally and metaphorically. Hence, Ms. Lurie’s silencing—literally loosing her physical and emotional voice from growing up whispering in hiding—poses an interesting juxtaposition in the rekindling of one’s voice. American Slavery survivor Linda Brent writes:
I hardly expect that the reader will credit me, when I affirm that I lived in that little dismal hole, almost deprived of light and air, and with no space to move my limbs, for nearly seven years. But it is a fact; and to me a sad one, even now; for my body still suffers from the effects of that long imprisonment, to say nothing of my soul. Members of my family, now living in New York and Boston, can testify to the truth of what I say.
In the preface, Brent shares with readers her impetus and drive for retelling these ‘incidents’, clarifying that she neither seeks fame nor fortune, for no manner of money could replace what she had come to value most: freedom. “I want to add my testimony to that of abler pens to convince the people of the Free States what Slavery really
Is,” writes Brent, asserting that we all have a moral conscious to which she appeals. Silence, she implies, however wrenching, would be lame. Ms. Lurie adds:
I wasn’t sure that I wanted to speak to schools and churches and synagogues, but I began talking about my experience, and I realized that people were inspired, especially young people. They would speak up after my talk and tell me how it changed their lives to see me standing up there looking like I’m in pretty good shape.
(Soundbite of laughter)
The first campaign and presidency of Barack Obama has raised questions about race never before discussed in mixed company—at least from my perspective. For example, Slavery is heavy, and in mixed company, this heaviness too often causes tension, sadness, and silence. We even silence ourselves from speaking our true minds, and therefore exchange the predictable, often polarizing soundbites. This only reinforces our distance through focusing on our differences, rather than celebrating difference and focusing on commonalities.
Instead of engaging one another, Americans are so distanced—even in so-called multi-cultural settings—that we relegate all values to the market and consider consumerism the ultimate leveling field, where anyone has the chance to make it, despite, and in spite of, our past. Again, this has emerged as yet another excuse that justifies our forgetfulness. We are not healed, and so the woundedness we suffered in the past continues to gnaw away at our psyches and souls—what’s left, at least—and at times erupt like puss from a festering wound. Healing is a job done with earnestness, courage, and sincerity—“stepping out on faith,” reminds bell hooks in All About Love:
No matter what has happened in our past, when we open our hearts to love we can live as if born again, not forgetting the past but seeing it in a new way, letting it live inside us in a new way. We go forward with fresh insight that the past can no longer hurt us.
Without forgiveness, without truly embracing the past, we only ‘drift’ in fantasy. We cannot afford to continue to forget, even, and perhaps especially when it means rocking the boat. President Truman reminded us in 1952 at his address at Howard University’s commencement, upon his executive order integrating the armed forces: “Of course, there are always a lot of people whose motto is ‘Don’t rock the boat.’ They are so afraid of rocking the boat, that they stop rowing. We can never get ahead that way. We can only drift with the current and finally go over the falls into oblivion with nothing accomplished.”
We can find healthy ways of remembering in communion with one another, opening up—across race and class among other dividers—to the depths of our grieving as well as joy. This is the only path towards forgiving each other and ourselves. We are all responsible for that.
Thanks to all involved for bringing listeners this sensitive interview, and special thanks to the survivor, Rita Lurie, and her family for cultivating an environment that enabled the telling and continued retelling of these stories.