Who Gets To Heal?










"Tell me about your project," the woman asked.

For several years I had been working on a documentary film that asks the question, "How do we heal from the residuals of the slave trade?" Like any exuberant and under funded independent filmmaker, I am happy when anyone wants to hear about my documentary. The woman asking the question was an African-American teacher from somewhere in the Northwest. Her personal passion was to bring, each year, a half-dozen or so college students across the Atlantic Ocean to visit Goreé Island. And that's where we were having our conversation, on an old ferry boat, pushing off from the coast of Dakar, Senegal, headed 20 minutes away to Goreé.

During a period of 350 years an estimated 15 to 20 million Africans, taken from all over West Africa, were held on Goreé Island. More than 6 million of them died in captivity on this island, from cruel treatment and deprivation. Twice that many more were put on ships that took them to a life of chattel slavery on the other side of the Atlantic. A growing number of people are now beginning to make a connection between the psychological traumas of slavery and our behavior today.

"My documentary is on how artists create paths to healing," I bubbled on to this enthusiastic audience of one. The teacher insisted I talk to her students before we ended our stay in Senegal.

Then I hit a nerve. The nerve. I mentioned that in the film white folks are asked to address their healing. The teacher's face froze in look of angry disbelief.

"What do white people have to heal from?" she hissed through gritted teeth. "If that's what your film is about, then I sure don't want to see it!"

"Actually," I explained, "there are a lot of ideas presented in the film, including genetic memory, spirituality, post-traumatic---" But she did not hear me. The sister dropped a wall between us thick with pain and outrage, a wall I could not penetrate. Whenever I saw her over the next couple of days she turned away, herding her troupe in the opposite direction. That was the first time I had met hostility from a Black person on the question of white people healing from slavery's residuals, but it would not be the last.

Some folks look at the question like this: if you were the perpetrator of severe oppression, or if you are reaping today all of the benefits of someone else's enslavement, then what wound could you possibly have that needs healing? In other words, get outta my face! Others look at it like this: for Blacks to heal themselves without an equivalent experience for the white descendants of the slave trade is to leave a festering disease, a disablement of the psyche that will carry on into the next generations.

I admit that when the concept was first presented to me by Riua Akinshegun, the artist who inspired this  documentary, I was on the teacher's side of the fence. But here I was making this film on healing, so I had to listen. Over the next five years my position shifted from "I-don't-think-so!" to "How soon can we all get started?"  One thing I know about healing is it happens a lot easier and faster when all your forces are focused on the same goal.  If you're facing a physical challenge and you don't have the support of your family, or your job situation is pulling you in the opposite direction of your healing, it's not likely to succeed.

Just before completing the film I met Katrina Browne, a white filmmaker who can document her family's long and lucrative involvement in the slave trade. She is clear about the work that her tribe has to do in the area of healing.

Now, for me, the question is no longer "What do white people have to heal from?" but rather, "How can we receive our own healing while we begrudge someone else theirs?"