Each term, one participant from each HECUA program abroad takes on the role of student blogger, sending regular dispatches from the field. Kathleen Watson will be HECUA’s student blogger for the Race in America program this summer. Kathleen is a student at the University of Minnesota, majoring in American Studies. Read on for Kathleen’s first post!
Bodies. We live in ‘em every day and don’t think too much about it. I’ve spent a lot of time the last seven days thinking about my boney, fleshy frame that carries me from place to place. And not just my physical body, but how my body and mind connect to the space around me.
This past week was the first of three weeks of HECUA’s Race in America program. Myself, six classmates, and two professors travelled across Alabama farmland, Louisiana bayous, and Mississippi forests. We’ve spoken to Civil Rights Movement organizers, Hurricane Katrina survivors, and Guatemalan refugees. Consuming our fair share of Southern cuisine, we’ve debated the best sweet potato pie and mac n’ cheese. It’s been a whirlwind, but it’s incredibly satisfying to go to bed every night with a brain full of both new knowledge and new questions.
The idea that’s been coming up repeatedly this week is how my body feels in the spaces that we’ve entered. There have been quite a few spaces and places. HBCU and PWI dorms, a historic slave plantation, and the Edmund Pettis bridge (the site of Bloody Sunday and the beginning of the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery) are just the tip of the iceberg.
I first felt it when we stepped out of the van into the hot, and I mean HOT, air that encased Whitney Plantation. The parking lot and all surrounding land was flat. It felt like the sun was baking this pancake called Louisiana. Drops of sweat instantly popped out of my lower back. I took a breath of humid air in and looked across the fields. Enslaved people once stood, worked, sweated, labored, suffered, lived, laughed, cried, died in the space that I had entered. “Enslaved people” weren’t just two words sitting on a textbook page. My 5’7” frame was now in that space that had previously been taken up by others who have fundamentally shaped history and my own life. Think of where you are sitting/standing right now and all the other people who have occupied that same space. Now think that those people were property to another human being. My eyes saw the same fields stretching out in front of me. My skin felt the same Louisiana sun beating down. The weight of past lives that have been lived and injustices that have been suffered hit me like a semi truck.
As we took a tour of the Whitney Plantation, I couldn’t disconnect from my consciousness of my body in these spaces. The sweat, blood, and bodies of the people who lived in bondage on the Whitney Plantation became as real to me as the expansive sugar cane fields that presently sat in front of me. I wasn’t experiencing it from another person’s perspective either. It was my body seeing many of the same things, buildings, and landscapes that enslaved people and other people who owned them (the truth of that word makes me sick) also had.
A similar feeling came up again a few days later. We had just walked across the Edmund Pettis bridge in Selma. The Alabama river stretched broadly below us. The city’s broken skyline faced our backs as we crossed over to a small, private park on the other side of the river. On my left was a simple wooden covering that marked a path leading down the hill into a dense forest. We had just stepped off the bridge, but trying to look through the trees, the river wasn’t even in sight. The canopy of branches and leaves created a sort of curtain between the rest of civilization and the river. Where I was standing at the top of the hill, various memorials covered the small grass-covered space. A historical marker caught my eye. Erected in 2015 by the Equal Justice Initiative, it described both specific and general stories of black men who had been lynched in this space, the forest below, by the river. I walked over to the edge of the hill, looking over into the density of trees, bushes, and wildlife below. And then the semi hit me ten times harder than it had at the Whitney.
I continued to stare into the woods from the top of the hill, when my classmate Quincy saw my expression and asked if I wanted to go down to check out the trail. I agreed and followed him down the steps. As I walked down the stairs, the trees grew over my head, the sounds of traffic from the road faded away, and darkness settled in. I haven’t thought of a way to describe verbally what I felt physically. The death was tangible. Normally just an abstract concept, death was truly present within those woods. My body became heavy, my pace slowed. I looked at this new world I had stepped into. The soil I walked on could’ve been the last spot an innocent man stood before he was lynched. This was the same space. The same trees would’ve told us stories of terrorism and murder if they could. Instead, the sounds of crickets and other bugs rang in our ears. My live, free, able body wasn’t totally free in this space; I was physically weighed with its innate history, lives, and suffering. What I felt was a micro-sized fraction of other people’s lived realities.
No matter how I describe these two experiences, I can’t fully express what I felt. Simply put, you must enter into these spaces to feel them yourself!
These stories are two small pieces of what has happened this week, but I thought the idea of body consciousness could be applied to any place. Being in new, challenging, uncomfortable, fun, (you fill in the blank) spaces is rewarding. My perspective on history has been interpreted through my own lens, not through the lens of a textbook writer, professor, or other witness. All I can say is, get into those new spaces, or be conscious of the old spaces, that change your understanding of the world around you. It’s indescribable the feeling you get when you do.