In These Times: Season 4 episode 4 Transcript

Alex Schein:
In Mary Shelley's novel, The Last Man, the protagonist, one of the few survivors of a plague searches for meaning in a world of loss, concluding that there is but one solution to the intricate riddle of life, to improve ourselves and contribute to the happiness of others. In 2022, as COVID 19 lingers on, the climate threat looms larger and war returns to Europe, there seems to be no answer to when this era defined by loss will end. And many of us are finding that making sense of the intricate riddle of life and extracting meaning out of adversity is one of the things that art does best.

In this season of In These Times, we talk to scholars, musicians, and poets, and other members of creative communities to explore the link between making art and making meaning and how creativity shines a light on that way out of adversity, past and present. In these times, knowledge is more important than ever. In this episode, we talk to a PhD student in history about a patchwork quilt and a family's journey from enslavement to educational access in the Ivy league, and an anthropologist about using film, dance and photography to empower those who have survived state violence. Welcome to episode four, The Many Mediums for Confronting Trauma.

The legacy of trauma resulting from more than 200 years of slavery in North America has yet to be fully comprehended. For the past five years a group of Penn students has been recreating the history of Penn's own connections to that institution through the Penn and Slavery Project. One of those students is Breanna Moore. Breanna graduated from the College of Arts and Sciences in 2015. She's now a third year PhD student in Penn's history department where her work includes the study of slavery, the slave trade, and the U.S. south. Breanna's engagement with the Penn and Slavery Project began with a memory book and a journey through her own family's history.

Breanna Moore:
So we got the family reunion book and in the back it told the story of a common ancestor named Bina Richbow. And so from that information, I started doing some research on and I was able to find the will of a man named William Anderson, and that turned out to be her enslaver. So I went down this rabbit hole of research and started researching more about William Anderson. And I found out that him and his son actually graduated from UPenn med school and that his plantation was actually maybe seven minutes from where my grandmother's house was. And only maybe three minutes from the church I went to growing up in central South Carolina. So we would pass the plantation every Sunday on the way to church or whenever I'd go to my grandmother's house.

And so really kept going down the rabbit hole and found out so many amazing details about this family history. And I saw that the Penn and Slavery Project launched in I believe it was fall 2018. And I reached out to Dr. Kathleen Brown, who helped found the Penn and Slavery Project. And she told the students about me and they invited me to come in and research with them and

present with them. So I kind of joined as a defacto member in spring 2019. And then the following year, we started working on the augmented reality app for the PSP project.

Alex Schein:
One material object in particular resonated with Breanna as a meaningful way to connect her own past and her family's story with Penn.

Breanna Moore:
So I had the idea to use my grandmother's quilt, which we actually found in her room after she passed away, because when she was alive, we didn't know that she made quilts or that was a hobby that she was interested in. So we found the front part of the quilt. And then my great aunt Emma, the one who had a family reunion book always does quilt. She's the one who's known the family for doing quilts. So we gave her the front part of my grandmother's quilt and my great aunt Emma, put the backing, going in and put like the cotton side to really finish the job.

So for me, it was very special because it was two matriarchs of my family who created this quilt. And so quilts itself the history in the African American community being made of different patchworks different fabrics that come from say an outfit that you wear or maybe a favorite piece of cloth that you may have received from a family member or friend. The quilt itself is a story. So I felt that the quilt would be an excellent way to have the patchwork of the different video clips that tells different stories in my grandmother's life, through her own words, be the medium through which I would tell the story of my family's history on the tour, on the Penn and Slavery Project, augmented reality app.

Alex Schein:
This handcrafted quilt, combined with her grandmother’s stories, becomes not just a piece of one family’s history – to Breanna, it represents the stories of generations of African Americans and their collective journey to access to Penn, and everything that access stands for.

Breanna Moore:
For me, it was really important for the tour stop to have my grandmother's voice, because she never got to visit campus while she was alive. But in depth, she's reaching hundreds of people on campus and off of campus. She was only able to get a ninth-grade education because she had to share crop when she was younger. So she told me when I was interviewing her that she could only go to school when it was raining. And then she had to walk to school. She had to walk over a mile just to get to school in the rain. And so just looking at the legacy of slavery and share cropping and Jim Crow and tenant farming and my family how it did affect the ability for her and her siblings to be able to access education in comparison to the Anderson family who was going to UPenn in 1809 and taking over 200 years later for someone in my family, me myself, to be able to go to Ivy league school, go to University of Pennsylvania.

And so for me, my grandmother being on campus through the tour app also still represents the legacies of other African Americans in this country. And in this city who may be on campus as

say, cafeteria workers or custodial workers or as security guards, but still don't really have the access to the educations that University of Pennsylvania provides. So for me, it was a full circle showing the legacy of education inequality, wealth inequality within my family and the right African American community in general. But also looking at the progress as far as myself being able to be on campus, be able to go to Penn as an undergrad and as a grad student and pursue higher education and taking this opportunity to have my grandmother tell her story. As part of my time here on campus, through the Penn and Slavery Project

Alex Schein:
Anthropologist, Deborah Thomas has spent her career researching legacies of inequality and violence with a particular focus on Jamaica.

Deborah Thomas:
My name is Deborah Thomas. I'm the R. Jean Brownlee Professor of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. I also direct the Center for Experimental Ethnography. I've been very interested in state violence and have investigated different moments of state violence within Jamaica to think again about the afterlives of imperialism and the afterlives of the plantation. One of these moments was the events in Coral Gardens of 1963, which is the year after Jamaica received independence from Britain and was a moment when the police force and the military really came down hard against Rastafari in Western Jamaica. And in fact, worked with civilians throughout that part of the country to really round up all Rastafari as the prime minister has said to have said, bring in all Rastafari dead or alive. But at the time in the fifties and the early sixties, people really feared Rastafari as a kind of element of black consciousness and anti-state, anti-government kind of group. And so the state, as I said, rounded people up killed a number of Rastafari, tortured people held them in jail for days, really without cause.

Alex Schein:
In 2008, Professor Thomas began working on a film with Junior “Gabu” Wedderburn and John L. Jackson Jr. entitled Bad Friday: Rastafari after Coral Gardens that examined the Coral Gardens “incident” through the perspective of those who had experienced the tragedy.

Junior “Ista J” Manning:

We have a responsibility and we have to make sure that this government is answerable to what happened to Rasta in 1963. And we said this without any apology.

Deborah Thomas:
So we had been looking into this moment and in 2008, the commemoration that was held annually in Montego Bay, that was gathering elders who went through the events of Coral Gardens and who would talk about their experiences of those times. That event was written into the broader year-long celebrations of the abolition of the slave trade across the British empire in 1807. So we went and we started talking to people and developing relationships and linked with the person who was at the time leading the Rastafari millennial council and the Coral Gardens committee junior manning. And started to track down elders who had

experienced that tragedy and recording their narratives as part of this film project that we were doing that was designed to bring more attention to that particular moment in history and to support the community's efforts for a reparation suit

Stephen “Jahnoi” McDonald:

Star newspaper came out and said, bringing all Rastafari dead or alive. And that was a very frightening experience for me in 1963. And when I read the news article carefully, I realized that one of my school friends was the one that got shot.

Deborah Thomas:
And so we were able to play a small role in that they did screen a kind of sneak peek of the film at one of the commemoration several years later. And the public defender was there at the time. And he agreed to start a case. He had a little while after that stepped down from the office and a new public defender came in and ended up creating the case successfully. And they did win their reparations claim and they have been sort of working out the distribution of money, et cetera. But because people now so embrace Rastafari, I think the reception for that film, which we really did for them, they were the intended audience.

And then beyond that kind of people interested in Rastafari globally, people interested in pan Africanism or black consciousness globally, but really it was the community of speakers. That was our main audience for that particular film. And they had been waiting so long, I think to have their stories broadcast, that they were quite eager, willing, and ready to speak. And people who were coming to see the film as we were starting to show it around the country and beyond we're very eager and willing to hear those testimonies and could understand the state's response and reaction as completely excessive and could sympathize and empathize with the kind of trauma that those elders had experienced at the time.

Speaker 2:

Parts of Kingston, Jamaica are under a state of emergency today after an outbreak of violence between police and supporters of an alleged drug kingpin named Christopher Coke. Gunman supporting Coke have targeted security forces, killing two police officers, and attacking a number of police stations. Jamaican prime minister, Bruce Golding is called the conflict an orgy of violence. The unrest began in response to the possible extradition of Christopher Coke to the U.S. on drug charges. To the police he is a vicious criminal, but to his supporters, and he has many, Coke is a community leader worth protecting

Speaker 3:

In Jamaica, at least 30 people have been killed as authorities carry out a man hunt for an alleged drug kingpin.

Alex Schein:
In 2010, the U.S. issued an extradition order for the Don of Tivoli Gardens in Kingston, Jamaica on drug related charges. The resulting incursion lasted four deadly days and resulted in 1700 men being carted away from their homes -- 75 of which were executed. Professor Thomas's

next film four days in May focused on the trauma experienced by the residents. Along with Thomas, the documentary was directed and produced by musician and composer Junior “Gabu” Wedderburn and community psychologist Deanne Bell.

Deborah Thomas:
So with that film, we started working with people in the community who were willing to talk about what they themselves saw and experienced. We were not able to do a conventional investigative documentary, commission of inquiry had been set up to do that kind of investigation. It wouldn't have been safe either for us to do that kind of work. After the army sort of made their way into the community and the police started going door to door and pulling out all of the young men from the community, they started taking people's phones. So there also wasn't really any footage from inside the community.

So what we decided to do was take individuals who were willing to work with us into a recording studio and just film them, narrating their experiences against a very stark white background in order to attempt to create the conditions for people to really listen to what they were saying and to hear the grieving and the fear and the trauma of that week. Because to that point, and even after many people in Jamaica were hearing what had happened, and they didn't really believe these things went on because there's so much misinformation that circulates about Garson and communities.

Jacqueline Gordon:
So at that point when the gunshot it extra load inside the house, so everybody started crying. The dining table, it's a small dining table and all 13 people trying to fit down and eat there. Cause everybody was scared. I was crying. My daughter cried. She vomit. Threw up. You have to get newspapers, spread over it, and we could move from right there where it is. And it was really uncomfortable cause everybody was crying, crying, crying.

Deborah Thomas:
We started working with people to sort of put together their narratives with archival footage of the community, with some contemporary landscape footage that we also took on some walkthroughs of the community. And with other materials that we could find in a way that would also visually demonstrate repetition of these kinds of experiences for people in these communities.

So the film is really meant to catalyze conversations. We don't really show it outside of Jamaica and when we show it in Jamaica, we do so with a professional moderator who then sort of directs a conversation afterwards. Usually people who are in the film come to the screenings and during the Q&A, afterwards they often get up and elaborate their story a bit more. That is how I found out actually that I missed the most important part of the story of one of our interlocutors Shawn Bowen, because I noticed the first few times we showed it in Jamaica that he would come that he would always get up and say the same part of the narrative. And I had edited that part out. And in that part of the narrative, he's talking about when the soldiers first brought all of the men outside their houses, in their kind of tenement yard and ordering them

to kneel on the ground. And he was holding his son who was one year old at the time and not walking. And he kept ordering him to put the baby down.

Shawn Bowen:
I was right in the place right there. Me and my youth and my baby mother, we were in one house at that time. He was one year old. Yeah. And so told me that everybody was coming out the house. By then that time you had some kids that living in the yard to their mother, [inaudible 00:18:49] that was living inside. Right. And they told the all of to kneel down on the knee.

Deborah Thomas:
But he didn't want to put the baby down on the dirty ground because he wouldn't be able to stand and walk. So in his telling of that moment, he goes back and forth with the soldier a bit until his friend who is already kneeling, tells him, just give the child to your baby mother and kneel down. And I realized that for him, that was the most humiliating part of that experience. And it was the most dehumanizing part of that experience that he couldn't take care of his child and that he was being ordered to treat his child like an animal, basically. So we talked about re cutting the film, should we re-edit it so that it includes that part of the story, but we determined in conversation with Sean that in fact we should leave it as is. And just whenever it's possible for him to be there, allow that to be that kind of dialogical moment where the film is just always part of a broader conversation where people are trying to grapple with these events and really with the histories out of which these kinds of events are made possible.

There was one week when a string of young people came in with their parents to talk about their experiences as well. And when I say young people, I mean, maybe the youngest was 11 or 12 and sort of up to 16, 17. And their experiences of those days and those moments had produced in some of those youth, just such a kind of blankness and a kind of inability to really speak or an inability to register, which is obviously common when one experiences that kind of trauma.

Aaliyah Levy:
Well, we went over bed next door neighbor. My mother was getting a lot of call that someone die and she started to cry and my brother started freak and she started freak because she heard that they were targeting the boys. And me started to cry. And at that moment I was sick because I'm an asthmatic child and the gunshot were firing and we were under the table on the ground.

Deborah Thomas:
At one point, I just thought we can't do this anymore. We have to stop recording young people. It's too much for them. It's too much for us. We don't have the resources to really be able to deal with what is coming up for people. Even though Dan one of my collaborators on this project is a community psychologist. Clearly , he can't attend to everybody in that moment and not in a long-term way.

And so I suggested to one of the community members with whom we were working to sort of recruit people who were interested in speaking with us about what happened to them that maybe we needed to pause. And he told me that he was the person who was giving people, rides basically back and forth from the recording studio to the community. And he was really surprised because what he said was, "Oh no, everybody is telling me on the way home, how good it was to be able to talk to somebody to share those experiences because..." And he didn't use this language. But basically what he was saying is that we have this tendency to compartmentalize and to sort of push these things in the back of our minds and our hearts so that they're not debilitating in the day-to-day way.

Alex Schein:
Professor Thomas says art provides a unique platform for healing trauma, as it empowers victims to choose the way they wish to be portrayed.

Deborah Thomas:
We were lucky to work with photographer Vroom Baker who did the still portraits that are not part of the film, but we're part of the exhibit at the Penn Museum. And maybe part of an exhibit we've been working toward for the future. Our intention with those still photographs was not to create images, sort of stereotypical images of "suffering victims," but instead to portray people how we knew them, which was as members of families, as mothers, as aunties, as daughters, as sons, as nephews, as uncles, as members of community, as people who had an educational history and an occupational history, people who were living life, not just stuck in this kind of particular moment of death.

But for me, I think audience has always determined the form of an intervention, thinking about who the audience is or could be or should be, is the thing that helps me imagine what kind of entity we're putting into the world. Is it a performance? Is it a film? Is it a different kind of installation? Is it a sound scape? Is it a book? So if we're thinking about what do we want this work to do in the world and to do for the people with whom we're collaborating? Then that helps us to understand what is the meaning.

Alex Schein:
Professor Thomas says, dance and other interactive multimodal art can both bring communities together and create venues for collaborative knowledge building.

Deborah Thomas:
In college, I was really drawn to the kind of process that writes and reason theater had, which was a kind of research to performance, methodology, and engaged kind of theatrical process that was oriented toward consciousness, raising and ultimately towards social change. And I really loved that kind of work. And so when I moved to New York and was dancing, I was really thrilled to have been invited to auditions for Urban Bush women because I knew that they worked with a similar methodology.

They had research to performance kind of practice that was really grounded in the stories and histories and experiences of Africans throughout the diaspora, particularly from a women's fem, black fem point of view. So we developed a process of work. We ourselves trained in kind of participatory community action with people who had been involved in that kind of work, people who had done popular education curricula for cities in the U.S. for the Canadian government after the revolution. And who really sort of led us through that kind of process of consciousness raising and understanding of the arts towards social change ourselves so that we could then implement that kind of a process with other people.

And the first sort of longer community engagement process we did was in New Orleans. And so we were all working at different grassroots organizations throughout the city. Once the actual residency began and I was working with a couple other company members with a puppet theater group and the group that I was working with wanted to have a block party and invite the neighboring community with whom they had been having some sustained conflict and to have this block party come off without a hitch and just be a fun day for everybody in the community. So the process of our work with them kind of focused a lot on relaxation exercises on conflict resolution, on embodied improvisatory techniques and toward a kind of parade and they do the puppets. So they wanted to do some kind of show with the puppets as well. These are life size puppets that you wear. And so we worked on that too. And the day came with the block party. Everybody came and everything was fine.

And I think in so many ways, we just sort of, again and again, see the capacity of the arts to provide an infrastructure through which people can experience and access another kind of plane of reality and communication and engagement. That's what we have sought to participate in and also sought to promote certainly with the center for experimental ethnography while it is not a requirement that be a defining posture of visiting fellows or of the projects that we support or the work that we do, we do intend that the work of the center should have some kind of impact in relation to engagement with communities. And for camera, which is the graduate student collective for the advancement of multimodal research arts. That is also an explicit element of what they're trying to do. They are using multimodal research practices as a mode of engagement in a research process, which then necessarily is transformative of all of the actors involved.

It's transformative of how we teach, how we develop relationships with our students, how we do research, how we develop relationships with our research, interlocutors and collaborators. And ultimately it would have to also be transformative of the university and how the university understands, reckons within values, different forms of knowledge, with artistic and embodied and participatory collaborative knowledge. Building being one aspect of the kind of knowledge that we feel is important. So that transforms the space of the university and where it sits in relation to the communities where it exists and also through which our research circulates.

Alex Schein:
This concludes episode four of In These Times, The Intricate Riddle of Life. Join us in two weeks for episode five, Finding a Way with Words, where we’ll talk with two authors on how stories and poetry can connect us and help us understand and get through times of trouble.

The Omnia podcast is a production of Penn Arts and Sciences. Special thanks to Breanna Moore and Professor Deborah Thomas, I’m Alex Schein. Thanks for listening.

Subscribe to the Omnia podcast by Penn Arts and Sciences on Apple iTunes, or wherever you find your podcasts. To listen to every episode of In These Times, The Intricate Riddle of Life.