640px-The_Underground_Railroad_by_Charles_T._Webber,_1893

It was a cold and rainy night in early February. I stood in the dark, on the property of Mr. Jacob Burkle, whose home was a depot on the Underground Railroad. I shivered from the cold but also from a fear that had suddenly come over me from out of nowhere. Was I as safe as I thought, or was my safety in jeopardy? I was beginning to rethink my decision, but something deep inside told me it was now or never…

The character and event portrayed in the above excerpt is not fictitious. It is completely true. I know because it is my story.

Now that I have your attention let me give you a little context. It really was a cold and rainy night in early February, but the year was 2014. The Underground Railroad had long been out of service, but I did find myself standing on the property of Jacob Burkle, at 826 N. Second Street in Memphis, Tennessee. Today, it’s better known as the Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum. This was not my first visit to Slave Haven; it was my third. During this visit, I needed to use the restroom and was informed that it was in a separate building behind the main house. When I put my hand on the knob of the back door, I was in 2014. When I stepped out onto the back porch into a night that was much darker than I had anticipated, I slipped through some kind of time portal and found myself in the 1800s.

The building was only about 20 feet from the back porch, but I had a strong (and somewhat irrational) feeling that stepping off that porch might be the last thing I did in life. It was as if I was no longer in 2014. Instead, I found myself experiencing emotions that so many runaway slaves felt as they were trying to escape to the North into freedom. My bladder was screaming that I needed to decide sooner rather than later, but my fear kept my feet glued to the ground. After what was one of the longest minutes of my life, I finally shook myself back to the present day and ran through the rain to the bathroom. That experience will stick with me forever.

I visited Slave Haven with a group that was participating in something called the Sankofa Journey, an “intentional, cross-racial prayer journey that seeks to assist disciples of Christ on their move toward a righteous response to the social ills related to racism.” To date, I’ve been on at least 10 Sankofas, with another one coming up at the end of February. These experiences are emotionally and physically painful and exhausting. A large portion of the trip is spent on a coach bus. Cramped quarters, not a lot of sleep, and lots of discussions about race, racism, and injustice. As an introverted black woman who also hates conflict, this is sort of like a nightmare! Yet, I’ve willingly participated multiple times and will continue to do so. Why? It’s my way of being a part of the solution.

Most people subscribe to the belief that the best way to deal with racism is to not talk about it. They believe that, if we ignore it, it’ll go away. One thing experience has taught me is that conflicts often arise from misunderstandings (or biases/stereotypes) that are often rooted in miscommunication (or a total lack of communication). In the context of combating racism, talking about it is probably just what the doctor ordered. (Arguments on social media don’t count.) I’ve seen numerous Sankofa participants experience breakthroughs and healing during the journey. This releases them to return home and begin to do the hard work of dismantling racism in their own circles and contexts. That would not happen if they hadn’t taken the time to sit and talk with others about this painfully divisive topic.

It’s time to face our fears head on and start talking to—not at—each other. Let’s use our words to build bridges, not walls. Are you up for the challenge?

If you would like to know more about the Sankofa Journey, click here. If you would like to know more about Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum, click here.

 

Nilwona Nowlin
Nilwona Nowlin is a redemptive artist, someone who believes in the power of the arts to bring about positive transformation in individuals and communities. She is particularly passionate about helping people discover/pursue their purpose, leadership development, and ministries of compassion, mercy, and justice such as community development, reconciliation, and intercultural development. Recent publications include "To Save Many Lives: Exploring Reconciliation Between Africans and African Americans through the Selling of Joseph," for the Covenant Quarterly as well as devotionals for the Covenant Home Altar. She is also a regular contributor to for the Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC) Commission on Biblical Gender Equality's blog and the lmdj Voices blog of the ECC's Love Mercy Do Justice mission priority. Nilwona earned a B.A. from Columbia College Chicago, an M.A. in Christian Formation and Certificate in Justice Ministry from North Park Theological Seminary and a Master’s in Nonprofit Administration from North Park University. She blogs at thedreamerspeaks.com. You can follow Nilwona on Twitter @nilwona.

11 Comments

Post Comment
  1. Nilwona, this sounds like an awesome experience, and I can only imagine how it must have felt on that journey to the bathroom! And to know that I would not have had that same sense makes it even worse.

    I have visited one of the slave quarters when I was in NC… the feeling over the place was horrible, even thus far removed by history. Thanks for giving me further insight.

    1. Thanks for reading, Bev! Yes, I think that the concept of Sankofa (looking back to move forward) is so important in our society – particularly for any society that has flourished as a result of genocide/oppression/marginalization. Until we can look back and acknowledge/repent, we’ll never truly move forward. A part of that looking back means engaging with the pain and ugliness of it all – like those slave quarters in NC and throughout the southern United States. So glad that you were willing to engage!

  2. Powerful moment on those steps. And you are right – keeping silent will not help. Thank you for telling this story from the past and the present and encouraging us all to keep talking and listening.

  3. I will never forget the experience of walking through Ghana’s Cape Coast slave “castle”. Our guide was knowledgeable. Yet, I remember very little of what he said with regard to the history of the fortress. I do, however, remember certain horrifying phrases:
    “People walked here.”
    “People lived here.”
    “People died here.”
    Then, standing at the Door of No Return, many of us wept. There were no words- just an emotional response to the horror, the inhumanity.
    Thank you for sharing your story.
    Even now, there are just no words.
    Well, maybe just a few- I’m so sorry. Will you forgive us?

  4. Dear Nilwona,
    I would like to make a correction to the comment I posted, earlier. It is, as follows:
    “I’m so very sorry. Will you forgive me?”
    I think that we must individually take responsibility for our own hearts/thoughts/actions with regard to this horror. To ask forgiveness as a corporate body seems too detatched on my part. Believe me when I say that I was not trying to be so. My corporate ask was sincere, though misguided. I can only ask for forgiveness for my part. I am so very sorry.

    1. Gail,

      Thank you for reading and reflecting and responding. I actually think that the way forward involves an understanding of both the corporate and individual levels of responsibility. While you did not play a role in the kidnapping and enslavement of Africans, there are ways in which you have benefitted from it – perhaps without even knowing. I think it’s important to recognize that and begin to move forward from there. (One of my personal frustrations in trying to have these conversations is that people are often unwilling to acknowledge this truth. Without that, it’s impossible to move forward.) I participated in a Sankofa journey to Ghana last year. If you’re interested in reading my reflections, you can find it here: http://www.redbudwritersguild.com/was-blind-but-now-i-see-my-sankofa-story/

      Nilwona

  5. Thank you for continuing this important dialogue, Nilwona. Your words touch my soul and send me deep to examine my own perspectives. I appreciate your comments that communication is critical if we hope to move forward with racial reconciliation.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *