Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Legacy of Slavery Workshop at California Institute of Integral Studies with Belvie Rooks and Tom DeWolf

The Legacy of Slavery Workshop at California Institute of Integral Studies began the night before at a public lecture by Dr. Joy DeGruy attended by 300 people. Her topic is Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome. She spoke for 2 hours, giving a passionately delivered, scholarly-based overview of the experiences of Africans kidnapped into slavery in the United States. One thesis is that the trauma of the African-American slavery lives on and the traumatization continues to be inflicted.

The next morning, 30 workshop participants gathered at the CIIS to continue the dialog and look at how we might individually and collectively support healing and social transformation.

Belvie Rooks, Tom DeWolf, and I were the co-workshop facilitators. Belvie and Tom had presented similar workshops in the past and invited me to join them by contributing a Constellation to the day’s experience.

The Constellation part of the workshop began about 1½ hours into the day. During the first part of the morning, I was listening and feeling the group to get a sense of where to begin. Following the DeGruy lecture, the emotions in the room were raw and somewhat tense. As a white male being invited to offer a healing process to a group largely composed of African Americans, I was aware that my offer might be met with skepticism by some and declined by others.

Before setting up the Constellation, I offered a brief introduction to contextualize the process and prepare the groups members as best I could for what might follow. Not everyone embraced me or the introduction. When I invited questions and comments, one woman offered that my language and phrasing caused her to lose interest. Another, challenged whether a healing process from Germany was appropriate for the setting. A third found my explanations lacking. There seemed to be a risk that the group members were not comfortable with moving forward. Given the larger context and people’s unfamiliarity with me and Constellations, it was to be expected.

An African American man spoke up and broke the drift towards stalemate. He offered that his spiritual practice is based on African traditions, that the workshop program said there was going to be a Constellation, and the spirits that guided him were encouraging him to speak up. This comment, and a supporting statement from Belvie Rooks, gave me permission to begin.

Listening for a theme or an image that speaks to the larger context, I heard two that felt strong. One came from a young African American woman who told about a time she was traveling by train through Peru. It was multi-hour journey and she passed the time looking at the landscape. Suddenly, she felt a strange disturbance in her body. Her emotions grew strong and dark, her heart rate increased, and she felt overcome by feelings of stress and dread. Frightened and confused, she turned to her traveling companion and asked him what she was looking at. He glanced out and said, “Those are cotton fields.” In recalling the story, she said, “Cotton is in my DNA. Even though I don’t know what it looks like, somehow my body knows.”

The other image came from Belvie. Her family history was traced in the book, The Seed of Sally Good'n. Sally Good’n was a bed woman to plantation owner Taylor Polk. Their son, Spencer Polk, was an emancipated slave who became the patriarch of a large and energetic Arkansas family. After Sally gave birth to a child with darker skin than the others she was “sold down the river,” presumably to become the sole possession of a poor white farmer. There is no record of her after that. Her heartbreak and that of her children stirred Belvie to tears when recounting her story.

The Constellation began with 3 representatives: one for the land on which the cotton grew; one for the poor Scottish American farmer; one for the slave woman. After several minutes, I added three more: one for the same piece of land a billion years earlier; one for the Scottish ancestor who stayed behind when the children left for America; one for the African mother whose child was kidnapped into slavery. Again after several minutes, I added one more representative, a person to create the beat, a heartbeat, a drum, the beat of the pulse of life.

Then, I spoke to those remaining on the outside of the circle and asked them to feel into themselves whether there was a place for them in the circle. I invited them to stand for themselves, another person, or an abstract element. Stand in for what felt true for them and belonged. Gradually, another 10 people stood up and moved into the circle. Last, I asked others – if so moved - to join the beat and create their own beats and pulses.

From there, the Constellation took on a life of its own. Each person had an individual experience and emotions. While, I did check in with them, most of what occurred happened in silence. The cotton field hated being torn apart and poisoned. The slave woman was deep in misery, but heard the rhythm of the beat to keep her alive. The Scottish farmer was working hard to survive and worked the slave without remorse. The Scottish ancestor felt abandoned and alone. A tall African American man with gray hair beat his hand on his chest; he said he wanted to stop but could not. A light-skinned African American woman said she hated the rapist father from whom she received her complexion.

The beat goes on. The beat goes on. Goes on. Goes on.

I asked people to rearrange themselves in the space by time, with the oldest elements at one end and the most recent at the other. The representatives found their places without words. The man beating his chest became the father of the slave woman. They were reunited and embraced with tears. A woman representing the Native Americans found her father in the land that was the cotton field. The Scottish and African ancestors found their daughter, the woman with the lighter complexion. Words were whispered; I stood away and did not hear them, honoring the sacred quality of the moment.

The beat rose in intensity with more people contributing sounds and percussions. Someone began to sing, followed by others. People danced. The Constellation transitioned into beat, movement, and music. Already, well past our allotted time, I brought the experience to a close.

The process continued after it ended. An African American woman who had stayed in her chair became very upset. She was speaking for herself, but also could be understood to be in resonance with the mind of the Constellation, expressing feelings that lived in her, but were much older and larger than her. She was the future, the unborn, who no one wanted to see. Two elders tended to her while I sat close by and listened. I told her that I had been looking for her the entire time, but had not recognized her because of my own blind spot. I asked her, what did she want me to know? She responded, “Just listen to me.”

Belvie Rooks is collecting comments and impressions about the workshop from participants. We will post some of them here with the permission of their authors.

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