Black Bodies and The Practice of Home

Posted in The Gnovis Blog

This past weekend I attended the National Women’s Studies Association Annual Conference (new window) in Denver, CO. I also had the opportunity to spend concentrated time with 3 other Black woman scholars—an experience that is rare in graduate school for many Black students (a story we tell each other often).

As we sat around a table considering the panel we were going to present on Sunday, we began to articulate some compelling ideas around home, Blackness, and belonging. As Colorado is my home state, it was an added bonus to see my family and “home” while I was taking in the conference. These experiences were prime in my mind as I theorized with my co-panelists about the meaning of “home” for African-American people in the United States.

Unlike some immigrants of color to this country, and unlike many of my white acquaintances (and the white side of my family for that matter), the idea of “home” and kinship remains a confusing space for my Black body. The slave trade—a literal stealing of Black bodies Slave Shipfrom West Africa for transport to the United States—erased any traces of my relationship to the physical land of my biological ancestors’ birth. The institution of slavery similarly erased the specific identities of those I am descended from. Indeed, I have only succeeded in tracing my Black family history as far as my great-great grandparents—and I am unclear whether the names in the census are actually related to me or just coincidental. What I do know is that based on my great-grandmother’s age, my great-great grandparents were sharecroppers and perhaps lived their early years in slavery.

Part of the extreme conditions of slavery—of Black bodies becoming property in the United States—was the loss of “home.” A slave woman, her children, and all of the actual or created kinship bonds she forged in one physical location were often disrupted by the buying, selling and killing of Black bodies. The consistent threat of dislocation from both a physical land and family members dramatically changed the cultural practices and understandings of “home” for slave bodies, and still haunts me today as I think about my tenuous sense of “roots” in the United States. With no legitimate claim to land in the Slave Ship 2U.S., nor a claim to a known location on the African continent, I struggle to come to terms with where my “home” actually may be.

The “home” of my father— Greeneville, Mississippi—is filled with stories of violence under the terror of KKK members masquerading by day as members of law enforcement, who stalked college recruiters interested in offering bright Black students (including my father) an opportunity for a better life. I cannot find it in myself to find a “home” in a physical location of such violent terror.

The “home” of my ancestors’ birth, most likely somewhere in West Africa, is lost to me in the crossing of the Atlantic Ocean. There is no nostalgic “return” for me to a place I have never been.

The “home” of my birth, Colorado, contains only 18 years of my life, years that I recall with both the joy of family and the pain of learning what it means to be racialized in seemingly benign ways by those who would count themselves as my friends. It’s not a place I have roots in; it was a place I was all too happy to leave.

But as I sat with my Black women co-panelists this weekend, pondering questions of our origin and potentials, I found myself strangely at peace. In those moments of recognition of one another as significant and human—in full consideration of our Black embodiment and strange dislocated histories—I recognized essential characteristics of “home:” acceptance, familiarity, safety, belonging. Perhaps for my Black body (its meaning formed in slavery) “home” is more of a nomadic concept—a practice that travels with me as I forge bonds with those who live under similar conditions of embodiment, and who tell stories that sound strangely and sadly familiar. Perhaps it is the act of being recognized by and recognizing another Black body—a body that has been relegated to sub-human status but still strives to live a meaningful life—that creates the conditions of possibility for belonging and for a practice of “home.”