by Karen Georgia A. Thompson
In the past years, I had many opportunities to visit sites that commemorated the history of Africans brought into the Americas as slaves, shipped cargo during the Transatlantic Salve Trade. There are numerous sites throughout the globe that attest to the atrocities of years of slavery, a testament to the men and women who lived in misery, and to those who lost their limbs and lives from hard labor and transport through the Middle Passage. As the history books continue to be re-written and the erasers continue to scrub free the past and sanitize the evils of colonialism, the voices of the dead continue to rise from unmarked graves to remind us that the cruelty that decimated the lives of millions is real, and continues to live among us.
In February 2016, I visited San Severino Castle in Matanzas, Cuba. I was present with a group that was in Cuba for a meeting. Visiting San Severino came at a time when I was deeply engaged in finding and naming my ancestors, a task that is as time consuming as it is rewarding, but one that has also brought me face-to-face with the stories of people whose lives were shaped by a history that dictated the course of their lives. For each name I uncover, there are stories tied to a colonial past that somehow circles back with reminders to this present. What we now know as “history” was life for millions. The daily lives of the Ancestors are the stories that are told when we visit these slave castles turned museums and recall the “history.” These places gather the voices of the Ancestors, reminding us that they will not be forgotten.
San Severino is now a museum, which documents some of the slave history of Cuba, particularly that of the slave trade in Cuba and the connection to slavery across the Caribbean and the United States. The castle was initially built to protect the city of Matanzas, a city that sits on the Atlantic side of the island, tucked in by Matanzas Bay. The cannons still adorn the walls of the city, harkening back to another time, where defense was cannons and not the militarization of city streets. Being at San Severino, seeing the faded walls that held bodies prisoners and the strength of iron bars lacking erosion brought me once again to the realization of a time many have forgotten or would just as soon forget.
Though well in need of some repairs and respectably renamed as a UNESCO heritage sight, the history of San Severino Castle cannot be sanitized. The walls hold the story of the cruelty of the fortress. Rooms that are now repurposed for storage of supplies and miscellaneous items, once held bodies that were stolen and broken, bodies that were to be disseminated for labor on the plantations of the Caribbean. Rooms that now house the museum were once offices and home to slave holders and slave traders. The walls continue to peel, shedding their own tears at what they hold and know.
There is not enough water or paint to wash away the stains of slavery. The waters of many rivers, the salt of many seas cannot scrub away the blood of those who were beaten into submission and made to be and feel less that what Creator meant for them to be. The tears of millions are the waters of the Atlantic Ocean. These are the tears of generations held in captivity, strangers in the lands they helped to build, living in poverty for generations, some losing hope while others live into the fears they carry in inherited ancestral memory. San Severino is not a happy place. It is a place of memories. A place that speaks if one dares to listen.
The history of slavery is inextricably tied to the wealth of Europe and the Americas. Fortunes were made in the absence of renumeration for back breaking work, hard labor that produced goods and resources that were exported and sold. Cotton, sugar, rum, tobacco and their by products provided financial gain for many families some of whom prefer to distance themselves from the atrocities of their ancestors while holding tightly to the inheritances they have reinvested and attempted to wash clean. Yet their hands too are stained. They will never be clean of the brutality that brought their fortunes and created pain for African peoples.
Attempts to sanitize history are failing. The stories of slavery are not stories of “migration.” This is about the commodification of Black lives and Black bodies. Who will continue to tell the stories of a time when, a time long ago when ships travelled from shore to shore buying and selling people? Societies have not stopped buying and selling people, the methods have changed. New plantations emerge daily. They are the sweats shops where we manufacture clothing on the backs of underpaid and unpaid workers. The plantations of our day are places where we grow and produce food that is subsidized by farm workers who cannot purchase the food they grow in the stores because they don’t make enough money. The tears continue to fall. The waters offering their own protestations over the misuse and abuse of bodies. This is not history, this is now.
There is a sadness that lives in the walls of San Severino Castle, a sadness that emanates and dispels any attempts to ignore those who occupied the bowels of that prison. The guides tell the history in a way that is matter-of-fact. The rehearsed narrative can be heard amidst the peeling outer walls and the pristine inner walls. The tourists ask their questions and the answers come. These are now facts, there is no pain. This is history, a time long ago.
There is a significant exhibit devoted to the gods of the Yoruba tradition, a reminder that the slaves managed to retain their religious traditions. These continue to live in the practitioners of Santeria. The fact that Santeria and other survivals of African Traditions in the Caribbean, Brasil and North America are vilified and named as “syncretic,” “evil,”and “dark” points the way back an understanding of the lives and ways of Black African people that was renamed, restated and demonized by those who bought and sold Black bodies while holding their Bibles in one hand, their whips and chains in another. The presence of the exhibit, there is the castle amidst the memories of the slaves is a connector of significance. The survival of these spiritual practices of the slaves indicates that they were willing to be defiant and hold on to that which was sacred to them, to the the gods that they knew.
I am never far away from the lives of those who came before me. I am often reminded, especially these days of this history. The history of slavery in the United States, the Caribbean, parts of Europe and in South and Central America is very similar. The challenge is the absence of a comprehensive history that ties together this history. As descendants of slaves, we prefer not to talk about the places of exile that are now home. As descendants of slaves, now free, we want more for ourselves and for our children, perhaps for generations to come. I believe the Ancestors longed for the same. I believe they too wanted more for generations to come.
The Ancestors who names I found along the way, I believe they lived in hope. I believe that the act of learning to write their names on a piece of paper was their way of creating hope for a future. Learning to write and learning to read was their way of defying the walls of the slave castles and ships who names they could not read. Writing and reading are taken for granted. For generations, this was an act of courage, an act of defying that which subjugated and kept them in their place. In learning to write their names, I believe my Ancestors knew themselves to be more than the colonial presence that continued to tell them how to live and dictated the quality of their lives.
In farming the land and feeding their families, I believe they lived in hope, taking care of their children as best they knew how. Where they were uneducated or undereducated they sent their children to school. They wanted their children to know more than they did. They ensured that with each generation there was a value placed on education. Education is a way to scale those walls of slave castles long ago, walls that now imprison the mind and block hopes and dreams.
San Severino was a powerful place to visit. The castle stood as a witness, waiting to tell what it had seen. The sadness and burden of that place brought tears to my eyes. I added my tears to those of the Ancestors who passed through that place, their numbers unknown, their stories untold. I added my tears for what I knew and for that which I will never know. That too is a part of the sadness.
The memories of that place come as I continue to search for Ancestors and wonder at the lives they lived. There is a haunting in my spirit, a deep desire to find the unknown, to identify that which is lost to me, yet calls me. I will never known if my Ancestors were among the slaves who were distributed from Cuba, who lives and blood live on in the chipped paint and dank walls of that place. The probability and possibility are high, given the location of the castle. I will never know.
Standing on the walls of the castle, staring out into the beauty of the Caribbean, even on a cloudy day, listening to the silence of the moment, it is easy to forget that which is behind. The moss gathers on the walls, the cannons with their maintained paint jobs – no rust, no chips – sit in stark contrast to the walls of the castle. Perhaps this too tells a story. Why paint the walls or wipe away the despair? Why fill the cracks or was away the mildew and the moss? None of it can wipe away the resident evil, that remains in the memories of the ships that made port in Matanzas. Nothing can change the use of the building, there is no beauty to be found. The decay itself a reminder of an un-sanitized time that can never be whitewashed or redefined. Slavery and the treatment of Black Africans cannot be sanitized. I will not forget. We will not forget.