By Shani Ealey
The sound of flesh wrapping around his still bones was the first thing he heard. It was strange. It was cool and soothing. Like descending slowing into Charleston’s curt Ashley River on a hot summer day. He remained still, thinking that he should wait. It didn’t seem right to move yet. Patience was key. There was still work to do.
It didn’t take long or at least he didn’t think so before he noticed that he was able to move. At first it was a little movement. Some toe wiggling and knee bending. Nothing too drastic but it was something. He no longer felt the cooling of the river. He was warm. Incredibly warm. He liked it. It made him think of the warm rays of the great star in the heavens. How incredibly bright it would burn onto his bare back. The way it would cause his body to heat and perspire, fighting desperately to stay cool. But as much as he cursed it, he knew its power and suddenly was overcome with a great desire.
I must see it. I have to see it. But how?
It was so dark. There was no way he could see it from here. He still couldn’t move, not completely. It was a little discouraging especially since he knew what he needed to do. It was like he knew all along. It was as if he had been asleep and now was awake.
That’s it! I am asleep. And all I have to do is wake up.
He felt a quickening happening near his face. It began slowly at first but then sped up as if a million spiders were under going a migration of sorts. A pulsating surge tingled all over his face. Grabbing, pulling, growing. It was his eyes! It was the rebirth of his eyes. Upon realization of this… of his own rebirth, his own becoming, he breathed deep and waited to become whole.
The pulsating surge was hot now and traveling fast. Once his eyes had returned, the tingling sensation lingered over his cheeks. Quickly bringing together cells and tissues to fill in the hollow area of his cheeks and jaw line. He felt the fullness of his lips return as the tingling sensation roamed over his mouth and made its way down his neck and past his chest. It lingered there. Throbbing. Humming. Calling forth. He felt his chest rise as if reaching for the sky. He thought it was going to bring him out from the darkness. But it did not. It just relaxed, only to rise again moments later. When this became a rhythm, he knew that his lungs must’ve returned, permitting him to exhale. He felt his newly formed lips spread into a smile. This is what it feels like to be born.
His rough developing hands and legs began to pull back the hard earth making room. The earth scratched at his hands and face but it did not matter. It would not stop him.
i will rise.
i will rise.
i will rise.
He repeated this until his hands broke through and felt the humid air of South Carolina. With one more kick, he arranged his body to propel upward. He emerged from the depths, blinded by the light, unable to fully see the world that he had just entered. With eyes closed, he kissed the earth, paying gratitude for its powers of healing and preservation. The earth, as always, had taken care of him and kept him warm. His heart fluttered a little.
It is time to see.
He slowly opened his eyes and fell to his knees in horror. There it was. An enormous oak tree. The same oak tree that held him in his final hours back in the summer of 1822. The great oak carried the weight of so many. It stood tall before him, holding the stories of centuries upon centuries. Each branch holding an image, a tale, the lost cry of millions who have suffered under an unspeakable torture that stained the land. As if beckoning him forward, the oak tree stretched out long thick branches almost completely surrounding him. Although he couldn’t seem to make his legs move, he reached out and grasped the branches in both hands.
He screamed out but his larynx was not fully developed so it sounded more like a stifled gurgle. He released the branches and clutched his throat, feeling the ridges imprinted on his flesh, the scars from the rope that tightened as he dangled and resisted against it clenching grip. This was the year of his death. The year of his murder. We were almost free. Almost.
Still in the oak’s embrace, he began to fully see. He saw the thirty others who came after him. His people. His loved ones. Freedom fighters. All hanging. All dead. Nearly 200 years later and he could still hear the screams as if it happened yesterday. He could still taste the blood. They were trying to escape from hellish prison from which they had been sentenced. He tried to block it out. Desperately missing the warmth. Yearning for the darkness. That feeling of safety. However, he quickly remembered that in the waking world, safety, was not an option for those who looked like him.
He glanced at the place from which he emerged, as much as he wanted to return, he knew that was no longer an option. He didn’t’ want to face it, this great tree ripe with strange fruit. But it called to him. Not just the tree but the fading light of the great star and the soft song of the cicadas. All, urging him to come forward. Beckoning him to look. There was something else for him to see.
Once again, encircled by the tree, it suddenly took hold of his entire body. He could feel the hard ridges of the bark against his newly formed flesh. He tried to resist it but it was no use. The tree had complete control. He tried to fight it, feeling the tree’s energy and life force meld with his spirit, with his mind. He didn’t want to become one with the tree. He had just emerged, he was not ready to join with another. The branches rattled with fury and he froze still. Once he stopped resisting he realized that the tree wasn’t angry at all. Wrapped in the billowing branches’ embrace, he was hit with a series of images. It had a message and it was more than just the replaying of his own tragic execution, the loss of Haiti or the hope of freedom.
This was about his seeds.
It came in a series of flashes. He saw the murder of his people continued. Countless Black bodies hanging from long thick branches. Their blood seeping into the soil. Blood feeding the land. He felt a deep wave of grief and sorrow. But it was not only his own. These are the memories of the oak. This is what it had seen. These are the pains it absorbed.
The nightmarish replay would not pause. He saw his descendants stripped of their rights even after the pale ones said they were free. He heard the cries and screams of mothers and fathers torn from their families. Children raped, breeded, sold, whipped, mutilated, shamed. He saw how the blood, labor, and sweat of his seeds built an entire country, financial economy, great tall structures, an entire rich culture with not even a dime of compensation. He saw statues and monuments raised to honor and commemorate theives, murderers, monsters. He saw white sheets become blue pants and shirts fitted with weapons of torture. He saw children killed. He saw communities erased. He saw churches ablaze. It was then that he realized that he could feel the beating rhythm of his heart.
But it was his church that reminded him of the feeling of rage. That undeniable pain that comes with the loss of great love. It didn’t stop then. And it hasn’t stopped now. The tree was now showing him six weeks prior to his rebirth, June 17, 2015. He saw a young pale faced one walk into the church he helped built. The community he helped create. He saw him enter the doors and sit with nine others during a prayer meeting. He watched in horror knowing what was next simply because he knew them. He knew their history and patterns. He knew exactly what atrocities they were capable of.
The cicadas song roared at this point, bringing him back to the present moment. He was suspended in mid-air, completely elevated by the vivid retelling of a story he knew all too well. Although he didn’t realize it until he was suddenly released from the tree and landed abruptly on his hands and knees. He glanced up at the hanging tree and saw that it was spent. Its once erect branches, now drooping as if exhausted. It had been carrying this for hundreds and hundreds of years. It was tired. And it was time to let them go and pass them on.
He knew that his kinfolk were dead. He knew that his seeds were also facing the same threat as he had 200 years prior. And he knew who was responsible.
He reached for one of the branches that had rested itself on his back. They comforted one another, recognizing the weight of the transgressions. Fully understanding the terror that has lived on. He looked up.
I need your help.
The leaves on the thick branches flurried in response. Eager, knowing and ready.
Where is he?
He saw images of iron bars but even that did not seem right. Something was off and maybe it was that he had never known their kind to take responsibility. From what the tree conveyed, there was no patrol for the pale ones. There was no, what was the word, he saw one of his seeds say…oh yes, accountability for the pale ones.
He stood. And as he stood, the tree returned to it original haunting form. Massive and sacred keeper of a history entrenched in blood. He looked around for the first time since his rebirth. This world was new and yet so familiar. He knew what he had to do. Nearly 200 years later and it had not changed, the horrors only wore a different mask. It only took on another face of deception.
Rooted in what he needed to do. There was just one more thing. Touching the base of the tree and sending his gratitude he said:
You have given me so much and for that I am grateful. Thank you for reminding me of my mission. Thank you for reminding me of who I am. But there is just one more thing — Where are the others?
He looked up expecting some sort of sound and then the earth beneath his bare feet began to rumble.
Shani Ealey is an artist, writer and student of life who is constantly searching for freedom and peace within the unlimited space of Black imagination, creativity and love. Recognizing that decolonizing the brain is a daily process, Shani uses the written word, painting, and photography to break free of institutional and mental forms of oppression that aim to shackle the free spirit. You can follow Shani and her visual creations on Instagram @ani_kweens.