Watching, watching, watching as Selina Thompson roots herself and starts unfolding her insides. Her’s is a work of exhuming the dead. salt. traces their ghostly forms so that we might honour their meticulous, industrial decimation. In her hands, there are tools; a very big hammer, a pestle, a mic. She is pounding. Pounding salt and pounding her heart. These two masses linked; both formed over time and broken over time.
The first time Selina used her passport was to undertake a task too great for her, too brutal to hold. But hold it her body does. She is holding the chain linking white colonial patriarchy, along to capitalism and down to her own terror on board a freight ship that is sailing the Atlantic Slave Trade route. Through all this, she pounds salt. The ocean, the bodies of slaves, the flinches of white liberal people confronted by racism, are all ‘swept up and shattered’ as hammer hits rock. And still Selina stands whole.
We are watching courage. The raw type. The courage that catches off guard. The courage that is not a choice but accompanies an imperative calling. A calling that draws Selina - like many who are part of the African diaspora - to find out and grieve both the documented presences and eroded absences of the slave trade.
Selina tells the racist tale that a racist teacher told her grandmother. It is a story about how black people came to exist: There were two people. One day they were both soiled with dirt. One was hard working and went to wash away their stains in the sea. They became white. The other was lazy and only washed their palms and soles of their feet. They became black.
Of course, dirty stains are not on the bodies of black people but in the waters soiled by the dirt of white hands and minds. White slave traders stained the deceptively clear waters and yet, a black child hears her origin perversely twisted. History mishandles history.
It is a history that although effortfully uncovered by many, can still be subjected to tidal denials that result in it feeling frustratingly ungraspable. In the UK today, there are only optional modules within the national curriculum where pupils from the african diaspora may learn of their traumas and their belonging. The ongoing impacts of slavery remain unfathomable, they are formless down to the depths of the ocean, right down to the watery, subatomic reckonings with grief.
Later, Selina speaks of something - will, hands, strength, current - bringing her out of this water and back into form. She finds language for the unspeakable. Through salty tears that prickle - having learnt as a teenager that it is not safe to cry about slavery in a majority white space - I see her.
- Alexandrina Hemsley
Links relevant to this diagnosis:
National Curriculum England - History Programmes of Study
Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route (excerpt) by Saidiya Hartman - NPR
In The Wake: On Blackness and Being (excerpt) by Christina Sharpe - Duke Press
Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race - Reni Eddo-Lodge
Black and British: A Forgotten History by David Olusoga