On Visiting Gorée Island
by Jabari Kamau Gambrel
As the boat rocked against the tide I looked pass the metal rails that bound me to this island and into the water searching for the faces of my ancestors. I imagined them arriving to this place, carrying fear in their bellies and the uncertainty of a future stolen, in their eyes. I looked into the waves and promised them my bravery. The bravery for which I was named seemed so illusive to me now. I could feel my arms hanging at my sides trembling as though recalling an antiquated dance performed at this very spot; I felt my toes in my shoes heavy with the burden of remembering. I thought, was this fear, the fear that they carried with them as they arrived to this place.
I lifted my head to an unassuming rock floating above the coarse waves carrying upon its back French architecture and African palms. I remember grabbing for a friend’s hand and looking into her eyes so as to quiet my own mind. I wondered if this were a sort of homecoming. The descendant of slaves returning to bare witness to the onset of a new history, bare witness the onset of a new tragedy, one laden with blood, sweat, loss and a beauty to powerful to be articulated in this language. In that moment I became we. An ambassador from 400 years of suffering seeing with the eyes of those who had seen before me, I looked onward.
As we landed black hands grabbed me and pushed me forward, as if to say, “see, see with your own eyes.” It was no homecoming. Bodies swam in the sea where people once leapt with courage on their lips to their death; people sold jewels and trinkets where bodies were once sold and under the shade of a baobab stories that once been alive and breathing were left dangling from tourist’s ears like unknown heirlooms inherited in silence.
As we approached the “slave house” we followed a narrow path lined on either side with palm trees and pastel walls. I wondered how such beauty could yield such pain.
The building was quiet. The silence stuck me first. As pale faces gathered around capitalisms shrine made in antiquity I wondered would this silence, these tears forming at my cheeks blurring my vision, this fear sitting in my throat change my own history. This painful act of bearing witness, what was it all for? My eyes became heavy with looking. For the things I saw were like cement in my eyelashes, the colors were shards of stained glass in my eyes and the light felt as smoke does late at night. What was it all for?
I wandered back to that door, after everyone had left. Left their tears and their sorrow upon the cement floors, but I remained.
The door of no return beckoned my attention. Magnetized by the power it once held over this cadaver I stared into the ocean that lay beyond it. I uttered fragile prayers that fell flat from my lips as I spoke them. The quiet of that place grabbed me and I truly became brave. In the silence of that chamber I grabbed the door. The door that had opened and closed my future and the futures of so many before me with indifference in its hinges, no longer had its power, for I had returned. It was no longer the door of no return, but just a door that was open the sea and wind. And I child named for a bravery denied to a slave, with the fear of slaves in his belly, but the power of kings and queens in his hands; closed that door.
There are things in this world which have a permanence that seems etched into time. But time forgets all and in its forgetting bequeaths forgiveness. As my hand rested upon that door I imagined all the faces that had passed through it, the names that had been uttered and the crimes it had bared witness to. All the names that were lost, and futures that had vanished and I took comfort in the rust that clung to the handle, and the moss that grew on the floor and ceiling. I found solace in the cracks that painted the walls and the graffiti etched into this place. I took comfort in the thought that time was not finished with this island.