News & Ideas

Giving Voice to Slavery’s Voiceless

Tracy K. Smith sits smiling atop a conference table, legs crossed.
Photo by Rose Lincoln

America’s legacy of slavery and its lingering effects on communities of color can unleash a wide array of emotions. Following the brutal murder of George Floyd in 2020, for example, people around the globe gathered to express their frustration and anger about racism and social injustice, while also trying to convey their vision of the kind of society they would like to see.

Here, Tracy K. Smith ’94—a Susan S. and Kenneth L. Wallach Professor at Harvard Radcliffe Institute, a professor of English and of African and African American Studies in the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and a former US poet laureate—discusses how difficult questions about “race, difference, what freedom means, and who is entitled to it” led her to use her craft to ensure that voices that have been long silenced or ignored are heard. Also, the students Stacey Fabo ’24, Ogechukwu Ogbogu ’24, and Suleyman Wellings-Longmore LLM ’22 share the forces that have compelled them to use their artistic talents to bring to light Harvard’s deep ties to slavery and other hard truths that have for far too long been kept in the dark.

Former US Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith Reaches Back into the Past to Understand the Present

A tranquil aura surrounds Smith, who speaks in whispers that are in marked contrast to the brutal forces inside her poems. She has always loved to write, but while she was an undergraduate at Harvard, she had the opportunity to study under the renowned poets Seamus Heaney and Lucie Brock-Broido. She later found a community of writers that included the Dark Room Collective, a Black writers’ group that gathered in Cambridge and, later, Boston between 1988 and 1998. Here, she found the poetic voice that would bring her so much acclaim.

“I felt like I was initiated into a practice with them, and [the rigor] was different from what I had thought myself to be doing before that,” Smith recalled. “I always loved the way poems made me feel, but it was revelatory to talk with poets about the mysterious but perceptible spaces within a work of art like a poem and to recognize there are concrete choices in craft and perspective that allow poems to reach and change us. I came to understand that a poem is built on what I know, what I observe, and what I feel—but also largely upon my willingness to engage with something fundamentally beyond me.”

Smith has published five collections of poetry, a memoir, translations of the Chinese poet Yi Lei, and two edited volumes. She is a two-term US poet laureate and won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Life on Mars (Graywolf Press, 2011), set in a futuristic place and in part an elegy to her father. Her more recent works look to the past, addressing links between slavery and ongoing racial injustice.

For a long time, she said she felt like she was not “large enough as an artist.”

“Then, I began to feel the presence of this history encroaching upon my life in the 21st century through public discourse, through what felt to me like a regression in our dialogue around race, difference, what freedom means and who is entitled to it,” she said in a recent interview. “The need to grapple with these questions overtook my own apprehension.”

Her collection Wade in the Water (Graywolf Press, 2018) explores these dark chapters in our nation’s history.

"I began to feel the presence of this history encroaching upon my life in the 21st century through public discourse, through what felt to me like a regression in our dialogue around race, difference, what freedom means and who is entitled to it,” said Smith in a recent interview. “The need to grapple with these questions overtook my own apprehension.”

One of the first pieces she wrote for this collection was a found poem called “I Will Tell You the Truth about This, I Will Tell You All about It,” based on archival letters written by African American soldiers and their families to each other and to government agencies during the Civil War, along with deposition statements given by Black veterans, their widows, and their descendants seeking military pensions after the war. Reading these documents, she realized that, although they were written more than a century ago, the sentiments felt both familiar and contemporary.

“They brought such powerful urgency to making their pleas that I said, ‘Oh, I want to listen to what feels like a gospel narrative taking shape over those many voices, and I want to invite other people to listen with me as well,” said Smith.

For some writers, grappling with such difficult issues brings catharsis. Smith said she instead feels productive illumination and clarity. Writing about slavery affirmed for her that the vocabulary of justice and the principles of freedom had disparate meanings for Blacks and whites.

“[I am] willing to sacrifice my son for the cause of Freedom & Humanity,” wrote a man whose son was at war, and therefore unable to help support the family, in a letter to a secretary of war, seeking financial assistance in his son’s absence.

Reading those words, “I realized that when our Founding Fathers wrote about “Liberty” and “Humanity,” they were concepts, abstract ideals. But for Black people in this country, freedom and humanity defined the actual circumstances of their day-to-day lives,” said Smith. “And to go from being 3/5 of a person in the eyes of the society you live in to being an actual and realized human with rights and protections under the law—that’s not conceptual, it’s actual. These terms have always been concrete and enactable in the imagination of Black people in this country, yet how far such acts and facts sit from the ideals which remain abstract in other imaginations.”

Smith believes it imperative that scholars, writers, and artists find ways to ensure voices that have been ignored in the archives are heard.

“The archive is full of documents, letters, and declarations that assert the authority of people in positions of power—people responsible for these forms of violence and inhumanity,” she said. “Oftentimes, their perspectives codify distortions of the narrative of Black life in this country, distortions of the authority and the intelligence and the motives of Black people. Despite erasure, evidence of our lives exists in the archive as well. For an artist, gathering a sense of the larger picture is an act of listening, interpolating, and asking the imagination to help lead us to the full picture that we know is there.”

Fabo will use her second H&LS-funded grant to create narratives for Black sharecroppers who weren't allowed to pass down their stories. Photo by Rose Lincoln

Stacey Fabo Uses Poetry to Process Conflicting Emotions

“Blush does not show up on dark skin.
No one can see our embarrassment, sadness, and pain.
No one can see the toll of the interrupting, silencing, and ignoring.”

These haunting words are part of a poem written by Fabo, a junior concentrating in molecular and cellular biology on a premed track and a recipient of two student grants from the Presidential Initiative on Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery. For her first research project, last year, Fabo focused on the life of Henry Lee Higginson, whose wealth funded the construction of the Harvard building that today is the Barker Center and home to the Department of African and African American Studies. Fabo first learned of Higginson during a class on ancestry, which she says portrayed him as a generous benefactor and ignored the fact that he was exploiting the Black people who sharecropped on his plantation in Savannah, Georgia.

“I thought it was really important to highlight that,” said Fabo. “So my first project was a research summary of his life and the plantation.” Her primary sources of information were detailed diary entries and correspondence between Higginson and his wife and family members. And those words hurt. Words like those of Higginson’s wife, the daughter of the notorious race scientist and Harvard professor Louis Agassiz, who mused in her diary, “They are very strange people, these darkies. Their wits and intellect seem to me far ahead of their morals.” Or Higginson’s own reflection, in April 1867: “The black population must be helped towards civilization of any kind, if we wish to see any result within a reasonable time. […] It is a long, long struggle against ignorance, prejudice and laziness. The blacks will advance, if they are led […].”

The 20-year-old Malden, Massachusetts, native was so struck by the demeaning way Higginson and his family members referred to Blacks, using language that made them more object than human, that she turned to writing poetry to process that information—which she says helps her “embrace the complexities and the emotions that I’m feeling.” Her initial goal was to complete the research summary and then start writing poetry, but “small bursts of inspiration” compelled her to open up a small notebook she carries everywhere to capture thoughts that she later turned into lines.

Fabo, whose family hails from Cameroon, assumed that Harvard University had ties to slavery, but she was surprised by their extent and how this legacy is now a part of her campus life. Surrounded by buildings and portraits that honor benefactors whose wealth was built on the unpaid labor of enslaved people and the exploitation of Blacks after the Civil War, she was suddenly confronted by the fact that because of her race, “all of these names and faces surrounding me would not have wanted me to be here.” Writing poetry has helped her deal with an ever-changing range of conflicting emotions.

For her second H&LS project this spring, Fabo began writing short, fictionalized stories about the lives of people who sharecropped Higginson’s land. Unsurprisingly, there was plenty of history on Higginson but no record of his workers’ experiences.

So far, she has outlined three stories and is trying to put herself in the workers’ shoes and imagine their lives, even though she’s only seen them from Higginson’s perspective.

“There is more at stake than just my voice,” Fabo said. “If you’re written out of history, then, sadly, you’re forgotten. These stories are the only way to give voice to people [whose history has been silenced]. Their history is not out there for me to research, so I have to approach it from a creative perspective. Representing them correctly is just so important to me. I feel like I’m the first person to talk about them, and that is a really big responsibility.”

Ogbogu's stories teach us about three Black women who today are known as the mothers of modern gynecology as a result of the surgical tortures they endured. Photo by Rose Lincoln

Ogechukwu Ogbogu Blends Her Passion for Science and Literature to Challenge History

Before the start of her freshman year, Ogbogu thought the creative outlet she would pursue at Harvard would be drawing or photography. But then came the pandemic. And when Ogbogu put pen to paper amid the worldwide panic, it was to write.

During the spring of 2021, she wrote a biweekly Harvard Crimson column—which she calls “a bridge into a Black girl’s thoughts”—to spiritually nourish Black and brown women at Harvard.

Ogbogu says she uses words to explore challenging ideas and information for herself, then shares what she wants with others. The reactions to her work, which is raw and real, have been positive. After reading excerpts from her stories and her research at a conference on race in Virginia, other authors said that her work brought to mind greats like Toni Morrison.

After reading her final History of Science 100 project, “The Origins of Our Mother’s Wombs,” Ogbogu’s teaching fellow encouraged her to continue writing and share her work in different spaces. That’s when she applied for a Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery student grant to produce an anthology of short stories that explore the medical experimentation inflicted on Black women while also exploring modes of resistance.

This ambitious undertaking is the continuation of her History of Science 100 project and includes short stories based on cruel experiments on three enslaved women who are today considered the “mothers of modern gynecology.” These surgical experiments were performed by the 19th-century physician James Marion Sims, reputed to be the “father of modern gynecology.” He used no anesthesia.

“The stories were intended to highlight the voices of three enslaved women he worked on, specifically focusing on the story of Lucy,” explained Ogbogu, a junior on the premed track. “For the H&LS project, I wanted to continue exploring the role of Black women in helping to create the field of gynecology and within science, which doesn’t get represented, discussed, or respected.”

Ogbogu, a history of science concentrator with a second concentration in African studies, takes an academic approach to her fiction and begins with extensive research. Because she is fictionalizing actual people and the torture they endured, she said it’s essential to ensure the emotions she describes in prose feel real.

Storytelling has long been used by Black women to pass down knowledge. Her goal was to write these narratives into academy, which has traditionally exploited characters like hers. She is rarely without two notebooks, one blue and one brown, in which she captures thoughts and ideas for later use.

“I think I was able to personify Lucy in a way that was still authentic to the history but also make sure she was given a voice, a subjective role, and personal relationships,” said Ogbogu. Sims’s history has been deeply researched and is widely available. Through her historical fiction, Ogbogu has made the contributions, struggles, and feelings of Lucy and the other women accessible as well.

Writing drains her emotionally, she says, as she’s forced to conjure the experiences and adversities of her characters. The lows can be harrowing, including a scene of a botched abortion and subsequent experiment in which we hear Lucy’s innermost thoughts and fears.

“The men taking notes, and the small bursts of pains when he tinkered with my flesh. I forced my cries and agony down as I felt every small movement. As his eyes glowed in awe I moaned in agony, but no one looked back at me. My eyes kept circling and wandering around the room wondering who would see behind them. I was invisible to them. Their eyes traveled down my body, but they never saw me, never cared for me. Massa never saw me when he entered my body. Sims never saw me when he opened my body. Why can no one see me?”

On the other hand, “when I’m reaching the highs with [my characters], when there are these touching moments of bliss, happiness, joy, I’m feeling it with them as well,” she said.

Today, Ogbogu thinks of herself as a writer, not just someone who likes to write. The transition from scribbler to scribe, she said, has been “very, very cool.”

Wellings-Longmore—here with his painting Lespwa Fè Viv—is deepening his understanding of human rights, social justice, and equality at Harvard Law School. Photo by Kevin Grady

An American Tragedy Energized Suleyman Wellings-Longmore to Use His Art to Send Bold Messages about Injustice

Wellings-Longmore was working at a Paris law firm three years ago, exploring options for the kind of lawyer he wanted to be, when he found his voice as an artist. He had always had an appreciation for art but lacked the confidence to actually create.

“I was quite sensitive and a bit unsure about getting into it because I think you have to expose a certain vulnerability, and the more you create, the more vulnerability you expose,” said Wellings-Longmore, who paints and sculpts. His lack of formal training, he says, made him feel like his voice wasn’t valid. He had no idea that within a very short time span, his artistic pursuits would include solo shows in England and the United States.

Wellings-Longmore began making art for his eyes only because it helped him feel balanced and calm. But as he developed his techniques, he began to share his work with a growing confidence that brought him joy.

The tragic death of George Floyd and the ensuing worldwide protests in 2020, which forced many people to reevaluate their views about race and racial inequality, had a deep impact on Wellings-Longmore. A native of London, England, he shared the shock and horror experienced by millions around the globe. He joined a protest in Paris, which felt unifying, although he would have preferred to have participated with his own community in London. But, more important, the tragedy galvanized him to create works of art that would not only attract people’s attention, but send a message.

“It was a deep reflection point for sure, and I was able to start creating work with a much more direct message than before, when I was perhaps a bit scared of exposing my politics and my artwork, or not wanting to be that voice in my social circle. But in that moment when we were all kind of realizing that something really has to change. … I became much bolder about conveying the messages that I feel are important to me,” he said. 

Wellings-Longmore, who described himself as “an acrylic painter by trade,” creates stencils of figurative designs of Black people in different spaces and environments that he applies to canvases to “shine a light on what it means to be seen and to be represented.”

Two paintings started in the immediate aftermath of Floyd’s killing became relics of his emotional state at the time—the first inspired by a Michelle Obama quote from the Netflix documentary Becoming.

“We can’t afford to wait for the world to be equal to start feeling seen,” she said in response to a question about how she, as a Black woman, has fought against invisibility.

"I was perhaps a bit scared of exposing my politics and my artwork, or not wanting to be that voice in my social circle. But in that moment when we were all kind of realizing that something really has to change. … I became much bolder about conveying the messages that I feel are important to me,” Wellings-Longmore said.

The painting depicts a mother giving similar advice to her two children with the specter of Derek Chauvin, the police officer who killed Floyd, kneeling on the son’s hands. “I think I tried to use this piece to symbolize that, even when we’re having these conversations internally and amongst our community, there is this invisible specter and ghost of racism or oppression, which may be inhibiting us,” Wellings-Longmore said.

The second painting was sparked by a difficult conversation with a close friend about racial injustice and racism.

“It was really cathartic, but it wasn’t necessarily easy, especially because I used myself as the model [for the second piece]. You’re literally on the canvas—but I don’t regret it. It’s a big part of the journey. I was very worried initially about exposing the vulnerable side of me, but it’s a really important aspect of the creative practice to let it all show,” he said.

What began as a form of self-care for the 31-year-old has turned into a blossoming career. In 2021, he had a solo show in London. This year, while at Harvard Law School, he had a solo art exhibition at the Harvard Ed Portal’s Crossings Gallery that explored Haitian migration through the Americas. He also curated and organized a collective exhibition titled All That We Are: An Exhibition Celebrating Harvard’s Black Artists, which featured submissions from 23 students. In addition, he received a 2022 Titus & Venus Award from the Harvard Black Graduate Student Association—an award named in honor of two enslaved people owned by a former Harvard president and bestowed upon two graduating students who have demonstrated outstanding commitment to the Black Harvard community. 

After working for more than two years at two leading international law firms training across departments and practicing arbitration law in Paris, Wellings-Longmore realized that he wanted to focus more on issues that inspire him, such as human rights, social justice, and equality.

“I came to Harvard to develop both my academic understanding of those issues and a launchpad to pivot more concretely into public interest work,” he said.

He spent the summer of 2022 in New York City working on a commissioned painting, exploring new techniques, and developing connections in one of the world’s most prestigious centers of art. In the fall, Wellings-Longmore will use funding he received from the FXB Center for Health & Human Rights at Harvard University to head to San Diego to work with the Haitian Bridge Alliance, examining health care issues and political rights and protections. Inspired by disturbing scenes of Haitians and other migrants clashing with Border Patrol officers at the Texas border last year, Wellings-Longmore created a series of paintings, which in turn spurred him to reach out to the organization to inquire about work opportunities and led to his upcoming placement.

He’s still trying to figure out what’s next. “I will never get too far from legal work because I get immense satisfaction from using these tools to help others,” said Wellings-Longmore. “My focus at the moment is finding the right balance between law and art in a way that fulfills, inspires, and excites me.”

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