After the first Breaking Ground excursion to the USA in November 2015 we asked the Black British writers who were part of the tour to write a short piece about their experience of being part of it. Gabriel Gbadamosi visited the scene of a recent race shooting, along with other ASWAD attendees:
‘What are your bodies telling you we’re doing standing here in this parking lot?’
It was probably too bald a question to put to the two young African American women scholars standing beside me, but I had to ask it. My body was in trouble, my body was feeling bad, my body had shooting pains – imaginary bullets passing through its shoulder blades, belly, upper thigh, left hand, brain, ear, eye – my body felt hot.
We’d come in two buses to the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina to stand at the locked gates and be there in solidarity with the people who’d been shot dead inside by a racist murderer. With so many of us gathered, spilling onto the road, we’d been moved round to the side and back of the building, and that’s where my trouble started.
What if, I thought, upwards of a hundred people – artists and scholars – standing together, someone starts shooting at us, here in the open? What could we do?
My body was feeling bullets.
‘Have I shot you yet?’
The news reports played out in my brain. The killer wanted someone to live to tell the world what he’d done and spark the race war. I tried to make small talk with a medical doctor whose smile, whose humanity shone out of the quietness of his face. We’d sat beside each other on the bus and become friends. Did he have an explanation for this violence some people were calling a hunger for black blood?
Not really, he said. I’m from Charleston, but I marched and my mother sent me away. She used to say, much of Charleston is below sea level and so is the mentality of its people.
A car drove past, slowly.
I couldn’t concentrate on anything else but that car, moving too slowly. It wasn’t until the car turned the corner and didn’t backfire that I could register two young women scholars had come to join us, asking the doctor what he knew of the circumstances of the church being built.
‘Forgive me for butting in, but what are your bodies telling you we’re doing standing here in this parking lot?’
For a moment, a short moment, I’d gone too far, presumed on my friendship with the doctor, failed to introduce myself properly to my young colleagues, spoken out of turn, and made too intimate a question of their bodies. I say only a moment, because I wasn’t alone, even in that moment, in feeling what it might cost to stand in solidarity with the dead. I wasn’t alone because I was there, with everyone else.
The two young women looked at me, at each other, as if to say he’s English, he’s here, he doesn’t know, we’ll tell him.
And then one spoke:
‘It feels like Groundhog Day. Is this still going on? Haven’t we been through this before? Is this still happening?’