If you have ever taken a history class, you have learned about social death. However, you have likely never been exposed to a space where social death goes to die. In her lecture on “Insurgent Black Ecologies: Woods, Water, and Rebellion in the Great Dismal Swamp,” scholar Kathryn Benjamin Golden, says it happens in a place you’ve probably never given much attention.
For many enslaved people in Virginia and North Carolina, says Golden, the best method for circumventing their subjugation was to retreat into their environment where they could be protected from the institution oppressing them. The Great Dismal Swamp was a place they could engage in communication and commerce.
Golden began her speech with a discussion on power and struggle in space, introducing the subject of her presentation: the swamp. She gave lively accounts of human stories within what she called “the living breathing swamp” and the “noncompliant and rebellious” nature of those living there. She emphasized the healing elements of the swamp space for those who were enslaved, particularly highlighting women’s experiences and the reclamation of their wombs.
Golden put into perspective a fantastic cultural phenomenon and expression of freedom entirely new for many attendees, myself included. I felt very fortunate to be an audience member at such an enlightening lecture, in a room brimming with curiosity and thought.
When shifting into the presentation’s discussion portion, Golden connected her work to the present-day zeitgeist. She and another speaker discussed her research’s function in the development of Golden’s artistic depth. She said that just as “energy is never created or destroyed,” the physical methodology she used to study the swamp retains all of its own life.
The system of social preservation that the swamp provided has carried truth into the present-day movement and world-making of the Black community, which will continue into the future, says Golden. When opening up to questions from the crowd, Golden continued to respond to in-depth curiosities about niche elements of her studies, such as the emotional value of the swamp and her work trying to find descendants of the Maroons who lived there. As a whole, her diction and poise were a graceful reflection of her knowledge in studies of colonial and antebellum Black life.
Surrounded by the Kara Walker “Back of Hand” Exhibit that has been on display in Georgetown University’s de la Cruz Art Gallery since late September, this Mellon Sawyer Seminar became an incredibly appropriate and enriching venture. The culmination of two confrontations of “complicity, racism, misremembered histories, and the violence that undergirds the legacy of the South” shed light on critical cultural acknowledgments for Georgetown students as members of a campus built on these experiences. I am, of course, referring to the GU272+ — the 314 slaves Georgetown sold in 1838 to buttress the school’s tenuous finances.
I would highly recommend attending any of the events held by the Georgetown Art Galleries. They have always succeeded in providing an intellectually stimulating and illuminating display. Do not fret if you cannot make any structured presentations because the galleries are free to explore on your own time. Be sure to make the short journey to the Edmund A. Walsh Building and experience it for yourself before the Dec. 3 closing reception.