Inconsequential Deaths-Head Revisited

Why does it still stand? Why do we keep it standing?

“They must remain standing because they are a monument to a moment in time when some men decided to turn the Earth into a graveyard. Into it, they shoveled all of their reason, their logic, their knowledge, but worst of all, their conscience. And the moment we forget this, the moment we cease to be haunted by its remembrance, then we become the gravediggers.”

I went to the doctor recently, and she said I have quite a bit of earwax build-up and should get this over-the-counter stuff to loosen it up. I started using these drops, and from what I can tell from the reviews, they take a couple of days to work and require much patience. Essentially, the drops are supposed to loosen up the wax so it…ahem…slides out of your ear. But after only one day of use, I find myself in this in-between stage where the wax is neither here nor there, and it feels weird af, like a little secret only I know.

And it is a secret because it’s truly hidden to everyone, not to most or some, but all. To the naked eye, I look normal, but deep down I know my earwax and these drops are dancing a naughty little pas de deux inside my ear canal. Things would be different, however, if, for the product to work, a giant ball of earwax had to envelop my whole head. And no matter how hard I tried to cover it with a wig, hat, and makeup, there would still be a big ball of shit in need of handling. In that case, it wouldn’t be a secret, no. In that case, it would just be a denial of sorts.

And the thing about denial is it can be small, like a sea cucumber denying the existence of the moon. Or it can be larger, it can grow and evolve to become a lifestyle, a plausible deniability.

Recently, I took a trip to Charleston, South Carolina with a friend. I intended to unplug from work, social media, and the “real world” for only a moment to eat, drink, and take in some Southern hospitality. My intention was quickly run over by a bus of dystopian disassociation. Days before the trip, 20-year-old Daunte Wright was gunned down over an air freshener, the jury of the Derek Chauvin trial was sent to deliberations, and our entire country was wrought with tension, well almost the entire country. The city I visited was pristine, polished, and polite, almost to a fault. In many of the places I visited, I was the only Black person present, and although the city itself was built on the backs of the enslaved and harbors a dark past of pain and trauma, everyone there appeared to happily walk by the bleeding history staring them right in the eye.

And hey, this isn’t me being like “f#&! you Charleston,” because I had a great time and plan to go back (especially once the International African American Museum opens next year). I had delicious food and wine took in the sights, and expanded my understanding of the history of my ancestors in such a meaningful, albeit emotional, way. And this isn’t an issue specific to South Carolina. It just reminded me that it is impossible, as a Black woman, to just take a trip anywhere and not notice those things that typically go unnoticed. Like, when we went to a bar and the first thing I saw was a man with a Blue Lives Matter sweatshirt. End of the world? No, just something I noticed, something that makes me feel a little…uneasy. Or how the city was so beautiful and well constructed but if you look closely at some of the bricks in the city, you may see the fingerprints of enslaved children. And when you learn about the visible fingerprints present in the city, you start paying closer attention to the fingerprints that remain invisible. You watch as tourists stop for photos in front of buildings and monuments on cobblestone streets, and then when you look closer at those places you read a plaque honoring the “brave” fallen soldiers of the war ( you know the one).

When I looked at the city, I saw an indescribable amount of pain and history that appeared to be treated like a secret, hiding in someone’s ear canal. And to me, the only true path forward is a path of acknowledgment and intense remembrance, or else, how does that make you any different than the enslavers. Now, I know what you’re wondering, “what exactly does a city do to acknowledge that sort of history, especially when it has made a profit on people’s ability to let much of that darkness go unnoticed?” And I’d say, “wow, that is an ​unusually specific question, but ok.”

To be honest, I don’t know. When I was on my tour of the McLeod Plantation, which honestly should be a required trip for all visitors and inhabitants of the city, my guide said something that threw me in a bit of melancholic state. The interpreters at the McLeod plantation make a very purposeful effort to present a tour that centers the lives, pain, survival tactics, and suffering of the enslaved people who lived there. At one point I asked if there were any larger conversations among the city to ensure this history is given at all plantations and in the public school education. ​After some hesitation, she eventually honestly admitted that those conversations aren’t really happening and likely won’t.

So I don’t know what it looks like to see a community take its horrid past and embrace it to create and preserve a culture that reflects its full history, instead of a whitewashed version. Do we remove all monuments, relics, and reminders of the Southern states’ place in the confederacy? Why not! I mean do we really need them up to know that history? I don’t need to know the names of confederate soldiers to know what they believed, why they were fighting, and what they would think of me if they were alive today. But then there’s the argument, usually from white people, that an overhaul of monuments, street names, and landmarks will lead to erasing of history. To that, I say not to forget there’s a difference between remembrance for reverence's sake and remembrance for remembrance's sake. I’d also wonder why there’s also such resistance to erasing parts of white supremacist history, but little to no issue with the full elimination of indigenous and Black history as it relates to the foundation of our country. While I appreciate all aspects of this country’s history, I will never find a story about Washington inspiring when I know his dentures were made from the teeth of people he enslaved. I don’t find much colonial history interesting, inspiring, or neat because how could I? If you had an ancestor who was kidnapped, tortured, beaten, and mutilated and you were raised to celebrate and honor the men who may have been responsible, then maybe you’d look at the preservation of such figures with a little more indifference. Maybe you’d feel a little more like me.

So how do we achieve this? Ultimately, in a city wherein the enslaved people once made up the majority of the population, I think it’d be great to see meaningful retribution to the descendants, who should equally profit from bustling tourism. On a smaller scale, I mean sure, I could suggest renaming the streets, bridges, monuments, with prominent Black figures and enslaved individuals of the antebellum south, but could I? That’s the thing about erasure, when you mentally enslave a population, forbidding them to learn to read or write, then whitewash the entire history of their struggle, their pain, and their resistance, it makes it hard to achieve historical modernity, for who can narrate a tale that’s never been told?

Again, I don’t pose these questions because I know the answers. I pose them because I don’t know. I’m just trying to help us all remove the wax build-up around our country, and who knows, maybe we’ll all be able to listen a little more. And maybe one day a Black person can visit a city where their ancestor may have existed or visit the very soil where they may have worked, bled, prayed, fought, survived and see an embracing of their ancestor’s story, instead of a picturesque playground of denial. As Malcolm X once said, “if you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, there’s no progress. If you pull it all the way out that’s not progress. Progress is healing the wound the blow made.”

I want to write a play that’s based on this episode of the Twilight Zone episode (Deaths-Head Revisited) wherein a former SS guard visits the concentration camp where he worked. During his tour of the camp, he comes face-to-face with the ghosts of his past, literally and figuratively.