Numb. That was all I could feel when I walked into the abandoned stockade in Leesburg, Georgia, where fifteen young Black girls were incarcerated 54 years ago. For two months, the girls had no proper drinking water and ate only four hamburgers each day. The toilet didn’t work. Only concrete floors and bare walls characterized the squalid insides of the stockade. They had merely participated in a peaceful protest to buy movie tickets at a whites-only entrance of a theater during the Civil Rights Movement. 12-15-year-old kids trying to buy movie tickets. How subversive.
Numb. That was all I could feel when I walked into the abandoned stockade in Leesburg, Georgia, where fifteen young Black girls were incarcerated 54 years ago.
They did affect her. That was why she was here, guiding us through this painful history.
Flies kept distracting my attention as Dr. Shirley Reese and Dr. Carol Barner-Seay, two of the 15 incarcerated girls, guided us into the stockade. The unbearable heat and discomfort overwhelmed any sentiment I had. I imagined the girls sleeping on the cold-concrete floor. “There was no light, so we couldn’t even see each other at night,” Dr. Reece said. I felt guilty for wanting to desperately leave. How could anyone—let alone a child—survive in such conditions for two months? As Dr. Reese continued explaining the horrid conditions of the stockade with calmness and conviction, I briefly forgot that she had been in this space as a prisoner. It was as if the traumatic memories of this place didn’t affect her. No, that’s not right—they did affect her. That was why she was here, guiding us through this painful history forgotten—or really, never written—within the American collective memory of the Civil Rights Movement.
That it took half a century for them to speak on their experience testifies to the way trauma roots itself deep in one’s consciousness, staying hidden and silent as a form of defense mechanism.
The French philosopher and sociologist Maurice Halbwachs defines collective memory as a “continuous current of thought, of a continuity that is by no means artificial…[but] conserves nothing from the past except the parts which still live, or are capable of living in the conscience of the group.” Indeed, collective memory is not simply of the past, but a living manifestation of the present—a state of constant becoming that affects the way a community tells its history and thus, behaves. Both deliberate and accidental choices on what to remember and what to forget shape collective memory, which ultimately becomes the foundation of a community’s collective identity. For Dr. Reese and Dr. Barner-Seay, to voice the story of this painful memory was a subversive act to revise this collective memory and restore what was lost—their very own dignity as human beings. “I only started talking about this two years ago,” said Dr. Reece. That it took half a century for them to speak on their experience testifies to the way trauma roots itself deep in one’s consciousness, staying hidden and silent as a form of defense mechanism. Not all the surviving girls could voice their experience as Dr. Reese and Dr. Barner-Seay did; they mentioned of another girl who became the first woman police officer in their district and had worked with the very people who had incarcerated her. I wondered how that must have felt—how angry, how sorrowful it must have been to endure. During lunch, I asked Dr. Barner-Seay if someone could write a story about this incident and whether that would help her heal. “I’ve already written the story,” she said. “Go read my book.”
Stories. When I envision restorative justice, I define it as an aspiration to create counter-stories that complicate the collective memory of a community and a nation. It centers the victims’ voices and the rights to dictate their narrative(s), giving the agency to uncover and reveal truths of their internalized struggles on their own. Restorative justice is not simply cathartic. It requires another layer of struggle for true healing, a confrontation with trauma that needs courage and the birth of a new self to defy past isolation and loneliness. Restorative justice, of course has its limits. Restoring one’s dignity does not feed the person or provide housing. Reparations, if agreed upon, require the perpetrator’s acknowledgment of the violations and crimes; they may help, but cannot restore the centuries of inherited trauma and inequality. Indeed, healing on its own cannot directly secure these basic human rights for victims nor dismantle the very system that has enabled such inequities and traumas to occur. But it can start the larger process toward those rights and accountabilities. Meeting Dr. Reese and Dr. Barney-Seay illustrated this critical aspect of restorative justice—to transmute trauma to empowerment and storytelling that can uplift new voices to the forefront. Stories are powerful—and dangerous—for their capacity to evoke emotions beyond what we intend. They mediate lived experiences through their own demand to be felt. I think of stories as worlds with borders, and where we put those borders can expand and reduce one’s capacity to empathize, to connect. Storytellers are simultaneously curators of memory and identity, juxtaposing hidden pasts with possible futures.
Stories are powerful—and dangerous—for their capacity to evoke emotions beyond what we intend.
My play, tentatively titled Nighthawk Café, reflects the same aspirations as that of Dr. Reese and Dr. Barney-Seay: to change the public narrative, to revise the cultural imaginary and give recognition to marginalized identities and experiences. Nighthawk Café comes from my own exploration of memory and my identity as a Korean-American male, questioning boundaries of body-hood, gender performance, and racialized trauma. Though I wrote the initial draft of this play before the Fellowship, I realize that what I tried to do while writing this was exactly the process of restorative justice—confronting my trauma through creative expression and the unique tenets of theatrical performance. My goal as a writer and performer, however, is not simply to retell the stories and memories that define my identity. I have a responsibility to re-imagine another story, an alternative reality that takes trauma and transmutes them to more inclusive possibilities. I want to foster a restorative imagination, a process that engages the memories of trauma and re-imagines new connections and entanglements across multiple bodies, communities, and identities. My play ultimately is not simply about my Asian-American identity; it is about how Black and Asian bodies are appropriated to negotiate Whiteness and how my own Asianness rises in relation to all bodies and identities. It is about connections that frame us beyond the usual tribes and communities we belong to, and that change cannot happen until we recognize these continuities and relations. When the fellows and I performed the script as my final presentation, I felt another type of connection that I did not envision when I wrote the script. The power of theater is precisely that—performing the connection enables a new bond, a connection of trust.
Language fails me as I reflect on the John Lewis Fellowship
So many questions. So many feelings that have yet to be named. Language fails me as I reflect on the John Lewis Fellowship—a myriad of stimulations, encounters, and lessons that I am not quite sure how to process, let alone carry them beyond this jam-packed month. I have only touched on one experience within this fruitful period, and even with that, I do not feel I have done justice to it. I am so grateful to have experienced Atlanta for the first time, to have met Dr. Roslyn Pope and the student leaders who have paved the way for new leadership and growth, and most of all, the fellows that have shared their vulnerabilities and stories with me. The multitudes of identities I’ve encountered throughout this fellowship are no longer what I usually would’ve thought of as others. They are my companions, therapists, and friends that I will stand next to and defend in spaces in which their voices are not included; I hope they will do the same for me. It is in this space that I’ve truly recognized how powerful the sharing of vulnerability actually is—a process involving discomfort and tension that may offend us more than they we want them to. However, those uncomfortable feelings open the possibility for new understandings and validations, a reckoning that we must learn to embrace tension as part of our fight for civil and human rights.
After the screening of A Trek to the River’s Edge at the Center for Civil and Human Rights, I had the chance to briefly speak with the director and creator of the film, Althea Brown. As I spoke to her that I was losing faith in what I could achieve as a writer and storyteller, she grabbed my arms and gazed straight into my eyes. “Honey,” she said, “stories are how we communicate. It’s how we understand and recognize the common humanity within us. Other people can say what power structures we have and what not, but stories can change that. They connect us together.” I felt the genuineness in her voice as she asked if I understood now.
“I do,” I said. I do.