A couple of weeks ago I received my copy of Box of Bones, a project created by Ayize Jama Everett and John Jennings. Book one contains five stories, each written and illustrated by different artists. The overarching connective tissue within Box of Bones is Lindsay Ford, a PhD student in Folklore/African American Studies at UC Berkeley. Ford’s work centers on the Box of Bones, the entities it contains, and the stories surrounding it. She becomes interested in it because of her grandfather who tells her about the racial trauma it contains within the entities that spring forth from its depths. Today, I want to look at a moment in the “Plantation,” the fourth story in the collection.
Everett and Jennings constructed the story for “Plantation,” Everett wrote it, and Frances Olivia Liddell-Rodriguez illustrated it. The story sees Lindsay and her partner Hatima on a trip to the the Beau L’Eau Plantation in Haiti for Lindsay’s research into the Box of Bones. Lindsay’s research reveals that Ahmadi, an enslaved man on the plantation, which was owned by the Souvants, a “mulatto couple,” unleashes the Suffering from the Box of Bones and leads an insurrection against the enslavers. The Suffering is an entity that, as Stanford Carpenter puts it in the collection’s introduction, “The embodiment of Black masculinity in its most demonized iteration, the ultimate Black buck contorted, twisted, wracked with anger and rage with no other outlet than the sheer violence its strength enables.”
There is a lot that I could discuss in “Plantation” and in Box of Bones in general; however, one moment immediately stuck out to me when reading “Plantation,” Liddell-Rodriguez’s page where Lindsay reads the history of beau L’Eau and starts to think about the events. This page conjoins the present with the past, overlaying them in three panels. This is what I want to focus on for the rest of this post, these three panels working together, linking the temporal space to the terrafirma where Lindsay, Ahmadi, the Souvants, and more walked.
Where ever I am, I constantly think about who has walked on the dirt underneath my feet. I think about what events the trees that surround me have seen in their generations. I think about the shifting landscape that the rocks have endured and the stories they could tell. With all of this, would I be willing to see and listen to what they witnessed? Would others be willing to do the same? These are the thoughts that come to mind when I see Liddell-Rodriguez’s panels.
Liddell-Rodriguez has one full-page panel of Lindsay, standing against a column as she reads the history of the plantation. She is in shilouette, her face blurring. The colors of warm: shades of blue for the sky and the sea, greens for the land, and whites for the clouds. All of this joins with Lindsay’s yellow dress which blows in the wind. The columns and arches are gray and black, and black encompasses the bottom of the page, a hint of the pain and trauma Lindsay reads. Two smaller panels appear at Lindsay’s back. These beige panels move the reader into the past. The top one is of the sun, the sun which has shown for eons. The other panel shows the sugarcane crop, moving us even further into the history of Beau L’Eau.
The movement from the present to the past, signified not just through the images but also by the color pallets, relates the connections between the two. Liddell-Rodriguez depicts Lindsay, in the present, in a tropical scene. A scene that could be out of a travel brochure advertising a trip to the Caribbean with clear blue skies, translucent oceans, and white sand beaches. This image, though, becomes disrupted with the two beige panels. Each joins together to form an image of the landscape, and none show violence; however, the move from Lindsay standing in peace and calm, even though she is reading a traumatic history, to the beating sun upon the crops that enslaved men and women planted and harvested presents the violent past of the spot where Lindsay now stands.
Knowing and living with this past affects the present. The story ends with Lindsay being overcome by the trauma, drinking in the morning, and Hatima starting to storm out of the room. Lindsay stops her, and Liddell-Rodriguez has two closeup panels with Hatima crying, one with her eyes closed and the next with her eyes turned back towards Lindsay. The next panel shows Lindsay hugging Hatima from behind as she says, “I need you to keep me sane.” The final panel shows the two embracing as Hatima says, “Oh, baby, you might have to let all of this suffering go.”
This scene takes place in Lindsay and Hatima’s hotel room, a room built upon the land, erected as a tourist spot, not as a reminder of the past. In this manner, the setting serves as an important locus for the previous page I discussed. The suffering and the trauma occurred on the ground, and Lindsay knows this. She knows what happened to Ahmadi, the Souvants, and others. Yet, that story appears to be missing from the present, pointing to the disconnect between the past and the present, and pointing to the need for a reckoning with the events at Beau L’Eau.
This historical amnesia is nothing new, as we know, but it is something we need to reckon with in order to move forward. We must know what happened underneath our feet, because if we fail to acknowledge it, we’ll repeat it. Connor Towne O’Neill talks about this some in Down Along With That Devil’s Bones: A Reckoning with Monuments, Memory, and the Legacy of White Supremacy. In the book, O’Neill uses four “monuments” to Nathan Bedford Forrest to discuss memory and white supremacy. He talks about his own history, and the land that he walked growing up in Pennsylvania.
Visiting the site of 1865’s Battle of Selma where Forrest lost the city to the Union Army, O’Neill describes the social amnesia that plagues us. When he arrived, he states that instead of finding a detailed battlefield like Gettysburg or even Jackson he found a “basic city park: a baseball field, a walking trail, some concrete grills. Totally unassuming stuff. Nothing there to suggest a battlefield, much less the hallowed ground of the ‘Wizard of the Saddle.'” O’Neill had to stop people in the park to determine where the battlefield was. He moved along the path, passing picnic pavilions and more before entering a meadow where the battle occurred.
Many of the people jogging or grilling in the park may not even know about the battle that took place there in 1865. The people staying at the same hotel as Lindsay and Hatima may not know about the violence that the Souvants enacted upon those they enslaved and their ultimate fate. Instead, these individuals see a present filled with trails and beaches, escapes from their lives. They do not realize the blood that nourishes the ground on which they travel. If they did, how would that affect them? Would it make them stop and think about how those events have shaped us today? I would like to hope that they would, but I cannot say for certain. What I do know, though, is that it is important to know what occurred on the soil where we tread, because when we do, it helps us as we move forward.
Listen to Everett, Jennings, Alex Batchelor (illustrator of final story in the collection), Carpenter, Stacey Robinson, David Brame, Avy Jetter, and Tim Fielder discuss Box of Bones.