Focus: New Narratives - Guest essay by Annina van Neel

The Importance of Addressing Past Atrocities for Future Generations and the Role of Storytelling

A commentary by Annina van Neel, Environmental and Cultural Heritage Consultant, St Helena

There are thousands of African burial grounds that harbour the untold stories of the great traumas and defeats that people of African descent have endured for over 350 years. These stories have been relegated to the most marginalised and isolated Black communities, communities with no means to adequately protect or remember their ancestors with the respect they deserve. Suffering further dehumanisation are their attempts to remember, reconnect and to heal historic traumas and wounds born from colonialism, slavery and the slave trade.

A Story Of Bones
Joseph Curran, Dominic Aubrey de Vere | UK | 2021 | 95 Min. | OmeU

Filmscreening & Panel Discussion
October 17 | 9pm | ACUDkino
October 18 | 6pm | Kant Kino

Film + Tickets

A Story Of Bones

The remote island of St. Helena is best known for being where Napoleon spent his final years in exile and was ultimately buried. His grave is beautifully maintained and serves as the island's biggest tourist attraction. To encourage tourism, the island decides to build its first commercial airport. Annina van Neel arrives from Namibia to help with the construction and is present when the remains of thousands of “freed slaves” are uncovered. Heeding her increasing discomfort with how the bones are handled, Nina campaigns tirelessly to honor their legacy and integrate them into the history of the island - their fate is, after all, intertwined with that of Napoleon's.

Today Black cultural heritage is excluded from funding, legal protection and consideration.
The more commonly accepted colonial heritage and curricula (archaeology, scholarly research, history and education) supersede any attempts by descendants to connect with their history. Thus, Black histories are made invisible and voiceless; they are diminished and ultimately dehumanised.

The African Burial Grounds of St Helena island, a British Overseas Territory, bear the most significant physical traces of the Middle Passage, one stage of the transatlantic slave trade. Although the global significance of these burial grounds (containing up to 10,000 formerly enslaved Africans) has been proclaimed, the local and global community of descendants has been completely disconnected from this story and the space that contains it.

Here is a community that has suppressed its connection to a past that is so deeply rooted in pain – how can anyone blame them? It is a disconnect that runs so deep that the story and its setting have been othered and marginalised while more comfortable narratives have been adopted and nurtured.

With authentic and honest storytelling, we can begin to address painful subjects. By capturing people’s attention and creating awareness, we can coax out a sense of awakening – an awakening that can only be achieved if the story that is told goes to the heart of human dignity. This is the very component of humanity that has been and will always be at stake. The only currency that should matter. The dignity of the living and the dead.

When a generation’s dignity is tied to its past – that is when the power of storytelling is revealed. It can empower a community to act out the rights and rituals that are required to deconstruct the disconnect that has been instilled through generations of neglect. And we find that this generation is empowered to not only reclaim its history, but to rewrite these stories in a voice of knowing, of truly owning them with integrity and dignity, unapologetically.

Storytelling that is rooted in healing and truth will incite uncomfortable conversations that have been lying dormant for decades and centuries. These conversations will usher in contemplation, reflection and understanding. They will plant the seeds of a hunger for truth and identity, and ignite a greater desire to hear and tell more authentic stories that will piece together the broken traumatic history that defines us in the present.

By knowing our past, we can truly own our future. Reclaiming the past is like ointment for the future. Obstacles and challenges are dealt with from a place of wisdom, not fear.

Storytelling permeates ignorance with light. It is a light that grows, infuses and touches everything and connects people. It inspires and innovates. It provides courage and strength, and has the capability to transform and connect the world.

Powerful storytelling can go even further than that. It can move immovable systems and structures. It can circumvent the mechanisms that keep stories hidden and oppressed. There are people who have exploited the legacies of forgotten trauma to maintain the more comfortable narrative of disconnect. This exploitation is a continuation of the dehumanising foundation that colonialism, slavery and the slave trade were built on. Here, storytelling is an asset that helps us to deconstruct these systems and hold those professionals, authorities, governments, communities and countries to account.
Who tells our stories matters.

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