Wednesday, December 8, 2021

A poem for Venus


Photo by Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff
Divinity School student Suzannah Omonuk wrote a poem imagining what life
was like for an enslaved woman who lived and worked on campus in the 18th century.


A poem for Venus

Divinity School student gives voice to an enslaved young woman on campus in the 18th century

BY Colleen Walsh
Harvard Staff Writer
April 15, 2021

Suzannah Omonuk learned about slavery as a child growing up in Uganda. But her history books were “whitewashed,” she said, sheltering her “from the true horrors” and ignoring the ways slavery’s toxic effects rippled throughout the U.S. and beyond.

“In Uganda it was different because it almost felt like this was a terrible thing that happened in the world, but it’s over now, like we all can breathe a sigh of relief,” said Omonuk, a master’s candidate at Harvard Divinity School. “But coming here I realized: No, it’s still continuing, albeit in a different manner.”

At Harvard, Omonuk is giving voice to that history and its lasting impacts. Her poem “The Story of Venus,” takes an unflinching look at what life may have been like for the young woman known only by the name Venus, an enslaved person who lived and worked on Harvard’s campus in the 18th century. The project was supported by a student grant funded by a presidential initiative anchored at the Harvard Radcliffe Institute and inspired in part by Omonuk’s own journey to the U.S. to study first in Louisiana, and later in Cambridge.

“I couldn’t help but think about the fact that I’m on this University campus, and how other people who looked like me, sounded like me, came from the same place as me, arrived here but under completely different circumstances,” she said.

“The Story of Venus” (excerpt)

Oh, daughters of the great green savannah,
Weep for me.
I have been uprooted from among you where I grew and have been carried into a diabolic land where ashes fall from a raging heaven
Weep for me, for I will never again dance on dewy grass on a moonlit night, surrounded by the song of a tribe.
No more shall I be burnt by the black desire of a warrior’s lust, and in a wild daze wonder to myself how a man whose very hands had torn apart bears and lions could yet hold me softer than an early morning rain.
Weep for me
For the way I shall slowly be forgotten, because little slave girls with sad eyes do not get invited into history
How shall you remember me?
By the men that made me an orphan
How shall you remember me?
By a tablet of stone that bears the name that I received in a baptism of chains
How shall you remember me?
Shall you remember me?

Omunuk’s creative work is one of several grant-funded projects supported by the Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery Initiative, a presidential program announced by Harvard President Larry Bacow in 2019 and housed at the Harvard Radcliffe Institute that is exploring Harvard’s connections to slavery through ongoing discussions, conferences, public events, and student and faculty research. The initiative’s steering committee is planning to release a public report during the 2021–22 academic year outlining its historical findings, along with a list of recommendations.

“Student engagement is a vital component of the initiative on Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery,” said Tomiko Brown-Nagin, dean of Harvard Radcliffe Institute and chair of the Presidential Committee on Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery. “Our work is grounded in history, but our charge is also to reckon with the ways that history shapes our present — in the world, and here at Harvard. Students bring an invaluable perspective to this effort, and we are proud to offer grants that support both student research and creative work, allowing recipients to engage with legacies of slavery in the ways most meaningful to them as individuals, and as members of our community.”

Omonuk said her use of poetry was a nod to the way “the Black and African American community immortalizes themselves.”

“White slave masters who knew how to read and write kept journals and diaries, but those who were enslaved passed their stories down often through art and song or through storytelling,” she said. “Also, I’ve just always loved poetry and rhythm, and I just thought there was just something special about telling a story in that way.”

Not much is known about Venus, one of four enslaved people owned by Harvard presidents Benjamin Wadsworth and Edward Holyoke and who lived and worked in Wadsworth House in the 1700s. (In 2016, Harvard President Drew Faust and Congressman and Civil Rights pioneer John Lewis placed a plaque on the front of Wadsworth House, now a University administrative office, in their honor.) During her research, Omonuk found that Venus was baptized at Cambridge’s First Church, and that she was young when she was purchased, but little else. With her words she sketches in some of those lost details.

“I kept wondering what Venus as an enslaved person would be?” she said. “Would she have ever imagined a future in which someone like me attending Harvard was possible? Did she like art? Did she like poetry? I was also realizing with a sadness that there’s no way for us to know any of these things because there’s nothing written there.”

Omonuk admitted that it feels uncomfortable to “disturb something as cemented as history, but I just realized it’s within my joy to try anyway,” adding that the work of other established writers has helped guide her process. “I’ve been taking lots of inspiration from poets like Phillis Wheatley and authors Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou, these very strong Black women who use their voice and use the power of writing to make history.”

Omonuk said her early experience in America exposed to her the nation’s lasting racial tensions. She called her arrival in the U.S. and her years studying at Southern University and A&M College, a historically Black university, “illuminating.”

“I was able to learn about aspects of Black culture that I hadn’t really learned in Uganda, where I never actually saw myself as Black. I was just always African or Ugandan or a member of my tribe. So just being Black in America for the first time, there was just a lot to process.”


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