To the histories that we don’t see

Musings on environmental design and slavery


Thinking about Slavery is hard. 

It is hard, even for me as a West African, with the ‘privilege’ of being on the tragically right side of it. I was not the colonizer, but rather both the victim and survivor of a history that seemed to suddenly come for me. 

But this is not a sentiment that is comforting. I am shadowed by a history that towers over me, no matter where I go. It is a history that shapes the world I live in, experienced for example, in the minimization of all the nations within Africa as one giant indistinguishable mass. It is the one continent from which, we are all Africans. Not Nigerians, Kenyans or Chadians. All just Africans from ‘Africa.’ It is the muddled lens through which, it is clear enough to see through, yet can never quite be fully wiped clean.

This saga began, when a sect of people decided that the color of skin was a logical explanation for competence and intelligence. Several centuries after its outset, I sit now, several miles away from home, and type this from the sunny courtyard of Bauer Wurster Hall, UC Berkeley. I learn from, collaborate and share moments with my good friends of several different races, some of whom my ancestors may have lost their lives to in a different time. We all thankfully share a new world now. Alive and mostly free in 2022, yet all living with the gnawing reality of a narrative that can never be erased. 

As a progressive discipline we debate the role of environmental design and infrastructure in how it can reveal and memorialize these dreadful truths. And we seem to mostly agree; it is not right that we walk over, build over, park over places that once held such painful hopelessness and desperation. African Slaves were carted from the shores of the Atlantic to be held in these sites of memory across the United States; some were kept barely alive, enslaved in grueling labor of their bodies and rewarded with minds broken and beat down by a ‘superior’ race. 

If they were lucky, that is. If they were not, they were dead. 

We seem to agree that it is not right to prance around on land where children’s fingers were cut off or where women were branded with fire, renamed as numbers, raped like objects. But what can we, in the field of environmental design, do to make it right? Do we even have the tools to begin to lend to a different perspective around some of these hard realities? And most important, can it even be made right?

Using the word ‘right’ in this context does feel redundant, at least for this writer. Because of course, what could make it right, is for it to never have happened at all. But this is water that has long been crossed like it was across the windy shores over 400 hundred years ago when it first began and now here we all stand on this sore other side. Where can we go from here? 

The question on my mind is: can environmental design and landscape architecture serve us in any way here? What impact could the design of the natural environment, which has witnessed and held these notorious experiences, have in healing such brokenness that it could make any sort of a difference?

Despite sometimes being one of the more lauded aspects of environmental design, architecture, in my opinion and brief experience, can often be cold. Almost mirrored in its materials, I see this same character. Steel is cold. Glass is cold. Concrete is cold. The buildings that they constitute, consequently, are the same. 

Architecture does however play a role that finds its warmth in the fact that it provides one of human’s most essential needs—shelter. And this warmth is an attempt, I imagine, in the role that it plays now, as it relates to these horrible histories—to shelter the material and artifacts that once shaped several decades of the experiences of very real but mostly unseen people. Unfortunately, the coldness of architecture becomes all too literal for me in these sorts of places, despite my pastime of walking through these detachedly connected halls and corridors of glass boxes, which attempt to honor these abused cultures by encasing them as displays and exhibits, lit by the harshest of fluorescent lighting and controlled ventillates by chilly units. 

Landscape architecture can, in contrast, offer the opportunity, I believe, to capture the warmth and soul of these histories, in the natural environment and often, well beyond the physical. Beyond the history of African Slaves on the American Earth, the Landscape has been a witness to all of time’s injustices and horrors and will continue to be. 

The waters, which themselves witnessed the slave crossings across its oceans and over its coasts, can now be revival and refreshment, intentionally channelled and designed in our landscapes towards reminding minds and healing hearts. 

The earth, which was tilled by forced labor, can now be the canvas on which new stories are painted, reflecting on the past as the great-great-grandchildren of those who once plowed it can find solace and contemplation. 

The air, which many did not have the luxury of for several months at a time trapped in ship’s underbellies, now becomes a free resource in landscaped spaces and symbolizes the limitlessness of opportunity that now exists, within, of course, the frame of the inequities that undeniably remain within today’s society. 

With some effort and dedication, we as landscape architects may be able to yield the tools we have; tools of design with plant communities, indigenous ancestral knowledge, raw truth, materiality, representative art and rituals towards honoring the souls of those who deserve to be remembered now that they are long gone and were never given the dignity in life that every human deserves. 

In all of this discourse, I realize that sometimes physical representation in the landscape means hosting past physical memories and histories of some cultures as chosen, more acceptable and palatable, at the expense of others. But everyone deserves to be remembered and I hope we can yet find the place for the people who lived in their own soil and body fluids, as they were held bound in sealed-off lower decks of slave ships headed to the west. 

In our attempt towards recollecting and dignifying these histories, will we find them in the cold boxes of artistic exhibits? 

Or in the symbology of memorial towers and statues, arching majestically above our heads? Maybe. 

You might say that we find them in the expanse of perfectly manicured turfs that become eponymous tribute glades and parks. Or perhaps, we will find them in the looser but intentionally designed landscape coves and installations springing up now across the industry. You might say that we don’t. You might say that this is all just a reach of a proposition, and entirely too much to ask of environmental design and landscape architecture as we know it today. And maybe you are right. 

I just hope that there is a space where through this field of study, somehow, the soul of histories can, as they deserve to, be found. Like you, I don’t presume to know where it hides. 

All we can do is look and hopefully see more clearly. 

FIWASEWA OGUNDIPE graduated from the Landscape Architecture program at the College of Environmental Design, UC Berkeley in Spring 2022. From Lagos, Nigeria, she holds a Bachelor’s degree in Architecture and a Master’s degree in Environmental Design. Fiwasewa is passionate about the way in which design is able to transcend her several fields of study as a powerful tool towards community scale interventions—incorporating architecture with landscaping as a means of making everyday lives a little easier, a little better and a lot more beautiful to be in.

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