“Our history did not begin with slavery. It did not begin with the Civil War. It did not begin with the Civil Rights Movement. We have another point of origin. We did not begin our lives in a state of destitution or enslavement.”
So says Dr. Maria Hamilton Abegunde. She’s a scholar, an egungun (an ancestral priest in the Yoruba Orisa tradition), a healer, a poet, a teacher, and a birth and postpartum doula. She was the first person to earn a doctorate in Indiana University’s Department of African American and African Diaspora Studies (AAADS). She now directs IU’s Graduate Mentoring Center and is a visiting lecturer in AAADS, where she teaches classes on transgenerational and ancestral memory, trauma and healing, contemporary social issues, and black feminisms.
Her tools are her pen, her keyboard, and her voice as she guides her students through the thicket of pain and out to the other side, it is hoped, to a place where they can thrive and love. Her prose writing and poetry have helped her bear her own trauma. Writing — poetry in particular — she feels, can help others heal and thrive as well.
Abegunde’s own research has indicated some of her ancestors came from Nigeria, the region that is home to the great Yoruba people and culture. The Yoruba were among the largest populations of people brought to the “New World” through the slave trade.
Abegunde’s mother was from the Caribbean island nation of Grenada and her father, an ethnic Jamaican, was born in the United States. While Abegunde’s Yoruba name would come years later, she was born Maria Eliza Hamilton in New Jersey in the 1960s. But at the age of one, her aunt took her to Grenada to live with relatives, where she remained for the first few years of her life. When it was time for her to begin kindergarten in the United States, her father went to pick her up, and she panicked.
“I remember running into our vast garden to hide among the green bananas,” she says. “We almost missed our plane. I was none too happy to leave paradise.”
Maria Eliza’s mother was a nurse and her father an artist — a painter. In the Hamilton home in New Jersey, she learned about African and Caribbean history and culture.
“In my house, my father taught us to understand history, respect history, and know the multiple different cultures from which we were born,” Abegunde says.
“When I was growing up, there were no black dolls,” she recalls. “My father painted us. He created us so we could look at us. He painted other black people. He painted scenes of black life.”
That respect for her history, for the generations that came before her, and for her own worth, enabled young Maria Eliza to stride boldly into a world where many with dark skin and who came from slave-trade families too often feel unwelcome. She traveled from New Jersey to the Midwest, where she would study English, specializing in fiction writing, at Northwestern University.
“What I learned at home gave me the strength to go outside of my home and my community. When I left home, I had the strength and the knowledge to walk into a classroom where sometimes I was the only black person.”
After earning her bachelor’s degree at Northwestern and then her master’s degree at DePaul University, she traveled to Brazil in 1999 as the lead team teacher for the Middle Passage Voyage Project. She returned to Brazil in 2003 when she was awarded a scholarship to complete a manuscript about the voyage and to begin what would become her dissertation.
While in Brazil, Abegunde met Yoruba elders. (Yoruba religious practices and culture have been preserved in South America, the Caribbean, and the United States.) She’d been introduced to the Yoruba Orisa religion by a senior priest (who’d later become her godmother) in Chicago. Soon after that meeting, she was initiated into the Yoruba egungun (ancestral) society, where she would receive the name Abiodun Abegunde. She would later also receive the name Osunbimpe from an elder Yoruba couple. Since receiving the name Abegunde, she has used it solely to identify herself.
From the time she earned her master’s degree through the late aughts, Abegunde worked in Chicago as an educator and an historical researcher.
Then, in 2007, she came to Bloomington, drawn here because IU’s then-nascent AAADS department offered her the opportunity to study trauma and healing in her own distinctive way.
“I wanted to do a creative dissertation,” she says. “The department offered something more than a performance approach. Throughout my time and my tenure here, the department has supported my research and creative work.”
Written and oral performance are the tonics this healer prescribes.
“What I witness with different groups of people, black people specifically, are issues related to self-esteem, issues of not knowing who they are, and maybe an anger that can’t be described,” Abegunde says.
Through writing and reading their work, people affected by trauma just may be able to put that anger into words after a lifetime of stifling it.
Abegunde says that people who aren’t black may think they know the history of black populations in America. However, she adds, “I know a different history. Imagine that you are a person, you know you have a history but that history hasn’t been taught. Your life in no form is reflected in a history book, on television, or in music. But you know that you are a part of an incredible culture and society.”
Abegunde often refers to the writings of Dr. Joy DeGruy, whose book, Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, is one of the standards in the field of understanding the minds and hearts of descendants of the slave trade.
“Things are different for different groups in different cultures, of course,” Abegunde says of the rich variety of peoples and cultures that were transported from Africa to the West. “But Dr. Joy DeGruy provides a really wonderful theoretical framework for what happens when you live in a society that has worked toward making you invisible, and to silencing you, and to burying your history.”
Silence is familiar to Abegunde. As a child, she hardly spoke. Her second grade teacher, Mrs. Leslie, and, after she became a teenager, Maya Angelou’s writings freed her and taught her how not to be silent. Abegunde wrote in a blog in 2014: “I was eating my voice every moment of every day.” And it wasn’t solely her African heritage that squelched her voice in this “New World.” She was, at the time she discovered Angelou, like so many other American teenagers, trying to figure out who she was.
“The eating I wrote of had to do with those types of things you might encounter as you’re growing up and you’re developing, where you fit in a group, where you don’t fit in a group,” she says.
Abegunde is no longer silent, of course. Her voice, on paper and when she reads her works aloud, rings out about both the personal and the historical — things, she has found, that are often intertwined.
“In my own work,” she says, “I try to say healing is possible but there is a lot of work we have to do to get to that place. Some of it is being able to look at our rage, look at our discontent, and also look at the love and the joy that we have that balances them — or at least helps us get through them.
“Memory doesn’t die. If something happened, we remember it in our knees if we have bad knees. We remember it in our dreams. What do we do with that memory when it comes to the surface? Some people repress it. Some people relive it.
“All of these things I write about are connected to social justice. How do we work with each other in community to make certain that we have justice for everyone? That we are able to feed ourselves — not just in subsistence. That we treat each other as human beings and acknowledge the histories and cultures we have.
“It is a difficult thing to do.”
Creating and preserving joy and love within the self is a monumental challenge when your history — and yourself — have been made invisible.
“Within my own family and within families of friends that I know, and family in Brazil, some of that was done by small acts, making certain that things such as language were maintained, and teaching that language. Small rituals, religious rituals, naming rituals, or a way in which to cook. Everyday things that could be hidden became acts of resistance. People may be more familiar with this in the birthing and naming ritual in the beginning of Roots, both versions.”
I ask Abegunde if I, a white man, can I ever get a true understanding or grasp of who she is, and where she has come from.
“No,” she says. “Not unless you woke up tomorrow morning as me.”
Those of us who aren’t dark-skinned must content ourselves with mere hints of understanding those of us who are. Abegunde’s writing offers rich hints.
She writes — and speaks — of “the beautiful brown skin that I’m in. I wouldn’t want to change it. I can’t get out of it. It comes with a history.”
[Editor’s note: LaShawnda Crowe Storm’s exhibit“Keeper of My Mothers’ Dreams,” in collaboration with Abegunde, will be open through January 20 in Indianapolis. Michael G. Glab recently sat down to chat with Abegunde for Big Talk! on WFHB. You can listen to his interview here.]