(Excerpt from the Inaugural issue of Our Time Press, February 1996)
Our Time Press: The images in your book, THE MIDDLE PASSAGE, stays with me and comes back into my consciousness at different times during the day, especially at night. The feelings remind me of the mourning when a close relative dies. What price did you have to pay to put those images on paper?
Tom Feelings: The first price was the time. That’s one of the reasons it took me 20 years, because what I was trying to do was get more than one level so that the pictures would keep coming back to you. What I believe is that this story is in the back of all of our heads, especially black people because we’ve heard something about it. Maybe touched on it from reading or people talking, but as a story. What I wanted to do was bring it forward. It’s what a friend of mine called race memory. I had to first do the drawings. The line drawings took me two and a half years. It was the painting of the thing in tone, adding depth and volume to them, that’s what took the long period of time.
OTP: The period you’ve re-created is hundreds of years past, and yet as I go around the neighborhood – the liquor stores, the armory. Is this the pain you spoke about, and is that why you had to come back to New York?
TF: Yes. If you look at painful things now, you have to realize that it is directly connected to what happened in the past, and then what happened over and over again. What I was trying to do is recreate the distance, even though it happened hundreds of years ago.
OTP: Usually when you have pain you have to cure it in some way, how do you cure this from the past? Can we cure this pain?
TF: If you understand what happened in the past, then realize some of the things happened over and over again, then it means taking some action, doing something in the present that would help you avoid the same things in the future. For example, people talk about why affirmative action. In the back of that what they really think is, “Why affirmative action for inferior people?” The inferiority is connected to being a slave in this society. (When you consider) the weight of slavery, it’s not the victims who should be ashamed, but the oppressor who should be ashamed.
OTP: What can we do, since we have to do some kind of action, to alleviate the pain, correct the sorrow?
TF: Well, first of all we have to look at it straight in the face. And when we look at it straight in the face, and also realize what has helped us to survive. Instead of just being victims to history, we begin to learn about the strength that helped us to survive. The culture…this is one reason I went to Africa, to find out where this joy came from. I knew where the pain came from but where the joy comes from is its source. And when I did find out, I began to realize that it is in our culture. We have the celebratory rites. That is, everything is celebrated, even death, as a new beginning. And this ability to balance pain and joy, that they don’t just sit side by side, but they interact and build on each other, is a large part of the thing that helped us to survive.