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Fear and Shame, Love and Thanks: Facing History with Ifé Franklin 

Grace Ramsdell

Image: Lauren Miller

| 16 min read

On September 25 from 1:30 – 3:30 PM, Ifé Franklin will lead a procession at the Copps Hill Burying Ground in Boston’s North End to communally honor gravesites and bring justice to the ancestral spirits of Boston’s enslaved African Americans. Olmsted Now talked more with Ifé Franklin about her project. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Could you introduce yourself and the program you are working on? 

My name is Ifé Franklin. I live in Roxbury, Massachusetts. I’m originally from Washington, DC. My family still lives there. I still think of myself as a Washingtonian, and not a Bostonian, even though I’ve lived here a long time and been a creative here for a long time—since I moved here, actually. I’m very, very happy and excited about this grant. For many, many different reasons. I will say this really quickly: First of all, the process of applying for the grant was incredible. So easy. I hope that other grant-makers really pay attention to that.  

My project that I’m working on is connected to all the other work that I do that is underneath Ifé Franklin’s Indigo Project. I am a fabric dyer—»adire» is the Nigerian word for hand-dyed fabric. I create installations of life-sized slave cabins that are in natural spaces. The very last one was in Franklin Park, where we also incorporated a ring shout with the cabin. This particular project that I’m working on now is one that I started before I had any funding: Visiting the grave sites of enslaved people. A lot of enslaved people here in Massachusetts have headstones, which you may not find in a lot of places. You can, but it can be very rare. Yet there are several here in Boston. So, I started, with maybe three or four friends, going and visiting these places as hallowed ground, as sacred territory. The processions are to take community to these places that maybe they didn’t know existed so that they can say thank you and show their love and possibly come back and bring other people to show them places to be proud of. To understand history. That’s what these processions are about and for.  

We’re going to have this procession [at the Copps Hill Burial Ground] from the wall. There’s a long wall on Hull Street that actually goes to the North Church. That’s where we’re going to use the restrooms if people need to use the restrooms. So, we’re going to line up along that wall and we’re going to go inside Copps Hill Burying Ground and make a circle and call the names of the ancestors, sing. We’re going to decorate the area with flowers and candles, and we’re making these juju bags—juju is an African term for spirit magic—which we’re putting different herbs in, like motherwort and lavender and chamomile—soothing, spiritual herbs that we’re going to hang around the wrought iron fences, etc. We want to ask people to call the names of their ancestors, share a poem, a song. I have a lot of artists friends, so I’m going to be like, «Keep it to one minute,» because, you know, people just keep going. And we will do an interpretation of a ring shout. A ring shout is a circular, counterclockwise movement that Africans brought to this country as a way to continue to connect to the ancestors. So, it’s circling and song, and people who still hold this practice are the Gullah-Geechee people in South Carolina and the Georgia Sea Islands, who continue this tradition of the ring shout, and they are the original ring shout folk. 

Processions are very integral to the Black community. I know the South, I’m a Southerner, so a lot of what I bring is from that culture. And when people are being baptized, they walk from the church to the river, and they’re usually all in white, and they go and they get the blessing, they go to get initiated into their church. What I’m doing, I feel like it’s an initiation to healing, an initiation to loving yourself deeper and to not being afraid or ashamed of the history of our enslaved ancestors. That’s really, I feel, the basis, the bedrock, the soul of this project. 

Ancestor procession and inside activity at the Dorchester North Burying Ground on September 11, 2021, hosted by The Unbound Bodies Collective. Images by Craig Bailey. 

For this particular procession that you’re planning, how did you choose the Copps Hill Burying Ground as the location? 

In the beginning with my friends, when we were just going around, I Googled enslaved burial sites. I think I saw an article in the newspaper about these two enslaved Black women who were buried in Harvard Square. Right there in that graveyard in Harvard Square. Cicely and Jane. So, I read an article about that, and I said, «We need to go there. We need to go there and pay homage to them.» So, after that, I Googled burial sites of the enslaved in Boston, and a couple of sites came up. The site in Harvard Square. There’s a site in Brookline that I’ve never gone to—I drive through Brookline all the time, but I don’t know where it is. The Dorchester North Burying Ground. And the one in the North End came up. I just knew that these were places that I wanted to go. I was able to go to Harvard Square with my friends, and we went to Dorchester before I got funding with Unbound Bodies Collective and they asked to do a living altar. So, last year was the very first community procession—that was in Dorchester. But I knew about the graves at the site in the North End, and I knew I wanted to go there, but I didn’t remember the name of it or anything. And then someone sent me an article that was written by a gentleman named Dart Adams. He is a Black man that writes for Boston Magazine, and in May, he published an article about the Copps Field Burying Ground with images. Someone sent it to me, I read it, and it just reignited that this is where I needed to go. It’s not a long article, and it’s so in depth, it has so much information. Once I read the article, I just knew that that’s where I needed to go. What I was thinking that I was going to do was to ignite three sites within this short amount of time, but then I realized, it’s not enough time to do that. So, I chose one. And this was the site that I chose. 

You said this was something you started doing with a few friends. What was it like to take it from something more personal to a community procession, like it was last year and will be for this event? 

Well, you know, that’s kind of two sided. It was great. I mean, when I went with my friends, that’s community too—the number for me is not the most important thing. And I have to really remember that. Because I am doing this from my heart and for the culture, and at the same time, I’m an artist who’s presenting. The North End on Sundays—it is packed. There’s not a lot of parking, and I’m really concerned that because you have to pay for parking and because you have to drive to get there, that there won’t be a lot of Black and brown people, like, it could be limited. The first [community procession] was in Dorchester, so a lot of people came. And it was wonderful. I think there may have been a total of about 30 people, including the drummers and the people who showed up. You always worry, «Are people going to show up? Are people going to come?» And see, that’s the artist side of me, and I don’t want my ego around that to lead. Because this is not about that. It’s about the ancestors. And that is what I have to keep up front. You have the grant people, you got to write the summary, and people like numbers. But you know what, I really can’t worry about that. 

The other concern that I’ve had about it is that more white people will show up than people of color, because they have the ability to do so. They have cars, and they have the extra money to pay for parking. So, one of the things that I’m going to ask my allies and abolitionist folk to do is to hook up with the people of color—and maybe the people of color can help pay for gas, to help pay for parking—to ride people over if you have the means to do so. That’s a part of community building and community work. There’s a lot of healing that has to happen around the enslavement of my ancestors, and Black and Indigenous people are not the only people who need to heal from that. White people need to heal from the effects of slavery. This is something that white people don’t think about. They think, «What do you mean, I need to heal from it?» You do.  

It was heinous history. Even to this day, to this second, people don’t want folks to know the real history. If people are suppressing it, it’s because it was so horrible, and they don’t want to take responsibility, and they don’t want people to know that they were involved. Like, just do the work. When you have this fear of being exposed, it’s like, just expose yourself and let go. Let. Go. But if you let go, then that means that you have to clean it up. You see, it’s not just the letting go. It’s the letting go and restructuring. Reframing, restructuring the way that you think. Restructuring the way that you feel. Restructuring the way that things are in the world. That’s why I also feel like this grant is really important and that the people who are Olmsted Now, how they brought in the neighborhood, is really important work. They’re on the pulse of change, and they’re not afraid of the pulse. Because there’s nothing to be afraid of. It’s really kindergarten stuff. It’s like, you have to learn how to share. If you just take it all the way back, it’s just that. And isn’t that what we’re teaching our kids anyway? So, let’s just follow through with that. I feel so supported and cared for in this [Olmsted Now Parks Equity and Spatial Justice Grant] cohort, because not just of the thought process, but because of what people are doing from their heart. 

Ifé Franklin leading the ancestor procession out of Dorchester North Burying Ground on September 11, 2021. Image by Lauren Miller.

That’s really great to hear, and I think it connects to the next question. On the theme of the grant, why do you think parks need more equity and spatial justice programming? How does your program speak to that need in Boston parks? 

I moved to Boston in the mid-80s. When I moved to Boston, the North End was a sundown town. Sundown towns still exist. These are places where Black people need to be out of that section of town before the sun goes down. You can work there, I guess you could shop there, but you got to get out. And if you’re not out, you’re met with violence. South Boston was a sundown town. Southie is what they used to call it. Now there’s people of color that live there. I’m friends with people who are my age—I didn’t grow up in Boston, but they grew up here during the time of busing. And when I had an exhibition in South Boston, like, eight years ago, a lot of my friends were like, «I’m not going.» And I was like, «What?» So, we talked about that and how it’s different now. They were very specific to ask me what time was the reception, because they didn’t want to be there at a certain time. 

From the Dart Adams article that I read—which, I did not know this history until I read it—because of where it is, because the North End is far from the city, it is a place where a lot of enslaved people and freed people lived. The North End is far—I mean, from a highway now it’s not, but if you didn’t have that, it was far away. And it’s near the water. So, the thing about the North End is like, this is where they would bring enslaved people into the docks. Like, right there. So, they lived in that section. In this article by Dart Adams, it says that there’s a section of the North End that was called New Guinea, because the enslaved people that they brought there were from Guinea, and their descendants who were free, their lineage is from Guinea. So, it was called New Guinea. I’m assuming that section had to be near [the Copps Hill Burying Ground], because there are 1,000 African Americans buried at the Copps Hill Burying Ground who were enslaved and who were free people. There are tons of gravestones there, but there’s one particular section. There’s a kiosk that tells you all about the African American community and the people who were buried at Copps Hill—it’s a big rectangle, well kept. And as you’re reading, you’re standing in front of it, and if you turn around, in the plot that’s right there that runs from the top of the hill all the way down, you will see maybe four gravestones, and the rest you just see is land. It’s just, like, open space. And that’s where folks are buried. And it’s surmised that, it’s written that, either the gravestones were stolen, misplaced—or, what they actually think is the better of all of those is that the tombstones were made out of wood, because people couldn’t afford the granite, and that they disintegrated over time. But they know that they’re buried there, and so that’s where we’re going.  

You know, I do have concerns. First of all, I’m hoping that Black and brown people show up in droves. And I’m concerned about what the presence of us will be. Like, how we will be received. But I can’t worry about that. It’s a public place. And you know, I have my permit, and I’ll be showing my permit, because I’m sure somebody’s going to come up and say, «Who are you? What are you doing here?» Even though it’s not their park, it’s on the Freedom Trail. But I am expecting that. But we will go in, and we will celebrate. And a lot of people are asking me, they say, «Well, what are you going to do?» I studied performance art at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts while I was there, and my instructor lives near me here in JP—a wonderful person, her name is Marilyn Arsem, and her company is called Mobius; it’s been around for a really long time. And she said, «Well, what time is the performance?» And then I thought, «But it’s not a performance. It’s a celebration.» I would like to say it’s a ritual…it is a ritual. It’s a homecoming. We need to go there, and we need to pay homage to those ancestors, and let them know that we love them, and that we’re here, and that they’re not forgotten. That’s really what these processions are about. And so I said, «If we get there, and we sit on the grass and are quiet, or sit there and eat snacks and talk and hang out, that’s what we’re going to do. We need to be there.»  

I take a lot of what I’m doing from the Day of the Dead in Mexico, where people are not afraid of their ancestors. They go, they party, they hang streamers, you know. They take food, they sleep. They sleep right there with their ancestors. The history that’s so hard about enslavement, the shame, keeps us from our history, keeps us from ourselves. One person said to me—I invited her, and she said, «I really want to come, I really do.» And then she looked at me, and I knew there was something else coming, and I just waited. And she said, «But I’m afraid.» And I took a deep breath, because I have heard people say they were ashamed, but I had never heard anyone say that they were afraid. It was a really humbling moment for me, because I’m so dogmatic about «you gotta love your ancestors,» but I never thought about someone being afraid. How do I talk to somebody? How do I help them not to be afraid of this history? And I know that the fear is coupled with the shame. So, it’s taught me that I need to be gentler. I need to be more gentle and less judgmental. 

What 3-5 words capture the essence of your program? 

Community, healing, love, pride, history. 

Is there anything else you want to share in this interview? 

We have work to do. We have healing to do. We have movement that needs to happen. Like a song that keeps moving, like a ring shout—movement. I’m really excited about the ways that this [Olmsted Now Parks Equity and Spatial Justice Grant] cohort is igniting these green spaces, because we’re inviting other people to come to these spaces, to not feel like we have to stay in our neighborhoods. We can go outside, we can embrace our city—the whole of it. 

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