Civil Conversations: Day 3, Slavery reenactment in Selma

Students learn about the trauma of slavery and its impacts today

Lea Kopke

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Through the “Soul Prints of Our Ancestor and Ourselves” experience, students learned of the traumas enslaved people faced coming to America. Lea Kopke Photo

Cars slowed as they watched University of Wisconsin -Eau Claire students walk along a sidewalk in lines, with heads down and arms on the shoulders in front of them, following the orders of a woman wielding a stick and a passion for helping others understand the trauma of slavery.

Through the “Soul Prints of Our Ancestor and Ourselves,” visitors to Selma are transported back in time to play the role of enslaved people in the United States, an interactive experience students on the Civil Rights Pilgrimage participated in March 21.

Afriye We-kandodis has led the experience since 2005, and first acts as a slave master at a park overlooking the historic Edmund Pettus bridge.

We-kandodis first separated participants into groups according to how “good” of a slave they’d make, left alone linked together upon stairs in waiting, and brought into a room meant to model cells.

Some participants scream and bang on drums to simulate the terror enslaved people felt, and then all are marched into a small room modeling a ship.

Inside it is dark and cramped, and many participants began to cry as We-kandodis screams and cries out, imitating someone dragged from their family and onto the ship.

Participants “arrive” in the United States, exiting the ship to watch We-kandodis act out the life of an enslaved person who has had their child taken from them.

Finally, her act is dropped as she speaks to participants about the repercussions of these experiences on people today, and about how one has to love themselves first before making a difference in the world.

Elyjah Johnson, a second-year kinesiology student and trip coordinator, said the experience was impactful for not only himself, as an African-American man, but for all the students of other racial identities.

“It’s just hard to put into words, really, honestly, how you feel,” Johnson said. “So many emotions were running through my mind at that time, and this was my second time doing (the experience). And the first time it didn’t hit nearly as hard.”

He said he highly recommended other UW-Eau Claire students to participate in the trip and learn about this angle of America’s past.

Miles Perreault, a first-year education student, said the experience was one of the single most important of his life.

Perreault said at first it was easy for him to shut off his mind and not invest emotionally in the experience.

“And then by the time we got in the dark room, and then there was everyone yelling and screaming, I was like, I can’t not have to put yourself in there,” he said.

Perrault was the first to board the slave ship, and said through the stress of the situation We-kandodis was comforting, holding his hands and using her body to guide him through the darkness.

“I think that was like one of the most loving experiences that I’ve ever felt is her just guiding me through this darkness,” he said. Because I was standing at the front all alone, just like hearing all of these anguished screams.”

During the discussion with peers afterward, Perrault said himself and others agreed the experience would be a highlight of the trip.

“I wouldn’t trade that for anything,” he said. Like, was it incredibly emotionally draining? Exhausting? Terrifying? Yes. But like also so, so important.”

The students will next journey to Birmingham and Tuscaloosa, Alabama. 

Kopke can be reached at [email protected]