Following Rahim’s dedication, local teacher and healer Nana Sula blessed the gardens through ceremonial drumming, reciting, and singing. Dressed in white, she moved slowly around the park, burning dried herbs as she walked and chanted. Through this ritual, she designated the park a healing space where the struggles of elders and the trauma of incarcerated people, their families, and their communities would be remembered to create a better world for younger and future generations.
Solitary Gardens invites the copresence of harm and healing. Replicas of solitary cells, the chattel slave crops, and the ravages wrought by the 2005 federal levee failures interface with nourishing rue, lemon balm, calendula, zinnia, pansy, sunflower, okra, watermelon, and mustard greens. Visitors are encouraged to reflect on how these tensions relate to their bodies and their lives. The emphasis on embodied multisensory practices to promote healing from physical, emotional, or spiritual harm has drawn a number of mental health practitioners to the project—including social workers, sports coaches, body workers, and dance therapists.
Mourning Confinement’s Reverberations
While the original Solitary Gardens site is comprised of seven beds in the Lower Ninth Ward, sumell has begun collaborations with other institutions across the city, installing a bed at Xavier University and a more permanent concrete and steel bed outside of the Newcomb Art Museum at Tulane University. The project has also moved beyond New Orleans to Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Santa Cruz, New York City, Providence, Houston, and Scotland, North Carolina. sumell’s Newcomb installation was originally part of the (Per)Sister art exhibit cocurated by formerly incarcerated Louisiana women and Newcomb museum staff. On a grey day in 2019, I took a group of my University of New Orleans students across town to visit the exhibit, where the Solitary Garden dedicated to incarcerated mothers staged the museum lawn. Visitors had to encounter it before entering the building. My students remarked on how far across the city we were—some of them had never been to this wealthy area of Uptown. They pointed out the curated lawns and massive live oaks, a stark contrast from their public university built atop a former naval base.7
After moving through the powerful exhibit organized around themes particular to women’s experiences with incarceration in Louisiana, I had the students gather outside of the gallery, next to the Solitary Garden. We needed some time to debrief about the exhibit’s sobering elements: a mother’s narrative of inducing her child’s birth prior to entering prison to serve her sentence (she chose to induce rather than risk the possibility of giving birth in prison where she would have been shackled during the delivery); the revelation that 80 percent of women in jail are mothers; the fact that without money for commissary, menstruating women wouldn’t be able to purchase tampons, an added expense for women prisoners. Only six students remained, and they all had something to say as we knelt by the garden bed filled with flowers planted for incarcerated women.
After hearing my students’ stories, I decided to share my own experience with mass incarceration. My son’s father had done time in a federal prison in Florida in the 1990s for a drug charge. Although we had been separated for several years prior to his incarceration, his contact with our son was sporadic, and his imprisonment when our son was seven years old only widened the gulf between them. In the years following his release, it became clear to me that prison was an experience from which he was still struggling to recover. Now I was reeling from his sudden and premature death at forty-eight years old. I had only just returned from his funeral in Chicago. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what imprisonment must have been like for him. Would the police who arrested him even have noticed him if he were white, like me, instead of Black like our son? He always had jokes. He loved making people laugh. He must have been terrified in prison.
I sensed that my students were surprised by this revelation. I had surprised myself; I typically don’t share such personal details with students. I hadn’t shared the information about the incarceration with anyone other than my closest family members and friends—I was afraid of the stigma it might bring to me and to my son to be affiliated with prison. But I was inspired by my students; I wanted to affirm their bravery as several had disclosed their families’ experiences with imprisonment. I was reminded of performance studies scholar D. Soyini Madison’s “performative witnessing,” whereby researchers exploring the impacts of inequality are present with their subjects in ways that “emphasize the political act (responsibility) of witnessing over the neutrality (voyeurism) of observation.” It felt impossible to remain silent. The students offered their support through gentle eye contact and murmurs of condolence.8
Weeks after the museum exhibit visit, I took my students to the Solitary Gardens site in the Lower Ninth Ward. I introduced the project’s tenets at Jesse’s garden and then invited my students to explore the other garden “cells” on their own before we met up in the middle of the park to write Mother’s Day cards to incarcerated women. The students peered into the garden beds, sniffing and touching, then most of them took seats on towels, jackets, and blankets spread across hot solarizing plastic and went to work decorating their cards and looking up poems and song lyrics on their phones to include in them.