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Harvard Divinity student crafts a poem reflecting on the university’s past connections to slavery

Suzannah Omonuk is a first-year student at Harvard's Divinity School.
Suzannah Omonuk is a first-year student at Harvard's Divinity School.Courtesy of Suzannah Omonuk

Suzannah Omonuk, a first-year student at Harvard University’s Divinity School, wrote a poem in honor of Venus, one of four enslaved people owned by Harvard’s presidents in the early 18th century, after realizing she and Venus most likely shared things in common.

Omonuk’s poem, titled “The Story of Venus,” looks at what life might have been like for the young woman centuries before her. Omonuk said she was motivated by her own journey as a Ugandan immigrant to the United States. The poem was published on The Harvard Gazette website.

“The inspiration for the poem really just came from thoughts that I was having . . . around the legacy of slavery of many Ivy League institutions but specifically Harvard, where I attend now, and just experiencing a dissonance between the fact that I, on all accounts, am very similar to who Venus was,” she said.

She said she wondered why, “coming from the same continent, having the same skin color and the same features . . . I many years later had the opportunity to attend this institution that someone years ahead of me didn’t.”

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Omonuk’s work was supported by a student grant funded by a presidential initiative that is part of Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute, according to the Gazette.

John Wadsworth, Harvard’s eighth president, wrote in his diary in the early 18th century that he had purchased Venus upon moving to a home built for his family in 1726, the Globe has reported.

Omonuk’s poem is written in the first person, an attempt to view the world as Venus did. She said part of the inspiration for the poem was to take a deeper look at Harvard’s history with slavery.

“I had no idea about our legacy of slavery, and I was kind of struck by the fact that, wow, this is something that I should know as a Black girl going to attend this institution. This is something that should be in the forefront of my mind,” she said.

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She said she wanted to understand “what’s at stake and what had to happen, and all the ways in which the world has changed since then, and all the sacrifices that went into it.”

The poem repeatedly asks How shall you remember me?

How shall you remember me?

By the men that made me an orphan

How shall you remember me?

By a tablet of stone that bears the name that I received in a baptism of chains

How shall you remember me?

Shall you remember me?

In 2016, Harvard dedicated a plaque in memory of the four enslaved people who lived at the university, an idea Omonuk said she “wrestled with” because the ceremony felt “anticlimactic.”

“I felt that, yes, something was done about the situation, there’s an acknowledgment there. But to think of all of the trauma and pain that she went through and for it to only amount to a plaque of stone just kind of felt really anticlimactic,” she said.

“I decided that I wanted to bring more life to that and to add to that story in a way that only art can do, and to just breathe life into an otherwise dead situation.”

Omonuk said she chose a poem to honor Venus because of the form’s important history with Black culture.

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“I‘m inspired by the poems of many Black women throughout history,” Omonuk said.

“This poem was especially inspired by Emilie Townes, a Black feminist theologian scholar, and she talks about this idea of Black people and marginalized people using art and history, storytelling to pass down our stories because . . . history has often left us out of the narrative.”

Charlie McKenna can be reached at charlie.mckenna@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @charliemckenna9.