Author: Melisa Raja Gopal

Empathy from a Distance

In “Chapter 6: Capital City of Slavery 1780 – 1861”, Campbell continues to describe the atrocious treatment of the enslaved in the growing culture of slavery in Richmond. After I have finished reading this chapter, one of the sections that intigued me the most is the recount written by Charles Dickens during his visit in Richmond in 1842. Before this, I was not aware that besides from being a famous writer, Dickens was also actively expressing his disapproval of the inhumane treatment of the enslaved. I have never studied his works before or even done a research about this person, therefore, this came as a surprise to me. The entire section that I have chosen to discuss is about his personal recount of his visit in Richmond city.

My first impression while reading this section was how empathetic of Dickens to describe the misery experienced by a recently purchased enslaved mother and her children in ‘the negro car’ that he was on board. I do think that it is inevitable to not sympathize when one is surrounded by a horrible surrounding that involves other beings. Dickens did a great job in painting a picture of the whole situation as he was being very detailed in his recounts. By adding his feelings of disgust toward a slave owner and the condition of the enslaved, I could vividly visualize the train that he was onboard on. I could also sense sarcasm and detestation toward the slave owner in his voice when he says “The champion of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, who had bought them, rode in the train…’. He moved me by his writing, from a point a view of a colonizer, that he actually realized how people like him (of European descend and white) brutally treated and enslaved other human beings.

Now, having done a tad of readings on who Dickens was, I found out that in one of his letters in 1868, regarding the uneducated African American population and voting; it was written “the melancholy absurdity of giving these people votes, which at any rate at present, would glare out of every roll of their eyes, chuckle in their mouths, and bump in their heads”. I was taken aback at how contrasting this message is compared to the recount that I read from “Richmond Unhealed History”. Hence, I decided to re-read the section in the book again. While reading this section I wondered how could Dickens be both sympathetic to the enslaved and at the same time perceived them as people who were not worthy of voting or human rights? This suggests that regardless how much he tried to sympathize with the suffering endured by the enslaved, there would always be a gap on how he placed himself above other races. I can only assume that this is the mentality of someone who reigned from an imperialist background.

This reading only adds in to how hopeless things were for the enslaved in Richmond. Regardless of how much hope I had gained reading about white people trying to empathize and ‘rescue’ the enslaved, most of the attempts or intentions were dampened or even if they succeeded, it was a painfully long journey for both the parties.

Faith in Humanity Restored – or not?

The section that I am interested in is the one that talks about theGreat Awakening; a religious revival that brought about the development of American evangelical Christianity. Reading this section of the book did give me a sense of hope for the salvation of the enslaved even though nothing could change the history. It surprises me that we needed a religion to remind us that everyone is equal and deserving. This section started off with George Whitefield, a clergy, who often addressed both white and black as a unit. He was aware about the spiritual needs of the African American in his ministry when these people were ignored of their spiritual sanctuary. This was followed by more worship, prayer and religious studies conducted outside the established church. It is very interesting to me that there were people who took the risk of being imprisoned by preaching in unauthorized locations in order to provide venues for the enslaved to practise their religion. Aside from this narrative of attempts by the Christian bodies to emancipate the enslaved, it is disheartening to realize that their fate relied heavily on those who were privileged and had power to go against the city of Richmond.

Open to Novelty, Learn and be Better

Intentional Adaption Reflection


  1. Read your intention for this class 3-7 times, getting slower each time you read.
  2. Take 2 minutes to arrive – Arrange your body so your spine is lengthened and at ease. Notice your breath. Say “OK,” to whatever arises.
  3. Allow memories from the last 1-2 weeks to float into your mind (they may already be racing around).
  4. Notice within these memories when you had to adapt (shift, change, respond) to circumstances beyond your control. How was your intention in relationship to these moments?
  • Was it present?
  • Was it clear?
  • If so, how did it affect your adaption?
  • If not, what was guiding your choices? (Emotions, bodily needs, other folk’s choices/intentions)
  1. Now take 10-15 minutes to write down your responses. Allow more detail to emerge within the writing.


My intention: Open to novelty, learn and be better.

My response:

While having my intention echoes and playing the memories from the past 2 weeks in the background, I realized that I ended up analyzing my past actions based on the intention that I have in mind. I could say that I was present, because I didn’t space out too much.

It was clear to me that my intention is built on the basis of me, being in a new space and surrounded by a completely new group of people. Though the concept of teaching and learning is familiar, but it’s still something that I have to thread with caution. When facing people of different background (demography, trauma, age, gender, race), I always tell myself to “learn” how they perceive me (a new person), how my choice of words would please or might offend them or even fit into the space that I am in. From learning those reactions (from the people I interact with and the space I’m in) I realized that I can’t really say what I have in mind freely (although it could be a constructive comment/suggestion or maybe not), and I have to always be extra careful. I have always been someone who is sensitive to choice of words (I’m a minority in Malaysia and a woman. I believe I am a minority in this world), however, it is different here or wherever I go when I’m out of my country. Being extra sensitive and saying the “right” words is in a way, a way to survive when one is studying/teaching/living abroad. It is even challenging when the people you interact with aren’t being sensitive to your background and expect you to treat them with care. Open to novelty, always learn, adapt and be a better person – that’s what I’m trying to strive always.

Midterm Reflection

Creative process (what constitutes the movements? What inspires the choreographers’ story-telling? The visit to VMHC, slave trails, the burial ground, check-ins).


If you’re an artist, you’re going around galleries, you’re looking at book to get that level of inspiration.” (Taylor, n.d.)

Looking back at the creative process and production of Brother General Gabriel at the former Richmond City Gallows, makes me think about how the people behind this production plan the whole thing. Most importantly, what inspired the story telling?

The planning stage of this production wasn’t something that was explicitly revealed to us, the students from UR and VCU. Both the production team and the performers had different parts to play, so I can only share the point of view of the students (or maybe just my own). I do believe that we were familiarized with the content of the performance from the beginning of the class. From creating a class agreement – which was done collectively, to visiting the slave trail/burial ground and the Virginia Museum of History and Culture, I have learned more about the value of being part of the community and the power that it holds in making a change.

The visits to the performance site, i.e. the burial ground, had always made me feel driven toward the idea of being part of this production. It gave me a sense of purpose, knowing that we are performing here for a reason – to commemorate Brother General Gabriel and the rest of the enslaved who were buried six feet under. When I did the tour at the slave trail, walking through the tunnel and out in the open field, I felt a sense of peace despite the horrible thing that had happened on that very ground. Also at the same time, I had goosebumps just thinking about what these people had gone through and what was the last thing that they saw before they were killed. It was for me, an adequate orientation to learn about the place and its history, it was a form of research done before we delve into learning the movements for the performance.

The visit to the museum on the other hand, had given me more perspectives on how the history of slavery in Richmond is told from the point of view of the museum committee. We were asked to tour the museum by ourselves, to synthesize the information on our own. To enter without much expectations or assumptions. As someone who has never read American history textbooks used in schools, I did not have anything to compare with the information exhibited in the museum. I wasn’t sure if anything was missing or anything extra was presented. Regardless of how the history was told in the museum, it could not steer away the fact that what happened in the past was utterly unspeakable. Getting immersed with all of this information, perspectives and experience – had helped me to understand why Brother General Gabriel’s event is important for the production team. It helped to prepare me to be part of the production team and the community that is trying to make a change. It was a good orientation for me.

To sum up the planning stage of the creative process, I’m including this quote from James Taylor:

With all these stages, there tends to be a better environment in which to do them. In this first stage, what we tend to find through research, is that working in a quiet environment is really best for the research stage. That’s perhaps no surprise, which is why we see academics or authors in libraries, that is why we see musicians, headphones on, listening to inspiration from other artists.”

Incubation, insight and evaluation

These three stages have little involvement from the student performers. I could however, based on my observation, witnessed MK; the director and choreographer, going through this process. She would sometimes think out loud and that allowed me to get a bit of an understanding of her thought process. It was never a fixed planning and a lot of things changed during the rehearsals. Things were modified, included or taken out in order to deliver the intended messages.


This is where you do the work. You just get on with it, you start to test and to micro test, and get more feedback on your ideas as well.”

During the rehearsals that we had a week before and on the week of the Brother General Garbriel’s event, a lot of testing and micro-testing happening on the site. As a student performer, I was involved in this process as while rehearsing and assisting the technical team. I could see MK trying out some ideas and making decisions on what is best to be included in the performance. She would just step back and watch the whole rehearsal and would come up with changes for improvement. A few ideas were weighed in and considered and would be added accordingly, so the whole process was flexible and not rigid. It was fascinating how everything eventually fell into place, fit like jigsaw puzzle pieces though it was vague in the beginning.

The whole five weeks of familiarizing with the history of the African American burial ground had helped me to understand the purpose of Brother General Gabriel event. The creative process involved (especially the planning stage) did enrich my knowledge about the history of Richmond and assist me in engaging with the production team.

Dare to Move

After studying the materials related to the works of Camille A. Brown, I was very much interested to know about how much impact has her work has on people who have witnessed it? What are the interpretations of people who have viewed her remarkable plays? I’m assuming that we would have a range of meanings that we synthesized from watching her performances with the dancers. Would people who do not experience “Blackness” or black experience relate to her work and experience the impact that she intended on them. Or would African American audience interpret her works as intended?

Camille’s work revolves mostly in depicting her personal experience as a black female through raw movements and voice. What I meant by raw here is, both elements are portrayed based on her personality which is shaped by her African American roots.

In portraying the authentic experience of the African American co0mmunity in her work, Camille has done a brilliant work in bringing up social issues that maybe most people in the country don’t dare to discuss. Her work allows people to “feel” what they might be scared to feel, “say” what they don’t dare to say and “admit” what they have been trying to deny. There are a lot of social injustice happening in the States and this is evident in what we can see for years that “Black Americans, and black men in particular, are overrepresented as perpetrators of crimes in U.S. news media” (Sun, 2019). Not only crimes, social injustice also covers other forms of discrimination such as in education and housing. Camille managed to get the essence of social injustice in the African American community and she protests to these according to what she does best – being unapologetic in her movements and choreographic form. When I witnessed her work last Friday, I was moved, educated and left the hall with a better understanding of the African American culture, identity and experience. Her work, simply educates everyone and to quote from Mandela “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world”.

In relation to the work we are currently doing with MK and Free, I noticed that they have the same drive and passion. To be unapologetically truthful via movements and arts. There is no negativity that I could sense but, an intelligent use of one’s choreographic forms and experience to create change and to educate people. This kind of work requires a community to ensure its success and to leave an impactful experience to their cause.


Sun, E. (2018). The dangerous realization of crimes in U.S. news media. Retrieved from

We want stories. We love stories. Stories keep us alive.

“We want stories. We love stories. Stories keep us alive.” (Lambert, 2010)

Stories are told in many ways, whether it is done with intention or without. It could be portrayed visually, verbally, physically and most of the time it disperses meanings. It is meaningful, and when it comes to a purposeful and intentional telling of stories, there is definitely some planning going on in the background.

Digital story telling is one way to tell stories with the aid of gadgets that we have in this present day. I realized that I have been “curating” stories on social media and it is not at all something new for me. I have been watching stories crafted by friends on Instagram and I find those stories to be informative and I get to peek at how they are doing back home. It is also one way for me to catch up with what I have been missing out. By planning photos or videos to post, which sequence they should go and adding some filters, I have unconsciously curated stories for my friends on Instagram to “watch”. I want to tell a story, I want them to know what I have been up to in the States (currently). All of this becomes a routine and telling stories seems so natural and I guess this is what we do as human beings. We want to celebrate, heal and remember when we tell our stories or the stories of others (Lambert, 2010). Or at least we want people to know that we exist, matter and are relevant.

Harvey Milk digital story is presented in a simple manner. I do like that it doesn’t have a background music and there is only the voice of the narrators. It did move me as the focus was on Milk’s life and images of him doing things while he was alive. I guess if a background music was added, it would distract my focus on the storytelling. However when the narrating shifted to a different narrator, the story telling isn’t as powerful as the first part. Therefore I think it is important to be consistent, especially when doing a digital storytelling in a group.

The second video that I watched is “Newcomers Club of Richmond”. The narrator in this digital story telling has an enthusiastic tone and this kept me listening to the information until the end of the video. I love how the images are zoomed in and emphasized on newspapers clippings as it helps me to read what’s written while listening to the narration. The selected background music is subtle and that compliments the images displayed and the narrative. I’d definitely like to apply this technique in my digital story-telling.

The last video that I watched is “FYS Education”. Similar with the video on Harvey Milk, this video doesn’t include any background music. I’m starting to think if this is what the students learned from their digital story-telling class and if they are following advices given by their professors. I personally love the content of this video as it talks about the orphanage in Cambodia, the orphans and how these students from the States experienced life in this setting. However, there is one part of his narrative that is strongly biased or inappropriate when he said “there were a lot of aspect that were disgusting” when describing an open air market that he went to. That statement was accompanied by a photo of a slaughtered pig. Why do I find his statement to be inappropriate? He was commenting on an open air market, in a rural area located in a third world country. For the locals, such sight is common and I believe this kind of gross image can be found in an slaughterhouse in the States. Furthermore, throughout his description of his life with the orphans, he had been using a very neutral and hopeful tone and when he changed it while describing the open air market, it just does not fit in the whole picture/story.

Based on all three videos that I’ve watched, I notice the importance of keeping my story consistent and with a hopeful tone in order to create an overall constructive message. Maybe it is also a good idea to minimize the audio in my digital story-telling to lessen distractions from the narrative and images. Finally, I can’t wait to create my own soon

Whose Stories Should be Told?

“The greatest and most frequent of the myths is that African Americans have been “free” from the condition of slavery for over a century and a half, and therefore should be able to fend for themselves, just like whites and immigrants.” (Walters, 2012).

If this is considered true by most Americans, it makes sense why the African Americans are more determined than ever in pursuing justice, equal opportunities and freedom in a country where their race was once oppressively exploited. This was the thought that I had prior to viewing the exhibits in the museum; to be able to see a collection of experiences gathered from the enslaved people and their descendants who are currently residing in Richmond. To read about how the impacts of slavery have on them and the movements towards reparation.

However, I was welcomed by a rich display of shiny silvers in shelves (which were once owned by the colonists in Virginia) that cover the four walls in the common area of the museum. They are displayed as valuables and a pride of Richmond. I find it to be inappropriate, but maybe it is an apt ‘opener’ for what is to come next.

In the following room, there are abundance of information about the history of slavery in America, the New World. Reading all of the information that looks like facts on the wall, it made me feel overwhelmed with the unimaginable suffering and struggles undergone by the enslaved. As someone who never did much readings on the history of slavery, I found the information obtained from the exhibition to be somehow ‘sufficient’. I learned that human beings are capable of hating/abusing/killing others because of the colour of their skin. It is just absurd. It made me think of my race, of why didn’t we do that to people of different skin tone? How can skin colour determines one’s superiority? This idea might be praised upon centuries ago that our races (synonymous to skin colour) determined the size of our brain and Africans and Australian aborigines were assumed to be the least intelligent ones (Morton as cited by Razzetti, 2017). The saddest part of this incomprehensible notion is, our society is still paying a high price for it although modern science has invalidated that myth.

After completing my visit at the museum and listening to my American classmates’ thoughts on the exhibition, I think it would have been important to include actual recounts from the enslaved people and their families who are experiencing life in Richmond right now. Although slavery was declared illegal after 1865, the impacts it has on the African Americans still persists up until today. According to Walters (2012), these people are still not considered as equal and that it is clear that they have not achieved ‘freedom’. Therefore, it is only logical to get their stories to be told apart from the commentaries presented which only involve the past.

On who gets to tell their stories; it seems like the facts presented in the museum are more like commentaries from the third party. I can only assume that (like any other narratives out there in general), there are various sides of an event. Of course, the ones presented in the museum are considered as one-sided and maybe they are told by those who have the upper hand to shape the history according to how they view the event. I personally think that it would be more holistic and fair to get stories from all parties involved i.e. stories of regrets, confession – the whole experience. It takes courage to do so, maybe it is time to be brave and tell the truth.

It is also important to distinguish between African American and American history. Just like how important it is to distinguish between native American and American history. Every history and narrative is unique, vital and should not be meshed into one form of history.

At the end of the visit, I was left with more questions as to how Free and the city of Richmond would improve the way history is curated in Virginia Museum of History and Culture.


Walters, W. R. (2012). The impact of slavery on the 20th- and 21st century Black progress. The Journal of African American History; Special Issue: “African Americans and Movements for Reparations: Past, Present, and Future“, 97 (1-2), 110-130.

Razzetti, G. (2017). Why racism is about the color of the mind, not your skin. Retrieved from

Of Strangers in White

The Gabriel event held on September 30thwas a new learning experience for me as I had never participated in a march driven by a purpose or solid intent. When we first arrived at the burial ground we were greeted warmly by Free Egunfemi and she briefed us about our purpose for that day. That helped to clear some hazy ideas I had prior to the event. We were then passed on to Amina and Christine who taught us some moves for the march. Honestly, I really enjoyed those moves and how purposeful they were – it was a simple dance but interlaced with a message, a fight. At least that is what I thought it was. When the marching started, I was totally engrossed with the beats echoed by the djembes (and other percussions). It moved me. It moved everyone else present there. We moved together, I think we might have had the same purpose in mind. The energy emitted was contagious. We were mostly strangers but we smiled and flowed together. Not forgetting that we smothered parts of our body with fragrant water which was meant to cleanse ourselves and protect us from getting “moved” by the spirits at the burial ground. This whole experience was super rich for me.

As we got on the highway shoulder, it came to my realisation that “whoa this could be dangerous!”. Being a virgin at any activism-related events (at that time), I was for one moment, scared for my life and everyone who was there with me. There were a few cars that slowed down to observe us and I was worried that our march might have upset someone. Coming from a country where freedom of speech is unpopular (and also frowned upon), I was genuinely surprised at where I was that evening; with a group of people in white, marching on one of Richmond’s busiest highways.

What I learned from this experience was empathising with others’ struggles/fights and knowing that any forms support from outsiders is welcomed and appreciated. I’ve learned back home how dance/movements can be a powerful instrument to move people when armed with intention and purpose, but I had never seen how powerful it was like during the evening of the Gabriel event.

After that night, I was wondering how would the rest of the event fall together on October 10th? What is more to our role as UR and VCU’s students?



Healing and Connection

On Tuesday, August 27th, I had the opportunity to experience a classroom environment that reminds me so much of the dance studio culture that I was part of in my hometown, Kuching. MK resonates so much passion, thoughtfulness and also firmness in setting up the class ground rules. That hit home; the moment when we talked about respect, kindness and how much dedication we should put into as dancers/performers or as human beings. This familiarity with the whole situation I was in, affected me in ways that brought me peace and a sense of belonging.

In terms of the movement exercises, I think that those exercises helped in watering down the gravity of this course. Prior to the class, I had this anxiety of not being able to blend in with other dancers born from dance academies. Thanks to MK’s exercises, everyone was able to let their body move without any judgements thrown. I, for instance, started to embrace differences in terms of dance background, and I feel comfortable in my own body. MK further asked us to impersonate someone who inspired us to her dance class and that made our movements more personal and meaningful. I don’t know why I chose Michael, but it was so literal that he was the one who introduced me to Prof. Alicia. Deep down in my heart, I was thinking of my dance teacher, Serina. She reminds me so much of Prof. Alicia and MK; teachers who emit kindness, empathy and who embed these values in their movements. These values are one of the reasons why I want to do more than just dance. Maybe I hope it can bring healings and connection between dancers and their spectators too.

I expect to grow as a person and absorb all the good values from this environment. There are some challenges that I assume would appear soon, but I do believe with this kind of conducive class with MK, I would definitely get much needed assistance. I just have to be upfront about everything.

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