To prepare for her latest book launch party, Zelda Lockhart had all the regular party stress—snacks, invites, decorations—in addition to a team of contractors desperately trying to finish the classroom and stage Lockhart was building on her property.
“We’re trying to set things up, and the contractor is still screwing in the door,” Lockhart says. “The other contractor is screwing in the benches—it’s gonna be interesting.”
Lockhart, 58, moved from Hillsborough to Durham last year. In November, she began the process of converting her yard and the front third of her home into a workshop. Her Story Garden Studios, a space where Lockhart will lead workshops for Black women to heal through art and nature, will host its first meetings later this month.
In the workshops, Lockhart, who holds a PhD in expressive therapies and a master’s in literature, will guide women through writing exercises that help them process and heal from trauma.
This process is exactly how the author wrote her latest novel, Trinity.
Trinity follows three generations of a Black American family, from the late 1920s through today, as they fight to unravel the pain of their past. A prologue outlines the initial traumatic event in their family, when an ancestor was kidnapped from Ghana and enslaved, but most of the action happens in the last 100 years, beginning with Benjamin Lee, a victim of child abuse who grows up in rural Mississippi.
Due to his deep sense of abandonment, Bennie causes pain to most people in his life as an adult, especially once he returns from the Korean War. Bennie’s son, B.J., grows up with similar angst if less violence, though after serving in Vietnam he’s too consumed by the horrors he witnessed to offer his family the support they need.
Finally, there’s B.J.’s daughter, the Fayetteville-born Lottie Rebecca Lee—a special soul who has been trying to be born into the family for generations. Lottie Rebecca knows that the family needs to heal from the pain they’ve both suffered and perpetuated or they’ll stay stuck in these cycles.
Using memories she retained from her spiritual existence before her birth, Lottie Rebecca drags her mother and uncles through their earliest colonial trauma in Ghana and back to Bennie’s childhood home. None of the characters are entirely sympathetic, but their pain and actions are all viscerally understandable and their eventual efforts to heal are deeply inspiring.
Lockhart, who began her PhD at 50, has been a DEI consultant since the 1990s. Combining deep trauma work (though Lockhart never used the word “trauma” in the two-plus hours we spoke) with art is a natural evolution of her background. Her first novel, Fifth Born, came out 20 years ago; Trinity is her fourth. Lockhart’s fiction has been a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award and the Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Legacy Foundation’s award for debut fiction.
With her practice, Lockhart walks workshop students through a journey similar to the one Lottie Rebecca Lee leads for her family.
“Before you can make change in any other manner, whether it’s changing your multigenerational healing, your workplace, or your own family,” Lockhart says, “you have to put your hands on your own wounds.”
First, Lockhart has students identify an event in their past that’s still hurting or affecting their behavior in some way.
“We go up and down that line writing and becoming more aware, and it’s almost like waking up the spine,” Lockhart says.
For Lockhart that initial wound, she says, was abuse perpetrated by her father, who grew up in a home environment much like Bennie’s.
But Lockhart says workshop participants don’t remain in that place for too long. Once they’ve identified and begun sterilizing that trauma, she asks them to write about the perpetrator and what might have, in turn, wounded them. How can workshop participants empathize with this person without excusing their behavior? How can understanding that event help break the cycle?
“As you’re looking for how you are wounded, you have to also be in the process of having awareness of how not to then wound,” she says. For Lockhart, writing her way through her traumatic childhood led her to the character of Bennie and helped her listen to her own children more earnestly. And doing readings of her work around the country led Lockhart to both internal healing and cousins she’d never met.
Lockhart’s first workshop in the completed studio will be this week, a three-day weekend retreat full of writing and communal cooking.
“We’ll use art, nature, the garden, all of the things to make that sort of beautiful transition,” Lockhart says. The earliest exercises will help women connect their personal lives to “some of humanity’s wounds, which almost all are centered around our inhumanity to each other.”
Lockhart draws most of those wounds back to colonization.
“We’re all suffering in ways that so many people don’t know that they’re suffering,” she says. “Sometimes, people think, ‘OK, I’m not suffering. So let me help people who are suffering.’ And it’s like, no, boo, you are suffering, because of all of the behaviors that you are blind to in your own life and in your own lineage, and even in your daily things that you might want.”
That exploitation hurts Black women especially, but all of us are impacted.
“All of that is connected to colonization wounds, ways in which we have been industrialized and taught to believe that we have to financially succeed one over the head of the other,” Lockhart says. “These divisions have been created. There’s so much superiority lies just inundated in people’s everyday messaging.”
The relationship between Lockhart’s work and art is cyclical. As we tour her property, questions about the studio lead us to conversations about Trinity.
Later, on the couch in the studio, asking questions about her book leads us to talking about her work. Digging into her personal trauma, developing a methodology for others to follow her on that journey, turning her home into a place to host that work—all of these are linked. She’s been opening up her space for communal gatherings since she lived in an apartment, and the house just didn’t feel right until she started the renovation work to turn it into a studio.
“Any place I’ve lived in my adult life, it’s just automatically been that I’ve been like, ‘You know what, we should throw this thing and have poetry in the living room and music in the dining room,’” Lockhart says. “No space is too small to make some space.”
In the end, Lockhart’s home turned workshop space was finished just two hours before guests arrived for Trinity’s launch party. The screened-in classroom successfully kept the mosquitoes from the guests, and a procession of drummers and dancers led attendees to the stage before a DJ filled the party with music. Lockhart was thrilled to welcome guests into her finally completed home/studio and her story.
Before every reading she does, Lockhart asks her audience not to separate themselves from what they’re about to hear: Trinity is not a sad thing that happened to just one family.
“By no means are you to sit here and be in conversation and think, ‘Oh, wow, that’s really sad what’s happening to that family,’” she says. Instead, she hopes her work inspires people to interrogate the trauma passed down through their own families.
In Trinity, it takes a uniquely equipped descendant to break the family’s cycles of violence, a girl who was almost born to Bennie’s mother, and then almost to his wife. But Lottie Rebecca Lee is special only in this story.
In the real world?
“It’s not only Lottie Rebecca Lee who can pull out the truth, the bones, you know, the part of the stories that can help us heal the painful parts,” Lockhart says. “We can pull those bones up out of the mud. Any family member can do that. Anybody can do that.”
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