By Gemma Handy
Amid the tumult played out on Atlanta streets in recent days as demonstrators protested racial injustice and police brutality stood a quiet beacon of hope.
Emblazoned each day with a simple uplifting caption, Amisha Harding’s ‘healing wall’ provided a moment to breathe, regroup and unite as tempers raged all around.
The 41-year-old – who has Antiguan heritage – played a key role in calming some of the stormy scenes triggered by the killing of George Floyd and which have come to epitomise the angst and anger felt by African-Americans across the United States.
Harding, whose family originates from Sea View Farm, joined the demonstrations when they started a fortnight ago with her cousin Samantha.
“The atmosphere was very, very negative and very heavy,” she tells Observer.
“White protestors were yelling at black protestors, black protestors were yelling at white protestors, everyone was yelling at the police and Christian protestors were yelling at everyone to let God fix it.”
The pair were forced to run when police fired tear gas to disperse the crowds on the night of May 31.
“We got home and we said, this can’t happen. People can’t fight with that much hatred and that much anger. We wanted to change the energy there,” she explains.
Their healing wall – comprised of a 6X8ft piece of sturdy plastic – invited demonstrators to take a marker pen and write their feelings on it.
“We brought along a loud speaker too and played music to create a space where people could experience healing and express themselves while they fight,” Harding explains.
Songs played ranged from Bill Withers’ ‘Lean On Me’, to Bob Marley’s ‘Get Up, Stand Up’, interspersed with a few soca hits.
“We played inspirational things to uplift the environment and to set the tone whenever large groups were marching through.
“For some people it was very emotional,” Harding recalls. “There was a moment the other day when we were playing ‘Glory’ and there was a huge group walking by. One young lady left the line and walked towards the music. When she saw me looking at her she held her arm out and I put my arm out and she just cried. Her whole body was shaking and I just held her until she stopped crying. Then I looked at her and I said, we got this honey, we gonna fix this.”
Harding’s music worked its magic in other ways too. Playing Beyonce’s ‘Freedom’ got a large crowd dancing – and a rendition of Kirk Franklin’s ‘Revolution’ even saw the National Guard troops join in.
“It was very therapeutic for people to have a place of joy and peace in the midst of such hurt and pain,” she says.
Harding’s mother, aunts, uncles and grandmother – a Henry – were all born in Antigua. Her mother later moved to St Thomas and eventually the US but the family have never forgotten their Caribbean roots and return to the region for an annual vacation.
“I am very proud of my West Indian heritage,” Harding continues. “I cling to it because it’s my identity; that’s who I am.”
While racial divides in the US might seem “better on the surface” than in years gone by, discord between the races persists, she says.
“It appears we have come a long way but have we really when there are George Floyds, Trayvon Martins, Eric Garners and Sandra Blands being killed simply because of the colour of their skin?”
Harding says she worries constantly about the safety of her 18-year-old son.
“He’s amazing, an incredible scholar, he’s articulate, he has his own business but I fear for his life every day.
“I find myself trying to protect him from what the world will think of him just because he’s a black man. It makes me very sad that that’s where we are as a country. Some people won’t look at him and see he’s an incredible kid with a 3.8 GPA. Some will just fear him because of the colour of his skin and assume he’s a thug.
“I’m always educating him on how to protect and present himself so he can be safe. It breaks my heart that I have been having those conversations with him since he was nine years old.”
Still, Harding is hopeful that the current wave of protests – diverse, widespread and sustained – will ultimately effect meaningful, lasting change.
“As a country we are coming together – across racial lines, political, religion and gender. It’s heartwarming to see the response across the world – in Amsterdam, Bermuda, London,” she adds. “It lets me know that everyone is just as outraged as I am, as a black woman and a black mother.”