A poet turns photographer: Hannah Drake’s ‘Finding Me’ opens Sunday

Photo of Saint-Louis Catholic Cathedral in Senegal

The Saint-Louis Catholic Cathedral in Senegal | Photo by Hannah Drake

National attention has focused on the poetry of Hannah Drake several times, including that time Colin Kaepernick retweeted her, and then when Michelle Obama did the same. Now, Louisvillians are getting the chance to see another side of Drake’s talent and discover that her eye for rhyme is just as useful for finding poetry with a photograph.

On Sunday, June 16, Drake will give a talk and hopefully do a poem or two in support of “Finding Me,” a collection of photographs she took while traveling and exploring her roots in Mississippi and Senegal that opens at the Wayside Expressions Gallery.

Drake took a few minutes to answer Insider’s questions about her journey, her photography and where she is going next.

Hannah Drake

Hannah Drake | Courtesy

Drake traveled to Senegal with “Roots and Wings,” a group of about 10 black artists including dancers, singers, poets and a deejay. That collaboration existed through an ArtPlace America grant, which helped fund the trip to Senegal.

Drake’s trip to Mississippi came about with some of the same collaborators — a trip to Natchez, Miss., to represent IDEAS xLab at the National Coalition of 100 Black Women. It was a journey she did not immediately embrace.

“Quite frankly, it was not a place I wanted to go,” says Drake. “I knew the history of Mississippi, and as a black woman, I did not see it as a place that would welcome me. Truthfully, I was afraid to go there.”

But when she got to Natchez, she found the people to be very pleasant. The history, of course, still was very dark. Drake remembers two very specific instances, one in the living quarters of a plantation owner.

“I remember my daughter walking through different rooms and touching random objects, and I asked her why she did that, and she said she wanted to touch things she knew enslaved people would have never been allowed to touch,” Drake explains.

But Drake was more interested in seeing the places that had housed enslaved people. Many had been torn down and, in one case, renovated and turned into offices.  

“I wanted to see where my people were,” she says. “Finally, I found one plantation that still had space quarters, and when I walked in, it took my breath away … I remember standing in the acres of cotton and crying. Picking the cotton and trying to connect to a history I didn’t know.”

She did know that her grandfather was born in Mississippi, but she could find no trace or record. Then she changed the search for her roots into something much more figurative.

“I started looking in slave records for women and girls named Hannah, and I found them,” she says. “Some as young as 8 who were sold into slavery. I recall going to the African-American Museum in Natchez, and there on the wall was Kentucky, and they traced the trip all the way to Natchez. Kentucky wasn’t neutral in slavery; in fact, Kentucky was integral in slavery and sold black bodies down the river.”

Photo of cotton by Hannah Drake

“Cotton & Sacks” by Hannah Drake

In Senegal, Drake found more answers, though they were again not as concrete as a set of documents or a birth certificate of a long-lost relative.

“I remember in Dakar watching the people interact — the food, the music, the way they tied their head wraps — and my life finally made sense,” she says. “I was thinking, ‘Oh, that’s why I do that’ or ‘That’s what that comes from.’ ”

Early in her trip, she was given an African name, part of a ceremony meant to help visitors reclaim their heritage.

“Mine is Binta, which means healer. They name you after the qualities they see in you that mirror someone in the community,” says Drake. “I got to go meet my namesake. And we looked alike. We looked as if we could be related. We were family. I finally belonged somewhere. I was just not in the world free-floating.”

From the very beginning of her trips, Drake knew she wanted to bring as many experiences as she could back to Kentucky, so she began taking photographs, already planning for the day she could present them in public.

She says finding images to photograph has made her poetry richer, and she plans to continue photography.

“There are so many hidden stories in a photo — stories that need to be told before people gloss over them,” she says. “My people existed. We were here, and we are still here.”

Next up for Drake is a new book, “Love Revolution & Lemonade.”

Drake is giving a gallery talk in support of “Finding Me” on Sunday, June 16,  from 2 to 4 p.m. at the Wayside Expressions Gallery inside Hotel Louisville, 120 W. Broadway. The exhibit will be on display through May 27, and the gallery is open Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.