If You’re a Writer or Want To Be

If You're a Writer or Want to BeWhen I speak at genealogy and history conferences about researching enslaved people in Virginia, I am continually surprised that, afterward, I get more questions about writing than I do about anything else. People buy my books about African American history, but they buy more of my books about writing.

So today, I want to share with you – in case you have a need for it – that I’ve just released a new book for writers. It’s entitled Love Letters to Writers: Encouragement, Accountability, and Truth-Telling, and it’s comprised of 52 letters I wrote to help writers on this journey.  It’s a gentle book, or at least I hope it is.

If you’d like to pick up a copy, you can order one at the links below:

And of course, if you have writing questions, don’t hesitate to reach out to me at [email protected]

Thanks, friends.

Home’s Hard History – A Presentation from the Slave Dwelling Project Conference

Two weeks ago, I had the honor of presenting with Lorenzo Dickerson at the 4th Annual Slave Dwelling Project Conference.  We talked about the places we call “home” and how those landscapes are or are not available to the descendants of the people enslaved there.

Here is my slideshow from that presentation, including images of the Bremo Plantations, where I grew up and where over 250 people were enslaved.

Ancestors of the Land: Enslaved People and Landscapes

Ancestors of the Land: Enslaved People and Landscapes

Photo by Dave Robinson on Unsplash

When I walk through this place I now call Home, I think of all the people who have gone before me. The schoolteacher, the professional baseball player, their parents, grandparents, great-grandparents. I think of the people those great-grandparents enslaved.  Of the young couple who sold us the house, making us only the third family to live in this house.  Of the Monacan people who came before all of us.

We have inherited this land sure as we inherit DNA and the quirks of our faces.  We are stewards of it, nothing more, nothing less.

In ways profound and rich, this land links me to all the people who have called it home before. The geography of genealogy. The genetics of rivers and hills.

To be linked by a place is a profound thing. It’s this thing that makes us ask, “Oh, where in Illinois?” or “Do you know that restaurant on Clement in San Francisco?”  The places of our lives make some of the deepest marks on us.

It’s for this reason that I believe part of the work of reparation, of justice for enslaved people and their descendants is access to the land on which enslaved people lived and worked.  Geographies shape us – from the way we understand safety in the tuck of a mountain to the hope we feel in a wide vista to the gentle calm that comes over us by that stream right there – and so the landscapes that enslaved people inhabited matter. They mattered to their daily lives as they worked and walked and loved on the land, and they matter to ancestors who find rootedness and understanding in seeing the fields their grandparents worked and the hills on which they prayed.

I will, for the rest of my life, advocate for descendants of enslaved people to have access to the land of their ancestors because it is, in every way, at least as much theirs as it was/is the land of the owners. I would argue it’s more.

 

On Friday morning, as part of the Slave Dwelling Project Conference and the UVa Symposium on Slavery, I will be presenting, with Lorenzo Dickerson and Margaret Wrinkle, a talk entitled “The Land, the Screen, the Page: Enslavement, Locations of Slavery, and Creative Arts.”  As part of this presentation, I will be sharing my personal experience of seeing people excluded from the places their ancestors’ called home. If you will be at the conference, I hope you will join us. 

Fight Racism in Charlottesville: Support the Vinegar Hill Monument

Fight Racism in Charlottesville: Support the Vinegar Hill Monument

The Community of Vinegar Hill before it was razed.

As you may have heard, white nationalists took to the streets of Charlottesville again on Saturday night.  They chanted their racist, anti-Semitic words. They vowed to be back.

I have no doubt they will.  They have chosen our city as their place to take a stand, and now, we must all do all we can to fight their hate.

If you’d like to do something measurable and long-lasting, if you’d like to challenge the privilege rhetoric that seems to speak of Charlottesville as a bastion of tolerance and inclusion, if you’d like to be a part of the way art makes change, gives hope, and teaches, please consider making a donation to the Vinegar Hill Monument fund.

This monument will commemorate Vinegar Hill,

a neighborhood that no longer exists. It was an African American neighborhood full of African American owned homes and businesses just west of the Downtown Mall in Charlottesville, VA that was razed to the ground by the City of Charlottesville in 1964.

The sculpture will stand outside the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, a place that has been historically black and continues to be so.  When I talked with Jefferson School director Andrea Douglass, she told me that the monument would not be something to revere but something to experience.  “People can walk inside it and be a part of it. They can live within it.”

In this time when so many people are protecting monuments to our nation’s racist past, here’s a powerful, meaningful way to remember a community that was a victim of that racism. Your donations will help make this monument a reality, and they are much needed since public funding has been voted down by the city.  Every dollar helps.

Thanks for considering a donation.

To learn more and donate, please visit this page – https://www.gofundme.com/vinegar-hill-monument.  

A Word to White Plantation Owners

A Word to White Plantation Owners

Photo by Vanessa von Wieding on Unsplash

Over the years, I have done research on the enslaved communities at a number of plantations here in Central Virginia.  Sometimes, I am hired by the people who own the plantation to do the research; sometimes, I do it on my own.

In every case, my hope is the same – that the owners of the plantations, who are almost always white because of historically-based inequities – will make the information I find available to the public so that the people descended from these communities can find their ancestors.

Sometimes, It’s Great; Sometimes, It’s Heart-Breaking

Most of the time, the owners are quite happy to oblige, eager to know the descendants, aware of the way these relationships to the community of African American people who built their homes come with responsibility.  Often, the descendant communities become involved in the way their ancestors are remembered in that place. Often, they become as connected to that place as they want to be.

Often, but not always.  Sometimes, the white owners become too focused on their own desires, on their own gains for being “the good white person” who does the ancestors and the descendants the favor of remembering them.  Sometimes, white owners become overcome by their own shame or the fear that they will be asked for financial reparation that they shut down the access to the places that African American people created for them.  Sometimes, white owners act as if these people – the ones who literally built the place, who lived on it for generations, who also view it as home, hard as that may be – have no right to the place.  It breaks my heart.

My Strong but Kind Word for White Plantation Owners

You will only be enriched by connecting with the black people who built the places you love. You will find people who love these places, too – differently than you do but just as strongly. You will find stories about your home places that help you understand and appreciate them more. You will make friends. You will understand history. You will know – first-hand and real – the way history has been unfair and unkind to people of color, and you will be better people for that.

I’m not saying this is easy – not suggesting that at all. It will take a humility that has not yet been required of you in this life. It will require that you take ownership of the privilege you inhabit because of your skin color and because of this place you own. It will require that you acknowledge racism as real and systemic and meritocracy as a myth perpetuated by elite, white people. It will not be easy, but it will be so worth it. 

A Few First Steps if You Own a Place where People Were Enslaved

So if you own a historic home where people were enslaved, do research about the people who were enslaved there. Here a few first steps:

  • Contact your local historical society and see what they know about enslaved communities in your area.
  • Visit sites like Our Black Ancestry to see if anyone is looking for the owners who enslaved their ancestors.
  • Share anything you know about the history of your place and the people who owned it before 1865 as publicly as you can. (You are welcome to use this space for that work if you’d like)
  • Invite the descendants of the enslaved community to your place and let them walk the land of their ancestors. You’ll find them – as I always have – to be gracious and respectful of your privacy.

Imagine what it would mean to ALL of us if we had these stories, these lineages, these places in common. Imagine if we weren’t afraid. Imagine we shared our history truthfully and fearlessly.  Oh, imagine, friends, the road we could walk together.

If you’ve worked with plantations owners to learn more about your ancestors, what has your experience been like? Or if you are a white plantation owners, what are your experiences or fears or hesitations about connecting with the descendants of enslaved people?  

Can We Listen? A Challenge and a Book Giveaway

Can We Listen? A Challenge and a Book Giveaway

Photo by Farrel Nobel on Unsplash

The other night, I watched Oprah lead a discussion with Trump supporters and Trump detractors. I sat with hope, wanting – truly – to understand how people could have voted for and then still support the current president.  I didn’t hear anything that helped me understand because, well, because everyone there was so angry, so settled into the seats of their opinions (much as I am in mine) that it was just a shouting match.  I couldn’t finish watching – it was just too agitating for me. Maybe they came to some place of understanding by the end? I pray.

I’m seeing that same dynamic play out all over social media these days – as people, again me included – are steeped in arguments about Colin Kaepernick’s protest about police violence about black and brown bodies. Somehow, here, the flag and the national anthem have become the focus, as has patriotism and respect, and I’m seeing a whole lot of vitriol about honoring our nation . . . and very little about honoring all our nation’s citizens.  (There, see, there’s my perspective.) But more, I’m just seeing fighting.  So much fighting . . .

And we need to fight. We need to disagree. We need to discuss.  I just wish we would speak more on the discussion end of things.

But more and more, I think we’re settling into enclaves of belief, unfriending people who disagree with us, publicly shaming those who don’t take action the way we think they should, dismissing other human beings because of their perspectives and, yes, still because of their skin color.  My heart breaks over this because I know that the more we segregate ourselves, the more our divides will grow.

You’d think we’d learned this from our entire national history, but, alas, we haven’t. We have forgotten – perhaps deliberately – that healing and unity come from knowing one another in a real, daily kind of way. When we see our neighbor hanging his laundry on the line or watch the woman down the street walk her children home, when we are more focused on helping the family whose house has just burned down than we are about who voted for whom . . . that’s how we become allies and then friends.

One of my goals for the rest of this year and into the next is to really listen, at least once a day, to someone whose perspective on the world is different than mine – either through nationality, through ethnicity, through political affiliation, through gender, through sexual orientation, through the ability of their bodies.  I want to listen, to try to understand, and to let their perspective change mine.

I’d like to invite you to do that with me, not because we are wrong – I certainly think I’m right; if I didn’t, I’d change my mine – but because healing only comes through knowing one another. I truly believe that.  (And also, we may be wrong.)

To encourage us in this small journey of healing, I’m giving away two copies of a wonderful book called Gather at the Table: The Healing Journey of a Daughter of Slavery and a Son of the Slave Trade by my dear friends Sharon Leslie Morgan and Thomas Norman DeWolf. The book tells the story of their literal and figurative journey to find out about their families and to look honestly at the history that harmed both of them.  Sharon and Tom are each giving away one copy, so if you’d to be entered to win, please leave a comment below and tell me how you will attempt to listen to someone who is different than you in the coming two weeks.  I will select the winners using a random number generator on Friday, October 6th.

Or if you’d like to buy a copy of Sharon and Tom’s book from their publisher, Beacon Press, the Press will give 10% of the proceeds to the powerful anti-racism organization, Coming to the Table.

This isn’t easy work, friends, but surely none of us want us to divide so strongly into factions that we never hear one another and never heal ourselves.

Relentless in Love: The Amazing Women who do African American Genealogy

Relentless in Love: The Women of African American Genealogy

Photo by Olayinka Babalola on Unsplash

The further I go into the world of African American genealogy, the more I realize how much we owe to the women who have kept our families alive and strong and to the women who have searched tirelessly to tell those stories.

Today, I want to pay tribute to these relentless genealogists who dig and miss sleep and share information, all without account for themselves.  These women have taught me much about research but also about perseverance and fortitude.  They are, in every way, walking in the steps of our foremothers.

Shelley Murphy Shelley was the first person I met who did genealogy as the heartbeat of her life. I attended a session she taught at our local library about using unusual record types to find information, and her insights helped me find a great deal of information about the people enslaved at the Bremo Plantations. She is kind, tireless, and dedicated.

Angela Walton-Raji – Through Shelley, I had the honor of meeting Angela Walton-Raji, a genealogist who specializes in African American and Native American genealogy and who has a VAST knowledge of the Freedmen’s Bureau.  I attended a session that Angela taught about using Freedmen’s Bureau records and felt like a whole new avenue of research was now available to me.

Toni Carrier – Toni Carrier is a specialist in the Lowcountry of the U.S., and she is part of the brand-new Center for Family History at the International African American Museum.  Toni’s continuous posting of new resources, relevant articles, and important research about African American history and genealogy on social media make her one of my most-often-cited sources of information about our folks.

Bernice Bennett – Bernice has an amazing podcast about African American history and genealogy called Research at the National Archives and Beyond. I have had the honor of being on Bernice’s show twice, and she is an insightful interviewer, a thoughtful researcher, and a truly kind person.  Her podcast is one I never want to miss.

Stacey Adger – Stacey and I met because our genealogical research intersected. She thought that, perhaps, one of her ancestors was enslaved at Bremo, and so she came from Ohio to Virginia to visit. We haven’t found that connection to be there – yet – but we have remained dear friends. Stacey is a trustee of the Ohio Genealogical Society, and she co-coordinates the Ohio Genealogical Society conference, which is a stellar event.

Cinder Stanton – Cinder is the most humble, most generous historian I know. She helped form the Getting Word Project at Monticello, and that project has successfully located the identities, family lines, and descendants of many of the people enslaved at that presidential plantation. She leads the Central Virginia History Researchers and continues to tirelessly research and share what she finds about African American people in the Central Virginia area.

Hannah Scruggs – I have known Hannah for all of her life, literally, and she always impresses me with her passion, her fervor, and her willingness to stay in struggle when necessary to find the truth. She is coordinating the descendants’ project at Montpelier, and she is, by far, my favorite person to talk with about the intersections of justice/injustice and history.

Niya Bates – Niya is the public historian of slavery and African American life at Monticello, and she is a fierce fighter for historic and current-day justice.  She has a background in historic preservation, and so her knowledge of how landscapes and people interacted is rich and deep. Plus, she’s just a generous, vibrant person.

True Lewis – True is one of those women who always has a kind word or a tip to help, and she never seems pushy or aggressive in her advice. She is a wise researcher and a good ally in this work.  She and I share stories of our ties to Harrisburg, PA quite often.

Jane Smith – Jane is my best resource for all things Charlottesville, Virginia history, and since we know all genealogy roads lead through Virginia, she is just a superb resource in general. She’s kind and generous with her work, which she does out of love and commitment to her city and the African American people who were foundational to it.

 

These women carry on the long, heavy tradition of our foremothers with grace, with resolve, and with ingenuity, and it is because of them that we know so much about our ancestors.  If you don’t know their work, please get to know it. You won’t be sorry.

I know I missed important women who do African American genealogy in this list, so please inform me by sharing their names and links to their work in the comments below.  

 

A Brand New Resource for African American Genealogy

https://cfh.iaamuseum.org/santee-cooper-relocation-project/

If you work around the African American genealogy world, you are going to want to know about the International African American Museum Center for Family Research. Really, bookmark that link now.

As they say on their website, they are a “one of a kind research center with a focus on African American genealogy.” As part of the International African American Museum that is slated to open in 2020, they provide stellar resources on African American genealogy including online versions of everything from marriage records to death certificates to collections of photographs that are related to African American individuals and communities.

Since I was just in Santee, SC this weekend, one of my favorite resources is the Santee-Cooper Relocation Collection gallery of photographs. The pictures are haunting, and the information about that moment in history is rich and very readable, even online. I continue to be amazed and appalled at the way African American people’s lives have been forcably uprooted or literally buried and drowned for the sake of “progress.”

The site also contains an incredible Learning Library that includes tutorials on everything from getting started in genealogy to understanding the basics of DNA and genealogy.  They also have a blog where they feature certain types of resources, talk about common mistakes genealogists make, and highlight their research collections.

It’s worth just taking a look to see the amazing photos they feature as the headings of each site – powerful images!

So if you are looking for a fresh space to find new rabbit trails for your genealogical escapades or if you feel like you’ve exhausted all the avenues available to you for this work, here’s a new path to follow as far as you can. And goodness knows, we need as many paths as possible to get back to the history so many of us have lost.

Happy Researching!

Food Is Love by Sharon Leslie Morgan

Food Is Love

(Originally published on Michael Twitty’s Cooking Gene Memories (22 November 2016) http://thecookinggene.com/memories-page/)

When I was growing up in Chicago, the kitchen of our Southside apartment was the center of my universe. Not only was food cooked there, it was a place of existential meaning. It was where corn was shucked, drinks were poured, peas were shelled, homework was done, tears were shed and laughter peeled. It was the source of Thanksgiving dinner, issuing forth its bounty in innumerable serving dishes, hot from the stove, onto the table in the dining room – the next room over.

The kitchen table could just as easily be used to hold and serve food as to host a card game. It provided a roof under which I and my cousins would play around the feet of ever present guests. On hot summer nights, it was the room we passed through to get to the back porch, where my grandfather, Paw Paw, would sleep on a cot under a navy-blue velvet sky. On cold winter nights, it was a place entered through a heavy curtain that kept the cold air in the rest of the apartment out while we sat around the open oven door, rubbing our hands to keep warm. When we were sick, it was the location of my grandmother’s (Maw Maw) rocking chair, in which she rocked us well after rubbing us down with Vick’s vapo rub, eucalyptus oil, or turpentine, depending on the ailment.

Food Is Love by Sharon Leslie Morgan

No one person taught me to cook and a veritable army of people have added to my repertoire over the years. Like a sponge, I sucked up lessons as a child from both of my parents, three grandparents, aunts, uncles and older cousins. My grandfather taught me how to fry red snapper a la Mississippian. My grandmother contributed chicken and dumplins’, informed by her roots as a farm girl in Illinois. My other grandmother taught me the Italian spaghetti of her parent’s home country. My father taught me to make gravy. My mother taught me Louisiana Creole gumbo, which she learned as a 15-year-old bride in New Orleans. My aunt June taught me to make some mean barbecued pig feet. Through the years, I have trekked all over the world, enjoying the comraderie of friends’ kitchens in the Caribbean, Africa and Europe. I learned to fry escovitch fish in Jamaica; create shark and bake sandwiches in Tobago; sacrifice, skin, and cook every inch of a sheep in South Africa, and prepare bitter leaf greens with bush meat in Cameroun.

There is no one recipe I can point to as definitive. My overall food concept is one of “pan-African cuisine.” I believe from experience that all people of African descent eat pretty much the same things, cooked in very similar ways. No matter where we are in Africa or the Diaspora, we eat and enjoy corn bread, corn meal porridge (grits, pap, and ugali), beans (of all colors), greens (of all kinds), chicken (fried or fricasseed), lots of fish and mountains of rice. Our love of spices, including hot peppers, is universal.

The greatest thing I learned from absolutely everyone that contributed to my culinary education is that “food is love.” I therefore do not hesitate to pass it around! I once owned and cooked at a restaurant in Paris (Bojangles) that offered pan-African culinary delights, seasoned with live music. Years after the fact, diehard fans still remember me and my food.

I can only surmise that people like me and Michael Twitty inherited “the cooking gene” — and I could not imagine life without it. Michael writes extensively on the subject in his new book: The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South (Amistad, 2017).

 

Sharon Leslie Morgan is the co-author with Thomas DeWolf of Gather at the Table: The Healing Journey of a Daughter of Slavery and a Son of the Slave Trade (Beacon Press, 2012) and the author of Paris in a Pot: Living a Dream in the City of Light (Morgan Publishing, 2016). She is the founder of OurBlackAncestry.com, a genealogy community devoted to African American family history.

Walking the Land with Everyone Who Has Gone Before Me

Walking the Land with All Who Have Gone Before Me

Photo by Dogoff Zambrano on Unsplash

Yesterday, two of my friends died in a plane crash, leaving their five children orphans. The husband in this couple was someone I had known since I was 14 years old and my family moved to his family’s plantation that would become my physical and heart-space home.

It was his home, too. His family had owned it since a hunting lodge was built on it in 1725.  This was a place that his family had dug roots for almost three hundred years. He will never see that place again.

That man and I lived very different lives. His family employed mine, and the economic differences between our experiences sometimes created rifts so wide that I felt like he and I didn’t speak the same language.  But still, we shared a space, a place we each treasured and knew deeply, if differently.

**

The places of enslavement are home to many people: the enslaved community who came to live there, to love there, to work there, to grow there against their own will, the enslaver’s family who chose the place – at least initially – and grew it and their own families alongside the people they enslaved, the free workers who came and went during the days of enslavement, and then those of us who have lived and loved and grown there in the centuries since.

Each place where people were enslaved speaks differently to these various groups. For me, Bremo is a place of peace, a place I used to see with two lenses – the one of home and the one of slavery – but that I now see as rich and broken and true in a single place.  We would not have the gorgeous stone walls and the rolling fields of cleared hills without enslaved people, and they wouldn’t have been enslaved without the system of slavery that the owners subscribed to.  Yet, it is beautiful – I know Primus and Minerva knew that as well as my father and I do.

So when my friend returned to his ancestral home, I can’t say I know all of what he saw because, sadly, I never asked him. (I will surely ask his brothers though.) But I suspect he saw lush trees and virgin timber, the shadows of his ancestors walking these hills, and I expect he saw the legacy that enslaved people left him in that land, a land he shared with them.

**

I never walk the land at Bremo without thinking of the people who were enslaved there – Ben and Lucy, Jack and Phillis, Jesse and Malvina, and all the other enslaved people I am honored to know –  and I never walk it without the thought of the owner’s family that brought my family to that precious place when I was a jaded, grumpy 14-year-old.

Now, I will always think of Byron and Catherine and remember them walking the land, strides wide, centuries of history beneath their feet.

Rest in peace, my friends, all of you.