Stepping Away


Circumstances in my personal life mean that I need to build in some more space for the things I cannot control.  For that reason, I am stepping away from Our Folks’ Tales for a while.

I am so grateful for your witness here, for your words, for your work.

I’m not walking away from the work – just this face of it.  I’ll with you in the struggle.

Much love,


When the Struggle is Exhausting

When the Struggle is Exhausting

Oh, my friends, I am tired today. Tired of hard conversations. Tired of white supremacy lived out in words and bodies. Tired of reading hundreds of pages to find only the tiniest shread – like a hem of a dress ripped free – about someone’s life.

I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired. – Fannie Lou Hamer

Today, I’ve been in a hard conversation about systematic injustice with a well-intentioned person who wants kindness and compassion to be enough to make change.  I’ve encouraged him to see systems. I’ve asked him to look inward. I’ve pushed him – as gently but firmly as I could – to understand that his personal action may not be enough. . . and he chose to list off all the oppression he has witnessed and then attack me.  That’s not okay . . . and I’m okay. Or I will be.

Do these encounters throw you off-balance, too?

Tomorrow, I will spend hours and hours entering the scant data I have about one enslaved community in Louisa, Virginia. I will build a database and all the while know it is will be insufficient – however important – in every single way.

The research into ancestors and history is wearying. For you, too?

So today, my friends, I just speak power and hope to you. I speak of genealogical goldmines and those tiny tidbits of names that give us so much richness. I speak of one more day with one more set of steps and one more afternoon of tears.  I speak of strength you take in retreat and in speaking up.  I speak of anger that is most than justified and of the wisdom that knows that justified does not equal accepted.

Be strong my friends, be strong.  Take care of yourselves. Take breaks when you need them. Let someone grab hold and hug you tight.  

Tomorrow, we’ll be back to fight another day.

Now let me say as I move to my conclusion that we’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end. — Martin Luther King, Jr.


“I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” is my favorite of Dr. King’s speeches.  You can read the full transcript of the speech here. 

We Know More about the Civil War than about Enslavement

We Know More about the Civil War than about EnslavementLast week, I had the pleasure of riding along while a Civil War expert gave me a tour of a local battlefield. I bolstered myself to hear about the beauty of the Confederacy and was pleasantly surprised to hear no lauding of the Confederate cause, no erroneous and racist talk about “States’ rights” as a mask for slavery, and no celebration of loss of life.

In fact, I learned just the kind of history that I most love – the stories of the people who occupied a space, whose houses became hospitals, and whose pastures became battlegrounds. I learned names of individuals, and I traveled roadbeds that had been carved by wagons 300 years earlier.  It was a great afternoon.  Really.

But on my drive home after hearing 4.5hours of detail about where Hampton’s troops camped and the trails that Sherman’s troops traveled, I felt hollowed out, deeply sad.  I had expected to be angry or sorrowful because I spent the day looking at Confederate battles, but instead, I am mourning the fact that we could track where three horses rode abreast on two days in 1864; yet we can’t locate the names of more than 250 people who were enslaved for more than 140 years on the plantation I call home.

When we can identify troop movements down to the tiniest detail, when we spend hours and hours scouring pastures with metal detectors to find bullets and spent munitions, when we have the names of all the major generals of a war memorized but cannot barely begin to visualize, document, or detail the experiences of enslaved people, something is massively wrong. 

(Rant commencing. You have been warned.)

I can drive anywhere here in Virginia and see signage to tell me where every battle (no matter how small) of the Civil War was fought. Our roads are named after Confederate Generals, and every tiny town has a display of munitions from a battle in their local museum.  If I want to find where a soldier is buried, I can do that in a matter of minutes, even if I might not know that soldier’s name.

Cross the Mason-Dixon to Gettysburg, and you can find a memorial to every moment of that brutal battle. You have stores that sell replica guns and attire. You have scores and scores and scores of books about the battles, the maneuvers, and the people, so many books that you can – as our guide mentioned – pass by any book that does not mention the battle you know best.  In short, the Civil War is so well-documented that it only takes a modicum of desire to understand a great depth of information about it. 

Contrast that to the history of slavery, which lasted over 200 years, involved 10s of millions of people, and was ubiquitous as to simply be a part of every day life through the colonies and the United States.  Still, over 150 years after it has ended (the same period of time, not incidentally, that has passed since the Civil War ended), we know very, very little about the lived experience of enslaved people. We don’t know where most enslaved people are buried. We can’t tell you the routes that these people walked in their daily work. We don’t know, in most cases,  where they lived. We don’t know specifically how many people were enslaved in the U.S or on any given plantation. And we don’t know, with rare exceptions, the names of enslaved people.

Some of this non-knowing, of course, is because of how slavery was perpetrated. The laws about educating enslaved people meant that very few of them could record their own stories, and the people who “owned” them thought of them as economic forces, not as people whose stories warranted much more than a mention if their illnesses, deaths, travels, or births changed the economic forecast of the plantation.

However, if we blame the institution of slavery for all of this, we are mistaken.  We could know much more than we do about enslaved people. We could know more about where they lived and how they worked and the horror of their experiences. We would have artifacts in local museums (if handled responsibly and without the reinflictment of trauma), and we could have books and books and books written about enslaved communities.  We could say their names.

But we don’t want to.

As a society, we have decided that the memorialization of a war – a war over the rights of human beings to claim ownership of other human beings – deserves more attention than those human beings themselves. That is shameful. 

We Can Do Better

I want to see museums dedicated to the history of slavery. The Whitney Plantation is a good start, but we need many, many more.

I want to see scores of books that talk about the families enslaved on particular plantations, that tell the stories we can find and help us imagine what we cannot know.

I want to go on tours through the countrysides of rural places and talk about how wives and husbands would walk these trails to visit each other on Sundays.

I want to see lists and lists of names carved into stones that look out over beautiful places.

I don’t think these things are impossible, but they are going to take a massive cultural shift to make them happen. I’m honored to have a tiny part in that shift through projects I’m involved in, and I’m thrilled to see that shift happening at places like Monticello and Montpelier.  But we need far more of us on board to make this happen.

So who’s with me in lobbying, advocating, researching, writing, telling so that we can walk down a country road and say, “Here, here Charlotte would have gathered water.  I think she may have hummed as she walked?”  

Plantations as Complex Historic Places

Plantations as Complex Historic Places

Slave Cabin at Laura Plantation

A couple of weeks ago, I heard a speaker give a moving, powerful talk about how geographic spaces can be places of both traumatic memory and redemption.  I was so inspired by her talk, encouraged to think deeply about the historic places I know (including the place I live) as places of history harm and historic healing.

Then, when an audience member asked this speaker what she thought about plantations, her tone shifted. Suddenly she was adamant where before she had been tender but strong.  She said, “Well, first, let’s begin by calling them slave labor camps . . . and let’s talk about people getting married on a plantation.  Why would anyone ever do that?”

Some members of the crowd cheered. Some of us sat quiet. I bristled, and it’s taken me a few weeks to think through part of why I was put off.

I was put off not because I don’t think she was right about plantations about being places of slave labor and not because I haven’t struggled with my own wedding at a plantation and not because I want to pretend that plantations are simply idyllic places of white-oriented nostalgia.  As I’ve said before, plantations are the geographic locations of massive historic harm – I’m not denying that. . . but I do think when we try to compare them to places like concentration camps we are missing the mark and denying the complexity of these spaces for everyone who has a tie to them.

A few years ago, my friend Michael Twitty wrote a moving piece about Ani DiFranco’s plan to have a workshop at a plantation and her subsequent decision to cancel that workshop.  In that piece he makes a powerful point about how these places were not only places of torture and oppression but were also the birthplace of a rich and vibrant culture:

Hear me now. The Southern Plantation has yet to be acknowledged as the birthplace for a community and a culture that has changed the world.  Roots music, pop music, world music…started there.  The plantation quarters, its fields, its brush harbor/hush harbor churches..the streets of Southern cities…Congo Square….America’s indigenous arts–jazz, blues, and all of their creative spawn was right there–way down South in Dixie.  I celebrate the food that was created there–the grandness of the Southern and Creole/Cajun traditions and beyond–and how hands of color cooked their way to renown.  Our aesthetics–our foodways–our music–our spirituality–our everything—owes a great deal to the civilization in chains–and Ani DiFranco–this African American culinary historian–this interpreter of enslaved people’s lives–salutes your intentions–and when you form that sacred circle–you can bet  I want to be there with you–as you salute the ancestors and the generations waiting to be born who will live in the fertility of your footsteps.

Plantations are places rich with history – painful, awful history, yes, but also beautiful, profound, life-giving history . . . for white and black folks.

I grew up on one of these places.  It is still – despite the pain I see built into the land and carved into the landscape – the most peaceful, restful place I know.  I’m not sure how I know this, but I’m confident that the spirits of the people who were enslaved there are at rest. . . that they live now in peace.  So while I am always aggrieved by what happened to them, while I visit that place with eyes open and heart broken, I take joy there, still.  So there’s this piece – that the people who lived there – white people for sure but probably some black people, too – found these places beautiful, even as they were brutal horrific places, too.

So when we want to decry them as only places of misery, we aren’t honoring any of the people who lived there, the ones who lived there by choice and the ones who had no choice.  To really remember slavery, to really own that history and heal from it, we have to recognize that ALL of that story needs to be told. We need to understand the ways those places and that practice link people together across generations.  We need to hold the beauty of the landscape, the joy of the people, the brutality of the institution, and the strength and suffering of the individuals together.

What I’d love to see on plantations is the whole story told – the stories of the black families and the stories of the white families, the stories of celebrations and the stories of humiliations, the stories of weddings and the stories of whippings because this history has harmed ALL OF US, the perpetrators and the oppressed. It has scarred us, wounded us, damaged us as individuals and as a nation, and we need to recognize the way we have all been shaped by these plantations. We need to see them as their own historical landscapes, as places unique in the history of the world . . . as places that need to be remembered not in some rose-colored nostalgia of history that whitewashes it to pure or drops into the pit of only horror.

We need to live into the traditions of West African griots and American Indian storytellers, the laughter that comes during Irish wakes and the songs of horns dancing before caskets in New Orleans.  We need all of the story, the complex, rich, proud, hard story so that we can reclaim these places of trauma as places of healing and hope, so that we can keep them with us for the stories they teach us about ourselves and the cautions they give us about who we have been and who we can become.

What do you think about plantations? Are they slave labor camps? Appropriate places to have weddings?  I’d really love to hear your thoughts here because I’m still thinking through.


Free Screening of Tim Wise’s White Like Me

Screening of White Like Me at God's Whisper FarmOn Friday, June 24, 2016, we will be partnering with Maupintown Media to do a screening of Tim Wise’s film White Like Me: Race, Racism, and White Privilege in America here at our home, God’s Whisper Farm. 

White Like Me, based on the work of acclaimed anti-racist educator and author Tim Wise, explores race and racism in the U.S. through the lens of whiteness and white privilege. In a stunning reassessment of the American ideal of meritocracy and claims that we’ve entered a post-racial society, Wise offers a fascinating look back at the race-based white entitlement programs that built the American middle class, and argues that our failure as a society to come to terms with this legacy of white privilege continues to perpetuate racial inequality and race-driven political resentments today.

For years, Tim Wise’s bestselling books and spellbinding lectures have challenged some of our most basic assumptions about race in America. White Like Me is the first film to bring the full range of his work to the screen — to show how white privilege continues to shape individual attitudes, electoral politics, and government policy in ways too many white people never stop to think about.

Features Tim Wise, Michelle Alexander, Charles Ogletree, Imani Perry, Martin Gilens, John H. Bracey, Jr., and Nilanjana Dasgupta.

Please join us.  The screening is FREE and open to the public.  We’ll begin the film at 7pm, but do come early and join us for a potluck dinner. . . and then stay for a bit to discuss the film.

We’d love to see you and hear your thoughts on this hard but important topic.

You can get more details – including the exact location of the farm – and RSVP here. 



Great History and Genealogy Podcasts

Great History and Genealogy PodcastsI get a lot of information these days from podcasts.  They are my go-to listening in the car because I can gain insights and learn things while I make the almost always hour-long commute to and from my destination. Two of my favorite podcasts are Research at the National Archives and Beyond with Bernice Bennett and The African Roots Podcast with Angela Walton-Raji.

I appreciate both of these shows because they are hosted by African American women who bring deep knowledge and great questions to their guests. Their guests always explore intriguing subjects, and I never finish an episode without learning something that is really important to my life and my work.

This week, I finally made time to listen to Bennett’s amazing interview with Craig Steven Wilder, author of Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Trouble History of America’s Universities. As a former academic, I found myself both stunned and also unsurprised (as I often am when it comes to American history) about the history of enslavement in the universities of our nation. In particularly, I was struck by Wilder’s note that universities from the colonial period only survived because they attached themselves to slavery. I have the book on order now. . . I know – I’m behind. 🙂

In Walton-Raji’s episodes, I always find myself taking note of a whole slew of other things to read, listen to, or visit, and her tips about genealogical research are rich and helpful.

So if you’re looking for a way to learn more about African American history and genealogy, I highly recommend these two podcasts.

I’d love to hear your recommendations for other podcasts about African American history and genealogy in the comments below. 


Put Aside the Shame of Slavery

Putting Aside the Shame of SlaveryIn my latest book, I wrote these words for the protagonist, Mary.

It seems wise here to interrupt myself to tell you a little about what I knew at that point about history—particularly the history of slavery.  My teachers had often talked about slavery, especially during Black History Month, but the conversation was usually very general.  We had some dates—The Civil War, The Emancipation Proclamation—and the most ambitious of teachers sometimes played a recording of Lincoln’s famous speech at Gettysburg.  We talked about some general ideas of evil, about how slavery meant that people owned other people, about freedom—a concept that is almost impossible for most American humans, let alone most American children, to conceive of.  We may have read a little bit of the Harriets: Tubman, Jacobs, Beecher Stowe. But that was about it.

We didn’t learn about the laws around slavery— how debilitating and complex they were. We didn’t talk about whippings or the sale of children.  We certainly didn’t bring up rape.  The hard stuff was strictly off limits—reserved for our parents or researchers—too risky to bring up in class, even though we saw pictures of the Hiroshima bombings every year, so that rationale really made no sense.

But we didn’t learn more innocuous stuff either.  I didn’t know what kind of houses slaves lived in or anything about what they ate.  I didn’t hear about what kind of work they did, and I certainly wasn’t aware of differences from plantation to plantation.  Nope, slavery was just this big, abstract, bad thing that happened to black people.  And thus, it wasn’t very real at all.

Before you get all defensive on behalf of teachers and testing and the time available to them, let me just stop you right there.  I love teachers, and I’m not really faulting them.  They do have tests to prep for, and they do have limited time. Plus, they probably weren’t taught much about slavery either, so how could they teach us?  But I will bring up this one point . . . At five, I could tell you what kinds of dinosaurs once inhabited North America. I could tell you the basic difference between the types of housing that various tribes of American Indians lived in by the time I was eight.  And in tenth grade, I had memorized the Bill of Rights . . . so if I had time to learn about these parts of American history—important parts, too—then surely we had more time to talk about slavery in a real way—in a way that included people’s names and stories about their daily lives.

16-year-old Mary doesn’t understand the power that shame can have on people, how it can keep us in the abstract or how it can lead us to avoidance.  And she certainly doesn’t understand the white supremacy that systematizes these reactions and makes them “right.”

But I do. . . now. At least one some level, and I have learned one thing – shame serves no one. 

Shame doesn’t serve enslaved people because it often keeps us from looking honestly and with open hearts at their triumphs and travails, at their dreams and disappointments, at their loves and loses.

Shame doesn’t serve the descendants of enslaved people because it keeps people from research, from connection, from truth.

Shame doesn’t serve the descendants of enslavers because it keeps them, too, from the truth, from an honest reckoning with their family’s history, and from the healing that can come when we bring all the stories into the light.

So let’s put aside shame.  Let’s, instead, hold to honesty, wide-eyed reckoning, and conversation as our ways forward.  Let’s not pretend the past didn’t happen or that it happened to some other people who have nothing to do with us.

Rather, let’s reach back and take the hands of our ancestors – enslaved and enslavers – and let them tell us their stories. Let’s whisper to them that we love them, that we thank them for bringing us forward, that we don’t condone all of their choices but neither do we blame them for those things over which they had no choice.  Most of all, let’s tell them that we are grateful to be able to stand here, now, and hold all the truth of our history in our hands.

Shame is a shackle. Truth is a path. 



The First Time I Really Heard Black Peoples’ Stories: Coming to the Table

The First Time I Really Heard Black Peoples' Stories: Coming to the TableTwo years ago, I got into my car and drove up the mountains to Eastern Mennonite University for the National Gathering of Coming to the Table. I had no idea what I was in for.

At this gathering of black folks and white folks from all over the country, I sat and had real, deep, meaningful conversations with black people for the first time.  (Goodness, it’s hard to realize that.)  My experience of life until then – growing up in the South and then moving into academia – had meant that white supremacy had limited my opportunities to know people of color, and I had not ever done the work to make those opportunities for myself.  Now, that’s not to say I didn’t have “black friends,” to pull in that excuse so many white people use for why we are not racist. I did have black friends, people I really cared about. But at the CTTT National Gathering, I sat and really listened to these people’s experiences for the first time. . . I was 39 years old.

At the end of those four days, my entire perspective on life shifted, and still, I’m not sure I can articulate that shift except to say that I would never be blind – even for a moment – to the legacy of slavery in our world today.

Now, that’s not to say I don’t get it wrong . . . a lot. I do.  I still walk around in my white skin, and I still don’t see the privilege that appearance carries sometimes.  But that National Gathering cracked open the hard shell of white privilege and let in some light so I could see that “my way” of doing things was usually a raced way of doing things, and the “white” way of doing things was not always the right way of doing things.  I still have to learn that lesson most every day.

But that National Gathering moved me, broke me, healed me . . . and taught me that I am on a constant road to healing and that I have a responsibility – a responsibility that is free of shame or guilt, but a responsibility nonetheless – to work for real, meaningful, honest reconciliation.  It was that Gathering that led me to join the Board of Coming to the Table and that hardened my resolve to be a lifelong researcher and writer about the people who were enslaved in the United States.

In two days, I will travel back over those mountains to EMU for the 10th Anniversary National Gathering of Coming to the Table.  This time, I’m leading a session with my friend Lorenzo Dickerson*, but this time – like the last – I go with a heart that is open to listen.  That is my prayer for this week . . . that I will have ears to hear because my life is so much richer and wiser and truer when I do.

If you’d like to know more about Coming to the Table, we welcome you to join us.  You can learn more about the organization and sign up to get our newsletter here.  We welcome you. 


*Lorenzo runs an amazing film company called Maupintown Media.  On June 24th, Lorenzo will be coming to screen Tim Wise’s film White Like Me here on the farm.  We welcome you to join us. You can get the details here.  The event is FREE and open to the public.

When We Can’t Watch Roots

When We Can't Watch RootsLast night, I didn’t sleep much. Most of my dreams were about a black man, lean and strong, moving through dark, wooded places with speed and stealth. Or sometimes, he was tied down on a board in a basement or the cabin of a yacht. Or he was carrying huge logs by the end across yards.  He was never smiling.

I had watched two hours of Roots before I went to bed, and Kunta’s vestige was haunting my dreams. . . as it should.

In the past week, I’ve had a few conversations with folks about the powerful mini-series Roots, a series I am watching because I believe it is my obligation to do so. Some of these folks are not watching the series because it is too much for them – too much violence, too much stimulus in the form of images.  Some other folks are not watching because “it’s just too sad.”

I’m trying very, very hard to find my way to compassion with those of us who feel this way, but honestly, I’m not doing so hot at that.

On one hand, I do understand. I am a Highly Sensitive Person, so when I see (or particularly read) about violence or painful stories, they linger with me – sometimes for days.  I have to monitor how much of that intense experience I take in because I – by nature – relate to it fiercely and can debilitate myself if I’m not careful.  Me crying in a ball on my bed isn’t helpful to anyone.

On the other hand, I don’t understand.  Part of me wants to dismiss these ideas as selfish, to charge out accusations about how “enslaved people didn’t have a choice not to live it, and you can’t bear to watch a recreation of it?”  But accusations aren’t helpful either.  They just push people away and build walls.

So today, I’m choosing to listen and asking this fundamental question:

Is our refusal to watch/read/listen to painful stories of the oppressed truly a way to be wise about our needs, or is it merely an avoidance and, thus, an exercise of our privilege to turn away? 

Some further questions for us to consider.

  • How do we come to understand oppression if we are highly sensitive people? What means can we use to delve deep into the experience of the oppressed without losing ourselves and our ability to act in the pain?
  • What options are available for people to bear witness? Films? Books? Listening to first-person accounts?
  • How can we call out the irresponsible use of privilege when we see it without alienating the people for whom this need to turn away is about health and self-preservation and not about avoidance?
  • How do we hold space for people to come to these experiences and this oppression in a variety of ways, ways that allow for all the ways we as people operate in the world while also calling out white supremacy and working to eliminate white privilege?

I don’t have any real answers to these questions here, and I welcome your thoughts on any of them.

Always in love, folks.  Always in love.



Watching Roots with my Heart

Watching Roots with my HeartI’ve read the book. I saw the original series – but only  two or three years ago . . . and I do this work about the history and legacy of slavery, about finding the descendants of enslaved people . . . so of course, I wanted to watch Roots.  Alright, “wanted” may not be the right word.  I felt it important to watch Roots.  

My husband told me he wanted to watch it with me, and so at 9pm, we sat down together on the couch and began with Kunta Kinte’s birth. . .

I could meditate on the superb actor playing Kunta or the powerful use of setting to convey both beauty in Kunta’s home village or horror in the slave ship.  I could let my literature analysis-training lead my mind here into a study of the use of dialogue or the powerful effects of the close-up camera angles.  But none of that matters in the face of the power of the story . . . not one bit of it.

I cannot – will not – watch Roots with my mind first.  I will not allow mental calculations or cold analysis to mediate this already very mediated experience for me.  No, I let my heart move forward first in this viewing.  I smiled as Jinna danced for Kunta. I ached when his father urged him to take the Mandinka way seriously instead of dreaming of school.  I gasped when they slavers caught him.  I wept in the belly of that ship.

Too much we look at slavery coldly, with the rational distance of academic lenses. Too much we use leapings of mind to rationalize horror.

You know, they enslaved their own people.

Some black people owned slaves.

They had food and water and shelter.  They had it pretty good.

These are all things people have said to me when we have talked about the reality of slavery.  These are all things people use to distance themselves from the massive, systemic horror that happened to millions of individual human beings.  These are the mind-wrought lies we tell ourselves so we don’t have to feel the horror of enslavement . . . and so we don’t have to own up to its legacy in 2016.

Philip and I watched until Kunta reached Annapolis, and then we hit record to watch it the rest later.  Together. . . our family is committed to witnessing this horror. Not because we are good people, good white people, but because in the very least, we as white people owe our black brothers and sisters the respect of paying attention to the stories of their ancestors.  In the very least, we can sit and gasp without rationalizing what happened.

At the very least, I can sit and imagine my great-grandfather Emmanuel as Kunta, picture him laying in the belly of that ship on the passage from Angola to Jamestown . . . and I can pray while I weep.

Are you watching Roots? Why or why not? 


Two of my dear friends have written about why they are watching Roots. I encourage you to visit their blogs at the links below. 

Why Am I Watching Roots? by True Lewis

“Roots” Reboot by Sharon Morgan