Last 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?”