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.