Because Enslaved People Were Not Immigrants

Because Enslaved People Were Not Immigrants

Brick Walls Often Carry the Fingerprints of the Enslaved People Who Built Them. Joe McGill of The Slave Dwelling Project Taught Me That.

In light of Ben Carson’s offensive and harmful remarks – as we all know, enslaved people were not immigrants – the need for a full accounting of slavery’s history and it’s continuing harmful legacy is reinforced in a mighty way. One of the institutions that is – belatedly but with true commitment – reckoning with this history is the University of Virginia, THE University as people in this area of the U.S. call it.  They have created a President’s Commission on Slavery, and as part of this work, they are holding a Symposium on Slavery in partnership with the Slave Dwelling Project on October 18-21 of this year.

As part of this gathering, the University has put forth a call for papers on the Symposium’s theme “Universities, Slavery, Public Memory, and the Built Landscape.”  It’s my hope that many people will put together papers and panels that present this history not only from an academic perspective but from the perspective of descendants, community residents, and homeowners who live and move around these landscapes of slavery in their daily lives.  Maybe you’d like to put in a proposal?

It’s crucial that we all participate in these conversations, that we share our personal stories, our family’s attachments, our deep ties to not only the stories of slavery but to the people about whom those stories were told and the places that carry their memories.

My Invitation To You

To that end, please use this space as a place to tell your stories, share your photos, ask your questions. If you’d like to write a post to share here – either to tell us about your family or the place that you live or to ask questions to gather more information – I invite you to do so. Reach out to me through the contact page, and we’ll find a date that works for you. 

After all, as along as our country’s leadership is belying the horrors of slavery, we know we have a great deal of work to do.

 

Black History Month Is Better Than Nothing. Maybe?

Black History Month Is Better Than Nothing. Maybe?Today is the last day of Black History Month. . . and we know all the biting jokes – the shortest, coldest month of the year stuff. It’s all true those quips backed by pain.  All of it.

Still, at least there is something, right? At least this one month of the year mainstream America gives its attention to the stories of black people, right?

I think so, and I don’t. See, I’m not sure that the continuation of this month doesn’t give most people an excuse to not pay attention to black history – and black people – the rest of the year.  We feel placated and good because we invite black speakers – or in my case, white speakers who talk about black history – during this month – and then we’re off the hook for the rest of the year.

Maybe I’m just being cynical.

But here’s what I’d actually like to see.  African American history as part of all history, all year, all courses, all seminars, all discussions. . . I’d like to see the accomplishments and stories of black people to be integrated – no, I want more than integration. I want equality and occasional foregrounding of black history in our society.  (Incidentally, I want the same for women’s history and for Asian American history and for LGBTQ history.)  I just want history to be equal. . . even though the stories it tells remind us how very much we have always been and still are unequal.

So I talk about black history all year long. I write it. I post it. I go to conferences about it. I steep myself in OUR history – the collective part of our American history, our international history – because it gives me hope and joy and strength, because it matters in ways our culture continual dismisses or diminishes. I want us all to do that, honoring culture and ethnicity in every way but elevating everyone to the same level in our remembering.

Is Black History Month the best we can do? Nah. We can do far better, but until then, at least we get the shortest, coldest month, right?

What do you think of African American History month? Important?  Good enough? Not enough?  I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

 

By the way, did any of you catch Dr. Gates’ new series, Africa’s Great Civilizations last night? I DVRed it to enjoy it today, so no spoilers. But what did you think? 

Archival Genealogy and Finding Our Ancestors

Genealogy, Archives, and Finding Our PeopleIn a few weeks, I have the honor of presenting about archival genealogy at the Ohio Genealogical Society Conference in Sanduski, OH.  I’m really excited about this, and not just because the society has the great acronym, OGS, which makes me think I’m going to be on some new version of Star Trek.

At the conference, I’m presenting twice: once on how to use ArchiveGrid to find your people and once on how to scour collections of plantations papers to locate enslaved people. Both presentations will be useful for folks researching African American history, or at least that’s my aim. While these techniques can, of course, help people researching anyone through archival documents, my aim – in any presentation I do of this nature – is to foreground the stories and experiences of African American people.

A Story about Helping My White Brothers and Sisters Understand the Challenges

A few years ago, I had the honor of discussing my book The Slaves Have Names with a local book club. We were talking about the people enslaved at the Bremo plantations, but then, as is often the case with a group of people who are interested in history, the conversation switched to how I did my research, a topic I discuss a lot in the book. We talked about genealogy, about how difficult it is to find information on ancestors, especially when those ancestors were enslaved. I talked about the hours of research I put in, and then one woman said, “But all genealogy is difficult. Mine was.”

I took a deep breath and looked this well-intentioned white woman in the eye and said, “I’m sure it was, but at least you have information to find. If you were enslaved, you were likely not allowed to be literate so could not keep written records of your own family. You were also not always able to know dates or even be aware of who your own parents were – or what their full names were.  Slavery intentionally disrupted families, and very few people of European descent have that same struggle.”

She glazed over a bit in the midst of my response. I hope, somehow, she heard me.

So when I present at OGS, I hope my African American brothers and sisters will be in the room because I hope what I share will be helpful to us all. But I also hope my European American brothers and sisters attend too. My work here is to speak the truth to them, my white skin to theirs in the hopes that they can hear me.

If you’d like more information about the Ohio Genealogical Society Conference and if you’d like to attend, you can find that here – http://www.ogsconference.org/. If you do attend, be sure to let me know. I’d love to see you. 

 

Valentine’s Day on the Plantation

Valentine's Day on the PlantationLast night, I was watching Mercy Street, and in this episode, an enslaved man, Caleb, had escaped from the plantation where he was held and made it to Alexandria, a Union-held city during the Civil War. There, Caleb begins to search for his wife Aurelia, who, as is the way of love, has fallen in love with a free man of color, Sam, because – it seems likely – she presumes her husband lost to her forever.  Now, Sam and Caleb must deal with the way the institution of slavery has led them – though neither Aurelia or either of them – has done anything wrong. Still, there is this love-triangle, and unlike the ones in young adult novels, there is nothing beautiful or easy here.

As we celebrate Valentine’s Day today, I am thinking about the way romance worked on plantations, about how all the things we still struggle with today – patriarchy, homophobia, sexual assault and rape – were present there, too. But then, beyond those hardships, there was the hardship, the brutality of enslavement, where it was possible to love someone and lose them through no act of volition on either lover’s part. I think about how a woman might love a man and have to watch him studded out to other women on other plantations. I think about how  man might love a woman and have to watch her raped by her master. I think about how a man might love another man and watch him sold away because of their love, no matter how quiet.

Then, I think about how many men and women sought out their partners once freedom became more than a dream – about newspaper ads seeking each other, about the thousands of miles walked on sole-bare shoes to seek a love stolen decades before.  I think of the power of this hard, beautiful thing we celebrate today, and I imagine the way it just might have been the thing to save so very many.

So today, I am thinking anew of the ways slavery tore people apart from each other and within themselves, but I am also carrying Caleb and Sam’s true love for a woman as hope and a reminder. If ever we need a reminder of the way that love can lead people to overcome, we need only to look at our African American brothers and sisters to find it.

 

The Stories We Have Not Heard: Finding and Mapping African American Cemeteries

The Stories We Have Not Heard: African American Cemeteries in LouisaTomorrow afternoon, we will gather in a small room that used to be a porch at a local museum in Louisa County, Virginia. The handful of us will hear from Lynn Rainville about the key components of locating, mapping, and recording information about African American cemeteries, and then, a representative from the Department of Historic Resources will talk about how our work can help save these sacred spaces.

I am honored to be a part of the Will the Stones Whisper Their Names? Project to identify and map African American cemeteries in Louisa.

Cemeteries are special places to me, places where tiny pieces of the stories of people’s lives are captured in stone, places where the holiness of life is preserved in a world that doesn’t consider much holy anymore.

But more and more – and also since forever in this nation – the places where African American people are buried are considered less than sacred. They are forgotten, ignored, and sometimes destroyed – through intention and apathy, and if we do not take steps to save them, we will lose these places of history while also disrespecting and dishonoring the people who rest in those places.

I grew up less than a quarter-mile from a slave cemetery on the Bremo plantations where I was raised. While I did not always treat the space with the respect it deserved, I always knew it to be special. Now, it is, perhaps, my most favorite place on the earth.  By grace, it is protected – with literal walls and the guarding of ancestors – and it will be there in another 100 years, I’m sure.

Other burial places, especially those where the bodies of formerly enslaved people are buried, are not as graced. They are regularly paved over, plowed through, or hidden in overgrowth and forest. People’s grandmothers and great-uncles are buried here.  We all need to know of these places both as places of remembrance for families but also as places where we remember our hard, broken, beautiful, terrible history.

So tomorrow, when Dr. Rainville teaches us and we hear about how our efforts might save a few of these holy sites, I will listen carefully, both for their teaching and for the ancestors’ who whisper to us about all the stories we have not yet heard.

If you’d like to learn more about the Will The Stones Whisper Their Names? Project, please visit our Facebook page. 

Stepping Away

Friends,

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,

Andi

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.