3 Experiences that Have Taught Me about Us

3 Experiences that Have Taught Me about Us

I’ve been much quieter here than I had intended when I began this journey several months ago, and I apologize for that. My husband and I have been fighting a battle with infertility, and that battle took most of my energy.  Now, I’m still pretty low energy, but it’s for a glorious reason – I am pregnant.

So for now, my activities are a bit curtailed and involve a lot more things close to home and close to my couch.  I miss research trips and speaking, but I’m trying to take advantage of this quiet time to learn more, to educate myself, to let myself be broken open over the history and legacy of slavery.

How I’ve Been Learning

Today, then, I want to share three experiences that have taught me a great deal in these quiet days.

  1. First, I attended the opening of the new exhibit at Montpelier Plantation, “The Mere Distinction of Colour.” This exhibit focuses on the stories and experiences of people who were enslaved at President James Madison’s family plantation, and it is truly beautiful.  The exhibit includes stories of descendants, artifacts from where enslaved people lived and worked, and a great deal of research about the individuals and families that were enslaved.  It’s WELL WORTH a visit to Virginia to see it.
  2. Secondly, I watched the powerful documentary Traces of the Trade, which tells the story of 10 members of the DeWolfe family, the largest slave trading family in U.S. history, as they trace the route of their family’s business in buying and selling human beings.  The film is powerfully-honest, and not everyone in the film is “enlightened” all the time – but I particularly appreciated seeing each individual’s journey. Plus, Tom DeWolf, the executive director of Coming to the Table, is one of the travelers, and I take great joy in knowing that this experience was a great part of his important work of healing the legacy of slavery.
  3. Finally, I am absolutely committed to W. Kamau Bell’s AMAZING CNN series United Shades of America. In the series, Bell visits places in the U.S. that he doesn’t understand or wants to know more about – from the KKK (a BRAVE act for an African American man) to gentrifying Portland to, most recently, Puerto Rico.  He asks hard questions and listens so well to everyone he speaks with, and since he’s a stand-up comedian, he brings truth to light with humor.

Sometimes, our days of activism and direct action have to be limited, and sometimes, that’s a very good thing because it means we do our own work in ourselves, which – of course – has to be the first work anyway.

Have you seen any of these? If so, what are your thoughts about the work that they do? 

 

I’m finishing up a book with two other authors about racism in the Christian church, and I’m very excited about the possibility that a publisher will pick that up. I’ll share more as soon as I can.  

Slave vs Enslaved: The Way We Use Words to Hold People in Their Place

Slave vs Enslaved: The Way We Use Words to Hold People in their PlaceWhen I moved to the Bremo Plantations when I was 14, I met my friend Anna.  She and her sister rode the school bus with my brother and I, and because we were the last four people on the bus, we became fast friends – two hours together a day will do that to people.  Anna and I talked about most everything – from the boys we liked to the teachers we didn’t to the town we lived in. She taught me what it meant for someone’s skin to be “ashy,” and I suspect I taught her nothing about being white because, as a black girl, she already knew the lingo there.

After we’d gotten to know each other a bit, Anna told me about her friend Coffee, who had worked as the cook on the plantation that I lived on (the one my dad managed.)  He was a black man, she said, and the owners at the time hadn’t treated him very well. He’d lived in the apartment over the garden room, and he was expected to be on hand whenever the owners needed him to be, even when he had family obligations of his own. He had left by the time we moved there.

But Claudine hadn’t. Claudine was the housekeeper, and her face lit up with joy every time I walked in the room, her almost toothless smile a beam of light.  Claudine, too, was expected to be on hand for her regular hours and then also for any special occasions, holidays, and weekends when the family wanted to visit the 9 bedroom, 4.5 bath house.

Somewhere along the way, I realized that the owners thought they were “helping Claudine out” by giving her work, and along that same way, I realized that they thought Claudine and Coffee were “in their place” as black people working in domestic situations.

The owners were not terrible people – they loved my family, and I loved them like grandparents – but they were acting out of the racism and upbringing that was true (is still true) for many wealthy and middle class whites in the South. (You’ve read The Help, right?) Their behavior was wrong and hurtful.

So this week, when I read “The Enslaved Woman They Called Lola,” I went back to those days just 28 years ago and thought of Coffee and Claudine.  Lola is Claudine is every other black women who was expected to nanny, nurse, clean, and cook for white people because “that’s just the way it’s done” or, perhaps even more menacingly because “those good white people” are helping black people by giving them work, as if it’s a favor to their employees rather than to them.

Slave vs Enslaved

I am a huge proponent of using the term enslaved person to refer to an individual who lived and toiled under the institution of slavery because, as the article suggests, it places the emphasis on the person and something done to them and separates the person’s identity from their societal status.  But since I wrote the piece that is quoted in The Atlantic article, I’ve also come to understand that sometimes we have to take the terminology of the oppressor and use it to break down the oppression. Hence, the title of my book The Slaves Have Names.  I’m trying to make a point there – about identity, about the power of words to dehumanize. I’m trying to co-opt a word for a purpose.

I don’t know if I do that well.

I do know, though, that we can get all caught up in language and miss the people. . . we do it all the time. Back in the day, we did it by calling enslaved people “servants,” as if they chose their work and their home. Now, we do it by calling people “thugs” or “criminals” as code for our own racism about black people.

So when I talk about individual human beings that I know – Ben and Minerva, Lucy and Nelson – I say they were enslaved – a system was placed on them that held them in bondage, but that system did not make them become what it hoped it could – slaves.  No, these were strong, talented, courageous, perseverant people. PEOPLE.  Always, in every way.

The Legacy

A few years into our friendship, I invited Anna and her family to revival at our church. Her dad was a Baptist minister, and I went to a Baptist church . . . it seemed right.

I sat with them, and after the service, I was all excited to introduce them to the pastor. We all went to the front of the sanctuary to shake my pastor’s hand.  He looked at Anna’s father, scanned his eyes over the rest of the family, and then turned away to shake the next white person’s hand.

His gaze – as much as any other action or word – told me all I needed to know: he thought Anna and her family were out of place, they were not worth seeing, they were not people.

Sometimes, we don’t even need words to oppress.

 

Saving the Dunbar Rosenwald School in Fluvanna County, Virginia

Saving the Dunbar Rosenwald School in Fluvanna County, Virginia

At the “back” side of the Bremo plantations, there’s a community of African American families, many of whom have ties back to the days of slavery on those plantations.  If you’ve read my book The Slaves Have Names, you know many of those families – the Creasys, the Thomases, the Smiths, and many more.

Within this community, there is a beautiful school called Dunbar. Dunbar was an original Rosenwald School, built in 1923-24, using funds from the local community, the Rosenwald Fund (started by Julius Rosenwald of Sears Roebuck, Inc.) and the local government.  These schools were often the ONLY source of education for African American children in rural areas of the South.

Dunbar was open until the 1950s, and so many people I know attended this school up through 8th grade or so before moving over to the local black high, Abrams, for the final years of their education.

As you may know, many Rosenwald Schools are in danger of collapse due to neglect and disuse, but my friends Carmen and Stanley Smith are working hard to save Dunbar. For the past few years, they have been tirelessly cleaning the school, shoring up its structure, and working to make it a community center for everyone in the area.  (You can see some phenomenal pictures of the school here.)

We Can Help

Carmen and Stanley are in the midst of a major fundraising campaign so that they can complete the restoration and the transformation of this building. If you would like to contribute – and I hope you will – please follow this link and make your donation. (Please note – there is a problem with the site at this moment, so please keep trying if you’d like to donate.)

If you’ve read my book Charlotte and the Twelve, then you know I believe these important pieces of history and community story are vital in our process of healing and knowing one another as a nation.  I cannot wait to see what Carmen and Stanley do here, and I hope you will join me in being part of this great work.

Make your donation here. 

A Call for Your Stories of African American History and Genealogy

A Call for Your Stories of African American History and Genealogy

Weighing the Christmas Baby – 1889

Every week, I post a story – with a historical or genealogical focus  – about the lives of African American people.  I love researching these stories and sharing them with you all. However, I have a very Virginia-centered focus, and I’d really like this to be a place where the stories of all our ancestors across the U.S. are told.

What This Space Does

My goal with this entire website is to share the stories, struggles, hopes, and work of African American people, and I’d love to share your passionate stories about these things here.  Here, we are looking for:

  • family stories,
  • for stories of injustice rooted in historical racism,
  • for stories about the places important to African American communities,
  • for tips about African American genealogy,
  • and most anything that has to do with black folks and our history and families.

How Sharing Might Help You

When you share a story here, it goes out to everyone I know online, and I also share your story in other forums that are appropriate including:

  • African American genealogical sites
  • Historic preservation groups
  • Anti-racism organizations

I will get your story out to as many people as I can so that you find your cousins, receive wider support for an action or work or art, connect with other like-minded folks, and

Formatting Guidelines

The posting guidelines here are very loose, but typically, a post will:

  • Be 500-1,000 words
  • Include an appropriate image that the writer has permission to use. (Or I can select a copyright-free image for you.)
  • Include a bio of the author, including links to websites or social media pages.
  • Incorporate links where people can get more information.

If you’re have something you’d like to share, just reach out to me via a comment on this post or at [email protected]  We’ll work together to get it ready and get it out there.

I can’t wait to hear what you want to share with the world. 

Help Save The Buena Vista Colored School

Help Save the Buena Vista Colored SchoolIf you’ve read my book Charlotte and the Twelve*, then you know how much I treasure the stories and history found in black schools. The school in that story is very similar to a beautiful, old building full of history and stories that community members in Buena Vista are working so hard to restore and preserve.  The Buena Vista Colored School was the only school for African American children to attend grades 1-7 from the years 1892-1957, and this particular building was in use from 1914-1957 (the previous building was destroyed in a fire).

Even though I set both of my books, Steele Secrets* and Charlotte and the Twelve, in a town based on Buena Vista, which is where my father-in-law and husband were raised, it wasn’t until just a couple of months ago that I actually learned the rich history of the BV Colored School for the first time.  It’s tucked up and out of town a bit and now sits surrounded by apartment buildings.

But it’s an absolutely beautiful structure – all-brick with wide-plank floors and the chalkboards still ready and waiting on the walls.  You can get a great look around in the video for this news story.

I hope you’ll consider helping to spread the word and support this great work being down in this small mountain town here in Virginia.  We need to preserve these places so that the full story of our history is told and remembered.

Get more information about the school and how you can help here. 

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.

 

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. 

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. 

 

 

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.