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.

 

 

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

 

When Peach Was Captured as a Runaway

When Peach Was Captured as a RunawayYesterday, as I read the papers of the Morris family of Louisa County, Virginia, at the Small Special Collections Library at UVa, I found a piece of paper about a third the size of a notebook page. It read:

John Sadler took up and brought before me on runaway negro man slaved named Peach belonging to Mr. Richard Morris of the said county about seven miles from the said Morris. I order that you pay the said Sadler for taken[sic] up the said runaway ten shillings and sixpence a mile for carr[y]ing home. Given under my hand this twenty seventh day of May 1773.  – John Boswell

I read it out loud to the people in the room, and we all got a little quiet. It’s heavy to read of a person needing to runaway. It’s even heavier to read they were caught.

I have read this little piece of history over and over again, this tidbit that might get dismissed so easily, and I sit with this moment when a man, a man whose house has a town named after it – Boswell’s Tavern – wrote out not only that he was sending a man back into slavery but demanding that someone be paid for that “trouble.”

This moment and the ones leading up to it, the hours that Peach must have planned and plotted, studied routes as he steered the wagons to Gordonsville, they changed his life.  This could have been the moment to break home or to steel his resolve.  This could have been the moment to end his life as he knew it.

After I read this slip to the other researchers in the room, one woman asked what would have happened to him. I can’t answer that in specific for Peach, but I imagine he was whipped, maybe maimed so he could not run again.  A toe removed would not have been out of the question.

But we don’t know. We probably will never know. This is, of course, one of slavery’s legacies, the silence around these people’s lives.

So today, I stare at our peach trees, and I think of the man named after their fruit.  A man whose infant face must have spoken sweetness and the gentle fuzz of life to whoever named him.

Today, I think of Peach, a man brave enough to run away.  A man caught 7 miles from a place that was never really his home.

 

If you have ties to Louisa County, Virginia, the Morris Papers at UVA Special Collections may have some information that would be valuable to you.  And if you think you may be kin to Peach, please, please, please let me know.  I’d love to know you and hear about your family. 

 

I Found Out I Was Black, And I’m Still White

I found out I was black, and I'm still white

Photo by Yamon Figurs via Unsplash

A few years ago, I found out I was black.  For most black folks, their blackness would have been self-evident, part of who they were from the moment they were born.  But for me, this girl in a white body, who had always identified as white – or more correctly had not consciously identified as anything since so much of American society sees whiteness as normative, not racialized – this information was new, a new way of seeing myself, of understanding who I was in a world.

It was also something I could forget, put aside, take up when it served me.  I never pulled a Rachel Dolezol, thank goodness, always being sure to say I identify – and am identified – as white, but I still can pick up this black identity when it suits me and shelve it when it doesn’t because it doesn’t reside in my body.

No one touches my hair when I’m out in public.  We don’t do that to white women.

I’m still praying, thinking, working, talking, listening through what it means to be a woman whose ancestors were black, whose ancestors “passed” and became white, whose ancestors chose whiteness – for what I can only know to be powerful, necessary, safety-filled reasons – and so chose that identity for her.  I will probably be building up and tearing down these ideas for the rest of my life.  I’m okay with that.

How could I not be okay with carrying the weight of questions when I only carry blackness for the strength and gift that it is? I don’t carry the weight of the segregation, the oppression, the dismissal. I don’t carry it with the stereotypes about intellect or athletic prowess. I don’t carry it with the assumption of criminality or promiscuity. I don’t carry it with any of the awfulness of things that come from other people and are laid against black bodies.

So today, in my own white body that courses with the blood of courageous, flawed, gorgeous black men and women, I speak loud this question – Fellow white people, what burden are you laying against our black brothers and sisters? What prejudices? What assumptions? What misguided responsibility for racism are we placing on their backs?  

And will you join me in shifting all of that weight onto our own bodies? Will you stand with me as we accept the fact of racism as OURS to mend? Will you let your black brothers and sisters lean into you with their burdens, let them slide some of that heaviness onto your shoulders?  Will you? 

I hope so, I pray so because when we white people shoulder this burden, when we lift it onto our own white-clad bodies, we can sometimes put it aside.  That’s not possible for our friends who walk in brown, yellow, black, or red skin. . . Not ever.

It wasn’t possible for my ancestors, and so they took up whiteness as their shield. The least I can do now is put my own body out as a shield for those who do not, could not have that choice.

I honor, respect, even understand my ancestors’ choice.  But what a shame they had to make it.

 

Immersing Myself In African American Voices

Immersing Myself in African American VoicesI’m still working out how to use my voice to bring more justice, to break down white supremacy, to remember those our society and our institutions have intentionally forgotten.

One of the ideas I’m considering is committing to read almost exclusively African American authors for the rest of 2015. I need to make some radical choices to shift my perspective, to unnormalize my own whiteness.  This may be one way I try to do that.

As I read from Drew Hart‘s Trouble I’ve Seen this morning, I realized how very much I am still steeped in white supremacy, how so much of my understanding of the world is shaped by the idea that the white perspective is the right perspective . . . or worse, that it isn’t perspective at all, but truth.  I need to dismantle that for myself, first, so I can help dismantle it for others.

Years ago, when I was still teaching freshman composition, one of my students, Michael, said, “Why is white English the right English, Ms. Andi?”  I’ve carried Michael’s question with me for years. It’s one of those shaping statements, the ones that burrow in and disrupt.

I’m learning that when I feel uncomfortable, I need to pay attention. When something challenges my perspective, I need to silence my urge to defend myself or feel hurt and turn instead to empathy, to reach and stretch to understand.  It’s not a pleasant thing, this growing, this unnormalizing whiteness, not for this white woman.  But it’s essential.  Absolutely essential as a work of justice in my own heart.

So I am, I am going to read almost exclusively books my African American authors for the rest of this year.  I’ll be sharing my thoughts on those books here, and I welcome your recommendations for my reading.  What books by African Americans would you recommend I read?  Please share in the comments below.  

Today, I leave you with the Bowie State Cheerleaders using their bodies and their talents to speak the truth.

Ken Burns Says Race Is the Central Theme of American History

Ken Burns Says Race Is The Central Theme of American HistoryEver since I saw his Civil War documentary, I’ve LOVED Ken Burns. . . . here’s another reason to love him today:

We were founded on the idea that all men were created equal, but oops—the guy who wrote that owned more than 100 human beings and didn’t see in his lifetime to free any one of them; didn’t see the contradiction or the hypocrisy. And so it set us on a journey where we are constantly having to struggle not with race, but racism.

It’s definitely worth your time to watch this whole clip of Burns on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. His words on the importance of Jackie Robinson in our history are profound, as is the great clip with the Obamas.

Too much, I fear we relegate people of color, people like Jackie Robinson, or Sojourner Truth, or Maya Angelou, to the position of exemplars of a race when really what we should be doing is admiring them as exemplars of the best of what it is to be human.  We take someone like Jackie Robinson and taint both his accomplishments and his punishments by implying – or directly stating sometimes – that he is only great because he was the first black man to accomplish what he did. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we, instead, recognized that his greatness is even more profound because he WAS a black man who had to overcome more than any of his white colleagues and who still stood out for both his athletic prowess and his strong, gentle spirit?

I hesitate to say we should try to imagine a world where race is not a factor because we too often act as if that is the case now instead of actually recognizing the racism that hinders us all.  But at the risk of feeding the delusion of the color blind, I do for a moment imagine what Jackie Robinson, Nat Turner, Rosa Parks, Maya Angelou would have accomplished if they did not first have to overcome white supremacy and racial hatred.  What would the world look like if we’d actually gotten out of their way and let them do their thing loud and hard?  Oh what a world that would be.

Did any of you see Burns’ documentary on Robinson yet? If so, what did you think?