A Brand New Resource for African American Genealogy

https://cfh.iaamuseum.org/santee-cooper-relocation-project/

If you work around the African American genealogy world, you are going to want to know about the International African American Museum Center for Family Research. Really, bookmark that link now.

As they say on their website, they are a “one of a kind research center with a focus on African American genealogy.” As part of the International African American Museum that is slated to open in 2020, they provide stellar resources on African American genealogy including online versions of everything from marriage records to death certificates to collections of photographs that are related to African American individuals and communities.

Since I was just in Santee, SC this weekend, one of my favorite resources is the Santee-Cooper Relocation Collection gallery of photographs. The pictures are haunting, and the information about that moment in history is rich and very readable, even online. I continue to be amazed and appalled at the way African American people’s lives have been forcably uprooted or literally buried and drowned for the sake of “progress.”

The site also contains an incredible Learning Library that includes tutorials on everything from getting started in genealogy to understanding the basics of DNA and genealogy.  They also have a blog where they feature certain types of resources, talk about common mistakes genealogists make, and highlight their research collections.

It’s worth just taking a look to see the amazing photos they feature as the headings of each site – powerful images!

So if you are looking for a fresh space to find new rabbit trails for your genealogical escapades or if you feel like you’ve exhausted all the avenues available to you for this work, here’s a new path to follow as far as you can. And goodness knows, we need as many paths as possible to get back to the history so many of us have lost.

Happy Researching!

Food Is Love by Sharon Leslie Morgan

Food Is Love

(Originally published on Michael Twitty’s Cooking Gene Memories (22 November 2016) http://thecookinggene.com/memories-page/)

When I was growing up in Chicago, the kitchen of our Southside apartment was the center of my universe. Not only was food cooked there, it was a place of existential meaning. It was where corn was shucked, drinks were poured, peas were shelled, homework was done, tears were shed and laughter peeled. It was the source of Thanksgiving dinner, issuing forth its bounty in innumerable serving dishes, hot from the stove, onto the table in the dining room – the next room over.

The kitchen table could just as easily be used to hold and serve food as to host a card game. It provided a roof under which I and my cousins would play around the feet of ever present guests. On hot summer nights, it was the room we passed through to get to the back porch, where my grandfather, Paw Paw, would sleep on a cot under a navy-blue velvet sky. On cold winter nights, it was a place entered through a heavy curtain that kept the cold air in the rest of the apartment out while we sat around the open oven door, rubbing our hands to keep warm. When we were sick, it was the location of my grandmother’s (Maw Maw) rocking chair, in which she rocked us well after rubbing us down with Vick’s vapo rub, eucalyptus oil, or turpentine, depending on the ailment.

Food Is Love by Sharon Leslie Morgan

No one person taught me to cook and a veritable army of people have added to my repertoire over the years. Like a sponge, I sucked up lessons as a child from both of my parents, three grandparents, aunts, uncles and older cousins. My grandfather taught me how to fry red snapper a la Mississippian. My grandmother contributed chicken and dumplins’, informed by her roots as a farm girl in Illinois. My other grandmother taught me the Italian spaghetti of her parent’s home country. My father taught me to make gravy. My mother taught me Louisiana Creole gumbo, which she learned as a 15-year-old bride in New Orleans. My aunt June taught me to make some mean barbecued pig feet. Through the years, I have trekked all over the world, enjoying the comraderie of friends’ kitchens in the Caribbean, Africa and Europe. I learned to fry escovitch fish in Jamaica; create shark and bake sandwiches in Tobago; sacrifice, skin, and cook every inch of a sheep in South Africa, and prepare bitter leaf greens with bush meat in Cameroun.

There is no one recipe I can point to as definitive. My overall food concept is one of “pan-African cuisine.” I believe from experience that all people of African descent eat pretty much the same things, cooked in very similar ways. No matter where we are in Africa or the Diaspora, we eat and enjoy corn bread, corn meal porridge (grits, pap, and ugali), beans (of all colors), greens (of all kinds), chicken (fried or fricasseed), lots of fish and mountains of rice. Our love of spices, including hot peppers, is universal.

The greatest thing I learned from absolutely everyone that contributed to my culinary education is that “food is love.” I therefore do not hesitate to pass it around! I once owned and cooked at a restaurant in Paris (Bojangles) that offered pan-African culinary delights, seasoned with live music. Years after the fact, diehard fans still remember me and my food.

I can only surmise that people like me and Michael Twitty inherited “the cooking gene” — and I could not imagine life without it. Michael writes extensively on the subject in his new book: The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South (Amistad, 2017).

 

Sharon Leslie Morgan is the co-author with Thomas DeWolf of Gather at the Table: The Healing Journey of a Daughter of Slavery and a Son of the Slave Trade (Beacon Press, 2012) and the author of Paris in a Pot: Living a Dream in the City of Light (Morgan Publishing, 2016). She is the founder of OurBlackAncestry.com, a genealogy community devoted to African American family history.

Walking the Land with Everyone Who Has Gone Before Me

Walking the Land with All Who Have Gone Before Me

Photo by Dogoff Zambrano on Unsplash

Yesterday, two of my friends died in a plane crash, leaving their five children orphans. The husband in this couple was someone I had known since I was 14 years old and my family moved to his family’s plantation that would become my physical and heart-space home.

It was his home, too. His family had owned it since a hunting lodge was built on it in 1725.  This was a place that his family had dug roots for almost three hundred years. He will never see that place again.

That man and I lived very different lives. His family employed mine, and the economic differences between our experiences sometimes created rifts so wide that I felt like he and I didn’t speak the same language.  But still, we shared a space, a place we each treasured and knew deeply, if differently.

**

The places of enslavement are home to many people: the enslaved community who came to live there, to love there, to work there, to grow there against their own will, the enslaver’s family who chose the place – at least initially – and grew it and their own families alongside the people they enslaved, the free workers who came and went during the days of enslavement, and then those of us who have lived and loved and grown there in the centuries since.

Each place where people were enslaved speaks differently to these various groups. For me, Bremo is a place of peace, a place I used to see with two lenses – the one of home and the one of slavery – but that I now see as rich and broken and true in a single place.  We would not have the gorgeous stone walls and the rolling fields of cleared hills without enslaved people, and they wouldn’t have been enslaved without the system of slavery that the owners subscribed to.  Yet, it is beautiful – I know Primus and Minerva knew that as well as my father and I do.

So when my friend returned to his ancestral home, I can’t say I know all of what he saw because, sadly, I never asked him. (I will surely ask his brothers though.) But I suspect he saw lush trees and virgin timber, the shadows of his ancestors walking these hills, and I expect he saw the legacy that enslaved people left him in that land, a land he shared with them.

**

I never walk the land at Bremo without thinking of the people who were enslaved there – Ben and Lucy, Jack and Phillis, Jesse and Malvina, and all the other enslaved people I am honored to know –  and I never walk it without the thought of the owner’s family that brought my family to that precious place when I was a jaded, grumpy 14-year-old.

Now, I will always think of Byron and Catherine and remember them walking the land, strides wide, centuries of history beneath their feet.

Rest in peace, my friends, all of you.

Slave-Breeding, Truth-Telling, and Fiction – Margaret Wrinkle’s Wash

Slave-Breeding, Truth-Telling, and Fiction - Margaret Wrinkle's WashI met Margaret Wrinkle a few years ago when she was speaking at the Festival of the Book in Charlottesville.  (Even for me, who knows the city, it’s name carries more weight now.)  I introduced myself after her talk, telling her about a mutual friend and that I was so excited to read her book because it is fact told in fiction.

Wrinkle wrote her novel Wash after hearing a rumor that an ancestor of hers might have been involvedin the practice of slave-breeding.  The novel explores that horrific but all too common practice, where men and women were used to build the “people wealth” of their owners.  Men were sent out to “stud,” women to “be bred.”  The practice was not at all unlike the way livestock was bred, and it was abominable.

Wrinkle’s novel explores the story of Wash, a man who is used as a stud for his master.  She does so with great respect for Wash and the other people whose lives his path crosses, and her prose is beautiful.

Today, Margaret has given me two copies of her novel to share with you, so if you’d like to enter to win one, please just leave a comment below about why you’d like to read this book, and I’ll randomly choose two winners on Friday, August 25 and contact them by email for shipping information.

This isn’t an easy book to read, but then, it shouldn’t be. It’s well-worth your time.

 

You can learn more about Margaret Wrinkle’s work as an author and a filmmaker at her website.

What I Will Say to My White Friends after Charlottesville

What I Will Say to My White Brothers and Sisters After Charlottesville

The intersection where Heather Heyer was killed and 19 people injured . . . the morning after. Photo Courtesy of Jodi Lefebvre Jackson

I live just a few miles from Charlottesville. It is the city where I do my grocery shopping, where I see the dentist, where my father, step-mom, and in-laws live.  It is the place where I meet people for coffee. It is the town where I got my ears pierced and went to my prom.  It is home.

So when white nationalists, Nazis, racists marched into my city on Friday night, torches blaring, the hate rang like a bell in my heart. It’s been a long time since I was naïve or willfully ignorant enough to be surprised by actions like this, but this time, in my home, it felt bigger, sharper, more real. Racism marched in my streets, and it broke my heart anew.

Let me say, though, that this racism is not new to Charlottesville, not at all.  This powerful piece by Sarajanee Davis articulates well the history of racial heartbreak in our beautiful city.

But most of you know of this heartbreak. As women and men of color, you live it every day. It is part of your hometowns, part you experience regularly. I know you know, so today, I want you to say that – to the best of my ability – I’ve got you today.  As a woman who identifies as white and who is always identified as white, despite my African ancestors, I know that my work is to speak to other white people, so here, now, is what I will share on all my social media accounts.

My Dear, Beloved, White Brothers and Sisters,

I am seeing a lot of distancing, a lot of us stiff arming the white nationalists, the Nazis and racists who marched in Charlottesville on Friday and Saturday.  We are doing a lot of “them”ing about those folks, acting out our horror at their hatefulness. I get it.  I want to do it, too, push those white people, those young white men especially, far away from myself. I want “them” to be “them,” too.

But they are us.

I say that with no hyperbolic force. I am speaking truth.

I am a racist. As a white woman who was raised in America, this is something I must own. It is part of what is taught to me as a white person in the United States – this belief that, somehow, white people are superior.  I never got a lecture. No one ever told me that belief in so many words, but I was taught it nonetheless.

I know that I was taught this belief because sometimes I think and say things, racist things, that I didn’t know I believed. I won’t recount the list of those things for you here because I do not want to retraumatize our brothers and sisters of color who hear those things every day, but if you’d like examples, email me at [email protected], and I’ll share a few with you, as illustrations of my own brokenness.

So you, my beautiful, beloved, broken white brothers and sisters, you are racist, too.  I know that’s hard to hear – I KNOW.  But it’s true. You have been taught things about people of color, things that say they are inferior to you as a white person.  If you consider carefully, you’ll find those things. I find more every day, and it breaks my heart.

We need to have our hearts broken.

But let me be clear – we don’t need to sit around feeling guilty, making this about us yet again. As Nadia Bolz-Weber said, “let’s be honest – white guilt does nothing. White guilt makes us look for exoneration. White guilt leads to changes of only optics in which people of color are the object and not the subject. Once again. White guilt leads to me trying to figure out how to relieve my white guilt and once again it’s all about me. So let’s let White Guilt go. It doesn’t work.”  So no guilt here – it’s useless. Work is better. Honesty is better. Truth is better.

And for the love of Pete, don’t go around apologizing to all the people of color that you know – that, too, is asking them to do the work of exonerating you of your beliefs. Instead, do what my wise friend Nicole Morgan suggested – talk to other white people. Take your questions, your struggles outside the circle of people of color who have so long had to carry the burden of racism in every way. Write to me if you want.  I”ll answer. We’ll talk it out.

But please, don’t make this about other people. Because it’s not. As you look at the people who marched on Friday and Saturday in Charlottesvile, in my city, don’t push them away with a stiff arm of safe distance. Pull them close. Look them in the eye. See them as your brothers, aunties, cousins, next-door neighbors, yes. But most importantly, see them as yourself.

Until we, the white people of America, can own the quiet racism in our own hearts AND the virulent armored racism that marches in our streets, we cannot change.

And we must change.  WE, the white people of America, must change.

With all my love for all of us,

Andi

I share this not because I want kudos – I don’t need them. I share because, I hope, this tiny thing gives you, my brothers and sisters of color – some small light in these dark days.

Meanwhile, if you are looking for ways to help in Charlottesville, there are myriad options for helping to pay medical bills, and if you comment below, I’ll gladly share those links. But you can also support African American people doing all kinds of good in the city.  If I may, let me suggest two options:

  • Maupintown Media – Maupintown is a film company run by the talented Lorenzo Dickerson, and he makes these amazing films about African American history and community in Charlottesville.  Buy his films. Support his work.
  • Jefferson School Foundation – The Jefferson School was the historic African American high school in the city. It is now a community space that is vibrant with art exhibitions, lectures, performances, meeting rooms, and a genealogy center. You can donate here. 

My friends, these are hard days. I’m still not sure how to get my feet under me to do more, but more I will do. You have my word.

Love to you all.

Judah and her Child: The Whole Truth of Life on the Plantation

Judah and Her Child: Telling the Whole Story at Plantation Houses

Judah at Belle Grove: The Whole Truth of Life on the Plantation

Photo from Bellegrove.org

Judah’s five-week-old son died just after she did. . . the child of an enslaved woman didn’t have much of a chance on the plantation.

I learned this story a couple of weeks ago when Sharon Morgan and I visited Belle Grove Plantation in Middletown, VA.  Our guide told us Judah’s tale as we sat in the kitchen where she cooked. He handed around a dutch oven so people could feel just how heavy the cast iron pot was. He talked about Judah’s life and her death, and he encouraged us to think complexly and richly about a woman who would, on most tours of this nature, be glossed over or simply disappear into statistics mumbled about slavery.  Belle Grove is doing the best interpretation of slavery and the lives of enslaved people as part of the plantation experience that I have ever seen.

It’s a hard thing to interpret slavery at a place that most people visit because of the big house. It’s a challenge in terms of storytelling and, let’s be honest, in terms of budget. Most people just don’t want to hear these stories. We’d rather pretend that this big house was built by people who were paid fair wages and who could go home to their own pieces of land at night. We don’t like to hold close the stories of people who built the houses we admire because they had to, because that was what was expected of them – that and a total obeisance despite their total lack of freedom.

The big historic sites here in Virginia are finally getting around to sharing the stories of the people and communities that literally built these places that people pay millions to see this year, and I’m glad of that. Very glad. Until the story of the vast majority of the people who lived on these lands – a small family of free, white people and dozens of families of enslaved, black people – we are not telling the true history of our land, and we are not doing any justice for the people from whose labor these places were constructed and on whose labor they grew the wealth of their white owners.

I’m grateful to know Judah. I want to know more.

Many thanks to Kristen Laise and Shannon Moeck for telling Judah’s story so well. 

 

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The Color of Love – A Guest Post by Sharon Leslie Morgan

The Color of Love - By Sharon Leslie Morgan

Photo by JORGE LOPEZ on Unsplash

I’ve known Sharon for several years now after we were introduced by a mutual friend. Sharon and I both love history and genealogy, and she teaches me all the time about how to speaking the truth with love does not need to be either unkind or timid.  She is the creator of Our Black Ancestry, an AMAZING community of people looking for the stories of their black ancestors. It’s just $25 to become a member, so I hope you’ll consider doing that today. Now, enjoy Sharon’s powerful story. 

Just like everyone else, my family tree includes an assortment of characters from the unsavory to the sublime. The two I want to talk about are my grandmothers. Both were white women who married black men in the 1920s.

My father’s parents, Dora Federico and Bob Leslie, tied the knot in 1922. My mother’s parents, Jennie Waymoth and Louie Nicholson, followed suit in 1926. When they did so, miscegenation was illegal in 38 states. A “Racial Integrity Act” was on the books, which made it illegal for white people to marry anyone with “a single drop of Negro blood.” The Ku Klux Klan was on a rampage to protect white women from the “savage” lust of black men. The Red Summer of 1919 (a wave of race riots in dozens of cities throughout the North and South) was a recent memory and black people were being lynched in record numbers. It was not until 1967 that interracial marriages were allowed in all states.

Dora’s parents were Italian immigrants. Her father arrived in America in 1878. The proudest moment of his life was when he was granted citizenship in Mount Vernon, New York in 1897. The family moved to Chicago sometime before 1910 and he was dead when his daughter married my grandfather, a widower with three children. The Federico family thought Bob was a “dark Dago” because of his light brown skin and straight hair. When they found out differently, it didn’t stop them from helping the newlyweds get established in the bootlegging business, under the stewardship of Al Capone.

Dora, with whom I spent most of my summers, spent her later years working as a domestic for rich white people in Rockford, Illinois. Although she loved her employers (and I resented them for taking her away from me every day), she was not fond of white people in general. Later, when I read the history of Italians in America, it was easy to see why. Italians suffered extreme prejudice and violence at the hands of white, Anglo Saxon Protestants. They were restricted to low-income, low-class jobs and attacked for their Catholicism by the Ku Klux Klan. In 1891, eleven Italians were killed in New Orleans in one of the largest mass lynchings in American history.  During World War II, Italians thought to be loyal to their homeland were incarcerated in internment camps, just like the Japanese.

When Dora died in 1983, I was so distraught I spent three days locked in her bedroom, crying inconsolably. I met her Italian family for the first time at her funeral, when I was thirty-two years old.

Jennie Waymoth, on the other hand, was born into a family of Scots-Irish who came to America at an unknown date. She grew up in the small farming community of Sidell, Illinois and met Louie Nicholson in the Illinois Central train station in Chicago. He worked on a train. She waited tables in the station restaurant. After their marriage, her family pleaded with her to come home — for four years, through the births of her first two children, who looked white. When her third child emerged with a skin that matched his father’s , they declared her dead. In 1932, she went to visit her sister Sylvia (who also lived in Chicago) with all three of her young children in tow. Inseparable growing up, Jennie was stunned when her favored sibling derided her with “You better get away from my door. You know (my husband) doesn’t want any niggers in his house.”

When I found Jennie’s relatives online, we had many pleasant conversations as I shared the details of my grandmother’s life. My correspondent was happy to know she hadn’t died and agreed that I should visit. There was, however, a catch. I was informed: “My mother lives with us and still keeps the old ways. She would not want a black person sleeping in our house.” I felt what my grandmother must have felt that day on her sister’s stoop.

It takes a long time and a lot of lessons to learn what it means to be black and how one should relate to people who despise you. I am still on the learning curve. I once had a friend who described seeing a “colored” water fountain as a child. He really wanted to drink the water because he thought the spigot would spew a rainbow. Then there was my time in South Africa, a country that had recently been emancipated from the chains of apartheid. Many newly enfranchised people derided the dream of a “Rainbow Nation,” noting that rainbows do not have a band of black.

I was twelve years old in May 1963 when my grandmother Jennie dropped dead in front of me. I remember standing in the kitchen doorway watching her drink a glass of water. Gazing out of the window over the sink, she quenched her thirst, remarked “What a beautiful day,” and collapsed onto the floor – dead from massive heart attack. I was too stunned to even cry over the loss of one of my primary care givers.

That was the same year (six months later) when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated for reasons black people surmised had much to do with his championing of civil rights. In 1968, riots erupted after Rev. Martin Luther King was murdered by a white supremacist. I was a college student, trapped in the student administration building at the University of Illinois. When I heard the mayor announce a “shoot to kill” order, there was no doubt who it applied to: Me. A year later, I was an unwed mother, wondering how to raise a child in a world embittered by rancor and fear. There was a period in the 1970s when I could barely have a relationship with my surviving Mama Dora, having become profoundly and painfully aware of her whiteness. I am now ashamed of my reaction, but when all was said and done, I was totally turned off by white people – all of them. I did not want to acknowledge them as part of my family. I did not want to be friends with them. And I certainly would not have crossed the color bar to marry one. I could not comprehend how my grandfathers made that leap, coming as they did from birthplaces in Alabama and Mississippi.

Until recently, the story of my grandmothers was not part of my conversation; at least not within the context of race relations. As a child, I didn’t consciously think about what race they were; they were just my grandmothers. The segregated black community in which I grew up and into which my grandmothers were seamlessly adopted wrapped its arms around everyone. I eventually came to terms with the fact that I loved them both – dearly and unconditionally.

These days, my grandmothers are top of mind — maybe because I am now a grandmother myself, one with a burning desire to leave the world a better place. Resolution of the racial conundrum lies at the heart of that aspiration. That is why I embarked on a journey with a white man whose ancestors were the largest slave traders in US history and co-authored a book with him* to document an approach to racial healing.

My grandmothers left me with two cherished mementos. On my ring finger, I wear Dora’s diamonds. Some years after Dora’s death, Aunt Lottie climbed onto a step stool, dug into the deep recesses of a closet shelf, and handed me a wadded up ball of Kleenex. Inside were seven loose diamonds belonging to Mama Dora that I had set into a ring. Around my neck, I wear Jennie’s ivory cameo; one that has passed through many generations over 150 years. Both pieces of jewelry are reminders of a past I must deal with in order to embrace a future in which the paradox of love and acrimony has been resolved.

In an ideal world, race would be a mere descriptive, not a pejorative. As it stands, it informs a global construct that keeps one group of people (white) in power and another group (people of color) in submission. It is disproportionately destructive because it lies at the core of many other isms; influencing how people deal with gender, religious belief, and ability.

In thinking of my grandmothers, the classic Bill Withers song “Grandma’s Hands” comes to mind. I love this song that describes through metaphor the essence of one of the most dearly beloved in every family. Neither of my grandmothers “clapped in church on Sunday morning,” although both were believers in God. They didn’t play tambourines, though one cut a mean step on the dance floor. If their hands “use to ache sometime and swell,” I didn’t notice as they worked tirelessly, without complaint.

When I get to heaven, it will be those hands I seek, fully expecting Dora and Jennie to greet me in their loving arms for what will surely be a grand reunion.

 

 

Sharon Leslie Morgan is the founder, webmaster, and historian for OurBlackAncestry.com, a website devoted to African American genealogy. She is an expert in African American consumer marketing as well as a writer. A native of Chicago, she lived abroad for many years in the Caribbean, Europe, and Africa. She is the co-author, with Thomas DeWolf of Gather at the Table: The Healing Journey of a Daughter of Slavery and a Son of the Slave Trade*. Her first book, My Daddy Is A Cool Dude, was published in 1975 by The Dial Press and nominated for a Caldecott Medal. She is also the co-author of Real Women Cook: Building Healthy Communities with Recipes that Stir the Soul and of Paris in a Pot: Living a Dream in the City of Light*.

 

*These links are affiliate links, which means if you buy something after clicking on them, I get a small commission, which helps me pay the bills for hosting this site. So thank you.

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.

 

Plantation Papers for Genealogical Research on Enslaved People

Plantation Papers for Genealogical Research on Enslaved People

My “tattoo” expresses just how I feel about the honor of doing this research

This past weekend, I had the total honor of presenting at the Ohio Genealogical Society Conference. . . the people there were so enthusiastic, and I loved all the conversations that happened around the space.

But mostly, I was thrilled to give a talk on my favorite topic: how to find out more information about our enslaved ancestors.  In this presentation, I focused on how to use plantation papers – i.e. collections of documents from the white slaveholder – as a way of finding genealogical, demographic, and personal information about people who were enslaved.

You can find the slides from my presentation here if you are interested.

And if you’ve used plantation documents to find information about your own family, I’d LOVE to hear what you’ve found and any tips you have to share about those resources.  Thanks.

 

I’m always eager to share this forum with you if you have a story to share, want to reach out and ask people for help, or have a topic about African American history or genealogy that you are passionate about. Please email me at andi_at_andilit.com, and we’ll get your words out to as many people as we can. Thanks.