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.

 

Great Grandmother’s Legacy by Charles F. Holman III

Great Grandmother's Legacy by Charles F. Holman III

Charles’ great grandmother, Lucille Holman.

Today, I am thrilled to welcome Charles Holman as he tells the powerful story of his great grandmother’s name and the way finding our stories is a communal endeavor.

Some ancestors gift you with a bequest when they pass on. We often think of this kind of thing as money, property, a cherished item, etc. But my Great Grandmother Lucille (Robertson/Robinson) Holman (1863 – 1932) left my family a hidden, valuable legacy which again revealed itself to me just yesterday afternoon.

More than 40 years ago I began to research my family tree. Like many African Americans I wanted to know where in Africa some of my ancestors originated. The late Alex Haley taught me to seek out any African words or names that might have been associated with ancestors for clues.

So my Dad and I approached my paternal grandfather, Charles Holman Sr., (1898 – 1987) and asked him what he knew. Initially unwilling to talk about the past, with some prodding Grandpa began to provide some details. He told us his mother, Lucille (Robertson) Holman had African ancestors and he thought her father had an African name which he pronounced as “Da-dash- shoe-wah”

Soon my Dad and I began to share what Grandpa had told us. A few years passed and in the summer of 1978 I mentioned this to my double cousin, the late Geneve (Holman) Jackson (1924 – 2014). Geneve told me flat out that we were wrong. Geneve told me in no uncertain terms that“Da-dash- shoe-wah” was actually my grandfather’s mother’s name.

What Geneve told me didn’t make sense to me at the time. I had heard my grandfather’s mother’s name was Lucy or Lucille Holman. How then could her name be “Da-dash- shoe-wah,” especially when we knew Grandpa's mother was not African but South Carolinian?

Although Geneve’s message didn’t make sense to me, I made a mental note and filed it away. A few years later in late 1986, I wrote to a linguist at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria to see if they could tell me about the name “Da-dash- shoe-wah.” Much to my delight, a reply arrived in January 1987. They told me they thought the name was a name given to girl children. They also told me the name was characteristic to an area in Nigeria in or near the northern part of its Bendel State.

Decades passed after I received this letter, and I never heard more until just yesterday on Facebook. Facebook has a series called “American Slavery,” and if you don’t subscribe to it, you definitely should. Anyway, yesterday the topic at “American Slavery” was naming customs during slavery. They stated that during slavery it was sometimes customary to give a child two names, one name that the slaveholder and everyone would know and a second “given name the child’s family selected and kept secret.”

When I saw this, what cousin Geneve had told me all those decades ago finally made sense, i.e. Lucy or Lucille was great grandmother’s public name, and “Da-dash- shoe-wah” was her secret African name known only to family members. Immediately, I wrote and thanked the authors of “American Slavery” for sharing this insight with me. But little did I expect that it would get evenbetter just a very short while later.

An African lady saw my note to American Slavery and responded the same day. The lady said the name “Da-dash- shoe-wah” was a popular one and actually spelled “Adeshuwa”. The lady also independently confirmed that the name was given to girl children. Even more importantly, the lady told me the significance of the name:

That means you hail from the Yoruba. They are in Western Nigeria. Adeshewa in Yoruba means the beauty of royalty. I am Igbo by the way, I just happen to be able to speak Yoruba. It could also mean she (Great Grandmother) was from Benin. They are also a mid-western tribe in Nigeria. The Yorubas originated from the Benin tribe. So she definitely hailed from Nigeria either way. God bless you.

So it turns out all these decades later, Geneve must have been right – in fact two independent African sources confirm what Geneve said. But even more important than simply proving Geneve right, by her very name, Great Grandmother has left me a legacy, and all of her descendants, the priceless knowledge, unknown to most African Americans, that we share a bondwith Nigeria because it is one of our ancestral homelands.

Great Grandmother’s legacy is also corroborated by DNA analyses indicating that approximately 15% of my ancestry comes from Nigeria and the Yoruba tribe, both mentioned by the lady at Facebook just yesterday afternoon. Indeed, even science acknowledges that Great Grandmother’s legacy rings true for me and all of her descendants today and down through the generations yet to come.

 

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. 

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.

 

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.

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 I See A Virginia Plantation

When I See A Virginia Plantation

The Bremo Plantation House – Image from the Virginia Department of Historic Resources

I see the gorgeous house – old chimneys, pillars, wavy-glass windows.  AND I see the brown hands that made every brick, turned every piece of wood, set every pane of glass into its frame.

I see the lane to the house, sometimes lined with trees, sometimes with boxwoods.  AND I see the backs of men twisted and turned for an ax blade and bent over grub hoes to clear the forest that became the line of that lane.

I see the gardens, lush and verdant after spring rain. AND I see the women in long skirts, babies on their knees as they pull weeds and prune hedges with their fingers.

I will not – cannot – deny the beauty that is the plantation landscape of my home.  These houses and the people who owned them have shaped everything about geographic, financial, and social aspects of Virginia life, even here in 2016, and they are lovely works of architecture, stately and intricate.  To deny that is to deny the skill of the enslaved workers who shaped the land and built the structures. To deny that is to try to paint plantation owners as only one-dimensional and horrible people – as horrible as their actions and choices were in immense and tiny ways.  No, I will sit with the complexity that is a plantation – physical beauty and cultural oppression – and I will honor both.

AND I will not use the word plantation with any nostalgia. I will not look at these places and harken back to “better days.”  I will not twist plantation to something quaint and then name a shopping center after these places.

AND I will not call these places farms or estates if they are the large land-holdings of the elite, as if pigs were the major financial producer in their origin or as if the current owners receive none of the fruits of that slave labor.  I will not seek to impugn or bring shame, but nor will I use language to obfuscate history. We do enough of that already.

***

When I see a plantation, I see the big house first because that is the way the landscapes were designed, and I am a human being.  I note the shape of the columns and the size of the house. I try to guess at the age by the language of architecture that I have absorbed but never learned to articulate.

But quickly, my eyes scan the fields beside the big house. I am looking for a summer kitchen, a smokehouse, even a privy.  But mostly I am looking – praying as I search – that slave quarters are still standing.  Mostly, they are not.

Even here, on our place, which was too small to be a plantation, by technical terms, but where at least 13 people were enslaved, all the outbuildings are standing – summer kitchen, smokehouse, wagon shed, privy – but the slave quarter is now a pile of rubble grown over my grass.  Whether it was torn down by intention or fallen down by neglect is of no matter, it is gone.

So I crave the places where slave residences are still standing because here, in some most significant way, they speak to the lives of the people who built that big house, who cleared that land, who tended the children who had children, who had children, who had children who now own that space.  I ache to see those places because they claim the memory of the whole truth of the plantation life.  

So when I see a Virginia plantation, I see the sunlight and the rain, the arcs of tree branches, the hollows of old road beds, and I watch the carriages ride by and catch a memory of a white hand at a window. But mostly, I’m looking for bare brown feet and the callouses on brown palms. I’m hoping to catch the sweep of a cotton skirt as it moves from summer kitchen to dining room.  I’m hoping – praying – that the story I reach into most with all of my Virginia heart is the story of love and suffering, talent and forced labor, art and artifice.

What do you see when you see a plantation?  

I grew up on the Bremo Plantations, where my father was the manager.  You can see more pictures of these places, including images of the standing slave quarters, on this page. Please note that the Bremo Plantations are privately owned and are not open to the public.