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.  

AAHGS National Conference – Atlanta, GA

AAGHS National Conference in Atlanta, GALast year, I had the honor of speaking at the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society (AAHGS) Conference in Richmond.  The day was rich with talks and conversations that ranged from a lecture about the false division between history and genealogy to conversations about how to use oral histories in writing about historical events.  I highly recommend the conference to anyone who is working or interested in this research.

I don’t know about you, but I find this work to really challenging in terms of the information abut also in terms of the emotional weight of this research.  It’s not an easy thing to dig into the legacy of oppression for hours on end.  This conference – and others like it – help all of us who do this work with the support of others. It’s like we are linking arms and standing together to read, learn, and share the interwoven story of African American people.

This year, the AAHGS Conference will be in Atlanta, Georgia on October 13-16, and the theme of the conference is:

The Ancestors on My Mind: Discovering our Ancestors, Our History, and Ourselves, TOGETHER. 

I won’t be able to attend this year, but I hope to get notes from some of my friends and stay up-to-date on the books written by presenters.

You can get more information about the conference by visiting the conference page on the AAHGS website.  They are still looking for presenters, and conference registration is now open.  

Each year, the conference grows, as it should, so I encourage you to attend – and even to submit a proposal – if you’re interested.  I’ll be there in spirit with you.

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.

Get to Know The Slave Dwelling Project

The Slave Dwelling Project

Y’all know about the Slave Dwelling Project, right?  If not, now’s the time.

The Slave Dwelling Project’s mission is to identify and assist property owners, government agencies and organizations to preserve extant slave dwellings.

As someone who grew up on a plantation that still had standing slave dwellings and worries – still – that those buildings will not be tended well, as someone who has seen what happens when these buildings aren’t noted and mapped, as someone who has had the honor of walking into dozens of slave dwellings and touching the walls and mantels where enslaved people laid their hands, I cannot get behind this work enough.

The Project is having a conference in September 2016 in Columbia, SC, and I have been invited to speak there.  I’m completely honored, and I’d love to see some of you there, too.  You can get details about the conference here – http://slavedwellingproject.org/2016-slave-dwelling-project-chas/.

If you’d like to see where Joseph McGill, the Project’s founder, and his team will be staying this year, check out this link.

And if you have access to a standing slave dwelling, why not invite Joe and his team to spend a night there?  You can contact him about that possibility through this link.

I’ve had the honor of meeting and speaking with Joe and members of the Project on several occasions, including during their visit in 2015 to Monticello, and I am always impressed by their passion and commitment.

It’s definitely worth your time to get to know their work.

 

If you enjoy and appreciate the information I share here, I hope you’ll sign up to get regular updates – either via a twice-monthly newsletter or through the daily blog posts – below. 

 



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