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.  

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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