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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