Snowstorm on the Plantation

Snowstorm on the PlantationHere in Virginia today, we’ve had a small snowstorm – ice coats the dogwoods, and the pear blossoms are encased. Fruit farmers here will suffer. . . I acknowledge this even as I recognize the beauty of the landscape today.

But as I walked up from our barn today in my lined boots, hooded sweatshirt, and warm coat, I began to think about the enslaved people who once worked and lived on this land. I wondered if, by now, the master might have taken back their shoes to save for the next winter? If they had warm enough clothes for working all day out in the snow? If they still had enough firewood to warm their homes after the work day?

I considered what they must feel to see the mistress’s flowers bending low under snow. Did they worry they would be blamed? Or if the orchard trees had already gone to flower, did they wonder if they would be hungrier still come fall?

What did it feel like to abide in the beauty of a day like this in the midst of the horror of the institution that meant that not only the weather was beyond your control but that almost every decision about your own life sat beyond your own reach? How would you find a way to hope under the ice of that reality?

Readers, do you know of any slave narratives that tell stories about snowy days on the plantation? If so, I’d be grateful to be pointed toward them.

 

If you’re in Central VA, I hope you’ll come out THIS SATURDAY, March 18th from 10:30am – 12:30pm to learn about the Will The Stones Whisper Their Names? Project to map African American Cemeteries in Louisa County, Virginia.  You can get more information about Saturday’s event and the project as a whole here – https://stoneswhisperblog.wordpress.com/.

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.

 

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.