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 Peach Was Captured as a Runaway

When Peach Was Captured as a RunawayYesterday, as I read the papers of the Morris family of Louisa County, Virginia, at the Small Special Collections Library at UVa, I found a piece of paper about a third the size of a notebook page. It read:

John Sadler took up and brought before me on runaway negro man slaved named Peach belonging to Mr. Richard Morris of the said county about seven miles from the said Morris. I order that you pay the said Sadler for taken[sic] up the said runaway ten shillings and sixpence a mile for carr[y]ing home. Given under my hand this twenty seventh day of May 1773.  – John Boswell

I read it out loud to the people in the room, and we all got a little quiet. It’s heavy to read of a person needing to runaway. It’s even heavier to read they were caught.

I have read this little piece of history over and over again, this tidbit that might get dismissed so easily, and I sit with this moment when a man, a man whose house has a town named after it – Boswell’s Tavern – wrote out not only that he was sending a man back into slavery but demanding that someone be paid for that “trouble.”

This moment and the ones leading up to it, the hours that Peach must have planned and plotted, studied routes as he steered the wagons to Gordonsville, they changed his life.  This could have been the moment to break home or to steel his resolve.  This could have been the moment to end his life as he knew it.

After I read this slip to the other researchers in the room, one woman asked what would have happened to him. I can’t answer that in specific for Peach, but I imagine he was whipped, maybe maimed so he could not run again.  A toe removed would not have been out of the question.

But we don’t know. We probably will never know. This is, of course, one of slavery’s legacies, the silence around these people’s lives.

So today, I stare at our peach trees, and I think of the man named after their fruit.  A man whose infant face must have spoken sweetness and the gentle fuzz of life to whoever named him.

Today, I think of Peach, a man brave enough to run away.  A man caught 7 miles from a place that was never really his home.

 

If you have ties to Louisa County, Virginia, the Morris Papers at UVA Special Collections may have some information that would be valuable to you.  And if you think you may be kin to Peach, please, please, please let me know.  I’d love to know you and hear about your family. 

 

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.  

Walking the Farm with the Ghost of Judith

For a while now, I’ve been writing about a woman I call Judith, who was once enslaved here on our farm.  I don’t know if Judith is really here or if I imagine her to life. I don’t know if it really matters.  Her presence helps me remember that this place I call home was built by enslaved people. 

The other night, I went down into the basement to feed Jelly Roll and Sabeen, our mousers, and I stood at the bottom of the stairs.  Around me, 200-year-old stones sighed out their musty, cool breath. I could almost hear them.

Walking the Farm with the Ghost of Judith, a Slave

The winter kitchen at Ulysses S. Grant’s home. Ours probably looked much the same with the ladder and the fireplace.

This space was the winter kitchen, the space where an enslaved woman would have cooked meals when the weather was colder.  At least, that’s what I suspect the space was with its fireplace and mantel and long, narrow windows that opened, once, right into the air beneath the porch.

As I stood, still, at the doorway, I felt her again.  Judith, the name I call her quietly because I do not yet know her actual name.  She stood there, just beside me, near the fireplace, now cold and stoned over.

You can read the rest of the story and other pieces about Judith over at my other blog, Andilit.   And stay tuned.  I’ll be writing more and more about Judith as I delve into the stories of the 13 or more people who were enslaved here at God’s Whisper Farm. 

Remembering and Uplifting with Food – Michael Twitty of Afroculinaria

Afroculinaria's Michael Twitty: Remembering and Uplifting with FoodI have stirred the pot, putting myself in the footsteps of those many of your leaders do acknowledge and do write about—even if I wonder to what end.  The research, recreation and interpretation of enslaved people’s food is not personally or communally easy—and it goes beyond creativity and taste—it is in many ways a willed descent into hell. I assure you it is taxing, painful and revelatory—but I have no choice—as you have no choice but to be who I was created to be. – Michael Twitty in his open letter to Chef Sean Brock

My life as I live it now is focused around four things:

  • Research and writing about enslaved people and the legacy of enslavement in the U.S.
  • Farming and it’s work to honor rural life and a return to deep hospitality.
  • Faith and the way it sustains me and restores me.
  • Writing as a way of being in the world.

So with those things in mind, you can see what culinary historian Michael Twitty is a man near and dear to my heart, even if I have not yet had a chance to give him the bear hug of solidarity that he so rightly deserves.

Michael writes about his own faith tradition, works for liberation by calling forth the strength of his enslaved ancestors and sharing their foodways adamantly, and takes on injustice with the power of strength and honor – as well as gentleness – that makes him not only hard to ignore but also makes his someone people desire to know deeply.

So I encourage you to get to know Michael’s work – documented so richly at his website, Afroculinaria. Learn from him. Stand beside him. Let his goodness and wisdom settle with you.

Pre-Order his forthcoming book, The Cooking Gene, at this link – http://amzn.to/1rt6ABc.*

 

 

 

Note, this is an affiliate link, so when you order through it, Amazon pays me a bit of cash for referring you there. 

 

Ken Burns Says Race Is the Central Theme of American History

Ken Burns Says Race Is The Central Theme of American HistoryEver since I saw his Civil War documentary, I’ve LOVED Ken Burns. . . . here’s another reason to love him today:

We were founded on the idea that all men were created equal, but oops—the guy who wrote that owned more than 100 human beings and didn’t see in his lifetime to free any one of them; didn’t see the contradiction or the hypocrisy. And so it set us on a journey where we are constantly having to struggle not with race, but racism.

It’s definitely worth your time to watch this whole clip of Burns on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. His words on the importance of Jackie Robinson in our history are profound, as is the great clip with the Obamas.

Too much, I fear we relegate people of color, people like Jackie Robinson, or Sojourner Truth, or Maya Angelou, to the position of exemplars of a race when really what we should be doing is admiring them as exemplars of the best of what it is to be human.  We take someone like Jackie Robinson and taint both his accomplishments and his punishments by implying – or directly stating sometimes – that he is only great because he was the first black man to accomplish what he did. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we, instead, recognized that his greatness is even more profound because he WAS a black man who had to overcome more than any of his white colleagues and who still stood out for both his athletic prowess and his strong, gentle spirit?

I hesitate to say we should try to imagine a world where race is not a factor because we too often act as if that is the case now instead of actually recognizing the racism that hinders us all.  But at the risk of feeding the delusion of the color blind, I do for a moment imagine what Jackie Robinson, Nat Turner, Rosa Parks, Maya Angelou would have accomplished if they did not first have to overcome white supremacy and racial hatred.  What would the world look like if we’d actually gotten out of their way and let them do their thing loud and hard?  Oh what a world that would be.

Did any of you see Burns’ documentary on Robinson yet? If so, what did you think? 

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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The Bittersweetness of Being Linked Through Slavery

Bittersweetly Linked Through SlaveryI have the honor of serving on the board for an organization called Coming to the Table (CTTT).  CTTT began with the mission of healing the historical harms rooted in the history of slavery in the United States, and as part of that mission, we work to help the descendants of enslaved people and of enslavers connect and, if all parties are willing, to heal together.

One of the aspects of this work includes a wonderful blog called, Bittersweet.  There, people talk about their experiences, discoveries, and challenges as “linked descendants,” people who are linked to others through their ancestor’s enslavement or enslaving, through place, or through other forms of shared connection.

We have featured stories of descendants of enslaved people who are seeking their own families by researching the white families who “owned” their ancestors, and we have shared the stories of the descendants of enslavers who are seeking to find the descendants of people their families enslaved as a way of making amends or seeking healing.  Some of our stories are about particular families and some are specific to certain places.  All of the stories are powerful and honest about a subject that we often try to skirt around or avoid seeing with our eyes wide open.

If you are researching your family’s history, you might check out Bittersweet to see if the site has any information relevant to your search. Or if you are simply interested in reading some stories to help you heal your own wounds that are rooted in slavery – and I believe we all, black and white, have those wounds – I hope you’ll stop by and read a bit.

Bittersweet accepts queries about posts on these themes, so if you are interested, please visit this page and review the guidelines for submissions.  Then, we hope you will submit your stories. Goodness knows, we need to hear them.