It wasn’t like one of those epiphanic moments that Joyce made so famous. I wasn’t walking down a narrow street on a drizzly day when the idea came to me. Instead, it was more like a gradual awakening, like the way some friendships develop over time and with small conversations until, finally, they are the strongest bonds you know even though it’s hard to pinpoint when you came to know you would tell this person anything.
That’s how my book idea came to me.
Somewhere in the years after I left home for college, I began to think about the fact that many of the people I went to high school with were people whose ancestors might have been enslaved on the plantation where I was raised. As I thought about this idea, it became very significant to me.
I was a bit ashamed because, honestly, until that point I hadn’t even thought about the people who were enslaved here. Okay, I had thought about them, about their cemetery specifically, because my friends and I went there on Halloween night for fun. (I’m still ashamed about that.) But in terms of thinking about how the houses and barns and stone walls and roads were made by enslaved labor, that had never occurred to me.
Very quickly the idea took root in my mind, and I began to wonder why I hadn’t ever really thought about African American history. Why didn’t I connect the (scant) information I had learned in history classes with the people sitting in the very room with me? Some of the white students were descended from slave owners. Some of the black students were descended from slaves. (And some of the white students, like me, were descended from slaves, and some of the black students from slave owners – these differentiations are very arbitrary.) This idea had never entered my mind.
So over the past ten or so years, I have, off and on, worked on this project. I had read scores of documents and books about this place, about the people who lived and worked here, about the realities and legacies of slavery.
I have been changed by this experience. I don’t know that all the change is good – I am very quick to see discrimination because of how much time I spend reading and thinking about it – but for the most part, I am a better person for this work.
I am no longer willing or able to ignore our country’s history around slavery. I am no longer able to pretend it is only history. Instead, I am coming to a place of equilibrium where I see the scars this institution has left on all of us and want to find a way to acknowledge that pain while also integrating it fully into who we are as a nation.
So this book, it’s about that journey of mine even as it is about Primus and Lucy and Ben and Minerva. This is our story. Together. I’m so glad I see that.
What did you learn about slavery? How do you see it affecting us today? How do you come to a place of equilibrium with these hard things?