I’m standing in the parlor of the big house. The windows hang almost to my ankles, and I can see the chicken coop and the fence line and what must have been fields – tobacco fields – then.
Out front, the boxwoods and magnolias separate – the house from the fields, the white people from the black people, the owners from the enslaved.
I point this out to the man standing beside me, the man who hired me to tell this story, the man who is learning, too. He shivers a little – his body saying, I know it’s true, but I don’t like it.
I don’t like it either I want to tell him. I hate it. I loath this history, this story I find myself telling again and again, whispering at moments so as to be heard, shouting at others to drown out the defensive postures of those who will not hear.
I hate this history. . . . and yet, I claim it as mine – as both descendant of enslaved and enslaver. I claim it. I own it not with pride but with honesty because it is mine. It is ours.
At this particular plantation, there will soon be a museum, a place that tells the story of my hometown – of its rivers and roads, its railroads carved deep. This is the way of funding – the story that is paid for.
But I am comforted to know that the others stories carved into racial categories that still live large in this place, the ones carved into the skin of people in long scars – they will be told, too, if more quietly.
Isabella and Moses, Paulina, Phillis, Maria, Matilda, Winston, Fanny – their stories will be told, too. Their names will go on placards, maybe the church registries that hold them as “colored probationers” will be duplicated there. Maybe we will find nails they shaped and plates they carried. . . they will fill a transparent display. The first.
It is because of these stories that I do this work, this research into the lives of enslaved people. It is for their names I labor. . . with fingers over pages.
It is the most rewarding – and painful – work I have ever done.
On Friday, March 14th, I will be giving a reading from The Slaves Have Names at New Dominion Bookshop in Charlottesville, VA. The reading begins at 5:30pm, and I will be signing book after. If you’re in the area, I’d love to see you there.