As a kid, I was petrified to walk the grounds of cemeteries. I honestly believe Michael Jackson’s music video Thriller and the movie Pet Cemetery scarred me. I always dreaded attending funerals but understood the importance of being present at the home going of kinfolk. Even being in homes of loved ones who passed, created instant goose bumps and not in a good way like if I was to see my crush, actress Sanaa Lathan face to face. When maturity set in, my point of view pertaining to death and dying changed. I began to gain an appreciation for designated space in which families purposely connected and reconnected the souls of ancestors.
My freshman year in college, I visited a place called the Rural Life Museum in Baton Rouge, LA. On the grounds were various structures germane to the 19th century time period. I was in awe about how much of this history had been preserved. Sure, I saw old barns and ran down old homes back in my small town of Clarksville, TN but not many identified its existence and survival of the civil war. After receiving the map of the grounds, I immediately started walking to the overseer’s home. Midway through the walk I stopped and peered at the map. So many times, the overseer’s residence and “big house” are romanticized in historical context, leaving out and/or marginalizing those who constructed the often-embellished buildings. Yes, I’m referring to the enslaved.
While looking at the map for a few moments, what happened next was something spiritual. I’ve always heard the folklore of ancestors guiding you in the right direction if one was to receive it, and that’s what literally happened next. I involuntarily changed direction towards the slave dwellings without given the overseer’s house second thought. I understood the spirit of the ancestors wanted to be shown the same love, so I obliged. I had never been in a slave dwelling but had my perception of what it would look like. I imagined haphazardly built, small, no windows, and very cramped when occupied. Needless to say, when I arrived to the dwelling it didn’t disappoint my cognitions Granted the elements of nature and father time effected the slave dwellings condition, but for some reason the “Big house” and overseer’s house were of course better preserved. After all, the “Big house” is why people visit plantations right?
Due to my new-found guidance, the angst concerning slave cabins decreased immensely and ushered me toward feeling as one with past occupants. When the mutual sense of acknowledgement covered the air, it was at that point I made up in my mind to visit and pay homage to those who resided in slave dwellings. Since 1997 I have had the pleasure of visiting slave dwellings in North Carolina, Georgia, South Carolina, Louisiana, Kentucky, Virginia, and Mississippi. I never thought about sleeping in one but admired their ability to provide education for those seeking.
On September 29th 2017, I slept in my first dwelling at the President James K. Polk site thanks to the vision of Mr. Joseph McGill Jr, founder of the Slave Dwelling Project. The task of the Slave Dwelling Project is to” serve as a conduit for the identification of preservation resources for owners of slave dwellings that have a desire to save the slave dwelling. “
Days leading up to the stay, I revisited my own ancestral research to reemphasize the importance of this event. As I looked at my enslaved family’s picture, I wanted to walk in their shoes in some way shape or form, and this overnight stay was the perfect opportunity. While packing for the night, I made it a point to make sure the most comfortable sleeping gear was to accompany me. I brought along extra thick socks, a hooded sweatshirt with a long sleeve shirt under it, sweat pants, comfy pillow and super warm sleeping bag. I was all set. Participants of the sleep over met at the President James K. Polk site. Upon arriving, I was reunited with familiar faces and also new ones. I looked at everyone’s sleeping gear and it appeared comfort was the theme. We attended a dinner at the Harvey B. Gantt museum for a which highlighted the work of Mr. McGill Jr. After the formalities were over, it was time to return to the James K. Polk site and sleeping quarters to discuss the history of slavery and anything else relevant to the subject. While walking to our sleeping quarters to set up shop, I thought to myself, “look at us with all these fancy smancy items our ancestors did not have when it was time to retire for the evening.” The audacity of us.
Upon arriving inside the cabin, by habit I thought to turn on the light switch but of course that wasn’t happening. The room was dark other than a few candles lit and lights from participant’s cell phones used as guidance to claim their spot on the floor. After sleeping designations were determined, we all gathered outside the cabin in a circle to discuss the evening and history of slavery. Everyone had a unique reason why they were present which unearthed a much-needed jolt of optimism, particularly from those who were non-African-American. After the conversation around the fire ended, it was time to do what we came to do…sleep in the dwelling. While resting in my sleeping bag, I wondered if my ancestors were looking down laughing at how high class I was behaving with all the sleeping gear at my disposal.
Sleeping in very close quarters with others was a reminder of how many families may have shared one slave dwelling. I reckon no enslaver would sacrifice work being completed on the plantation by not acquiring the number of slaves needed because of space. Besides, most were transported from various parts of the world in close quarters via slave ships packed like sardines (shaking my head) so comfort didn’t come with this hotel stay. As the night started to elapse, I could hear tossing and turning from other participants. The crickets were doing their thing outside, and I even heard a few owls. Being that the doors were open, I did wonder if coyotes would be tempted to come in and snoop around since the property was yards away from a wooded area. As the night went on, I had more questions for the ancestors like, what if the enslaver decided to come take a female from the dwellings at night to have his way with her? Would she return quiet and not disturb anyone else, or would she still be emotionally intact and cry after returning to her sleeping space. If so, what would be going through the other enslaved minds.
I wondered what it would be like to rest your head at one place one night and possibly shipped further south or up north due to being sold the next. How about the anger one would feel being separated from their family and possibly NEVER seeing each other again?
After this experience, I pondered was there ever rest? Mentally, emotionally, and physically. The enslaved were on call 24/7 literally and figuratively. The wooden floors in the dwellings had no leeway, but for those who worked sun up to sun down, did that even matter as long as their limbs were not in use? These are questions to ancestors that will not get answered, but the empathetic inquiring mind I have wants to know. I hope everyone in attendance gained an even greater appreciation for the enslaved but more importantly I hope my enslaved grandparents are proud of my commitment and dedication to keep their legacy alive. BIG shout out to Joseph McGill Jr. of the Slave Dwelling Project for providing such a unique opportunity.