Finding Home in John Edgar Wideman’s Homewood

During my three week stay in Pennsylvania for the NEH Summer Institute on Contemporary African American literature, I decided to take the opportunity to visit the home of my paternal grandfather in nearby Pittsburgh. As some families are wont to do, mine took the liberty to write my father out of my personal narrative. It has only been in the last five years that I have been able to recover that history—discovering aunts, uncles, and cousins along the way. I’m especially proud to claim relation to Jazz Psalmist Todd Ledbetter—my “connect” in the steel city. 

Interestingly, the week leading up to my excursion Trudier Harris and Shirley Moody-Turner lectured on family folklore and Shirley even played a clip of a Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter recording—whom, it has been passed down through family lore, is a relative of my grandfather Louis Ledbetter.  I had intentions on exploring this connection in Pittsburgh, but you know what they say about intentions. My main purpose for visiting Pittsburgh was to visit my grandfather’s resting place—an item that is on my “bucket list”. 

01-2012-07-14%252018.24.25 
Louis Ledbetter, WWII

                                  
In true fashion, my Uncle Todd gave me the grand tour of black Pittsburgh.  We started in the Hill District—he pointed to homes of famous black folk, old jazz clubs, and to my surprise—the YMCA where my grandfather worked as a young man and the family home of some cousins.  I, of course, was interested in the Hill from a literary perspective.  I recalled the day August Wilson died—I heard the news as I made the drive to campus to begin my comp exams. The possibility of having a family connection to this area had never occurred to me.  But I was in for quite a bit more—next stop: Homewood.

My grandfather, as it turns out, is buried in Homewood Cemetery. He owned a business in the neighborhood that John Edgar Wideman illuminates in his Homewood Trilogy: Damballah, Hiding Place, and Sent for You Yesterday. I was enthralled by all the literary connections I was making to my own genealogy. I had no idea my Ledbetter family was so connected to Black Pittsburgh. It was really gratifying.  I assumed my mission had been accomplished and I was content to spend the rest of my time getting better acquainted with my uncle. The Ancestors, however, had something else in mind.

Headstone II
Grandfather’s headstone in Homewood Cemetery

                            
We visited a cousin, who had a wealth of information on our family tree. I spent hours at her home listening and recording names, dates, and hilarious tales about my pistol-toting great grandmother and my “man about the town” grandfather.  I recovered photos of ancestors in whom I could discern some of my own features.  Then cousin Val dropped a whammy on me. She recited the notes she had taken from her grandmother, my great, great Aunt Laura Lizzy:  “…they were married in 1883 in Kingstree, South Carolina…..Pero’s father was Calvin Cooper, his father was Cane Cooper…and they lived on Troublefield Plantation and each son was given a piece of the land…”.

I had one of those moments where you hear the record being scratched to a halt.  Come again? Did you just tell me the NAME of the plantation where my paternal ancestors were enslaved??? I felt like I was in a Toni Morrison novel. I could lay claim to my family’s own “Sweet Home” and the rememories that go along with it.  I was absolutely perplexed. I wanted to know how this tangible piece of our slave past survived? What was it about their experience at Troublefield (and the name is just ripe with irony)that made it a story to be passed on? My spirit was full and overwhelmed with all the information that was now at my finger tips.  I couldn’t wait to get home and begin a new line of research!

That was just the tip of the iceburg.  Our last stop was Uncle Todd’s childhood home.  I met my grandfather’s widow and moved through the intimate space of his home. Uncle Todd pulled out a scrapbook my grandfather made when he was 37 years old. It had all of his high school pictures (Class of 1937)—often the lone spot of color. But he was the star of the show! There were pictures signed with admiration and respect by his white football teammates that intimated a very different narrative than what I expected his experience to be. I can see the charisma and heavy swag he carried in this (one of my favorites) photo:

Louis Ledbetter Glee Club
South Hills High School Boys Glee Club, 1937

                        
Uncle Todd also pulled out a “life mask” my grandfather made either in high school or shortly thereafter.  I could see every line and contour of his face. I could see how my nose is a tiny replica of his. I could put my face against his and steal an intimate moment between grandfather and granddaughter that I believed was lost to me. It was all so much to bear—heavy. I couldn’t contain everything I was feeling in one body.
                          Ledbetter life mask 2
I discovered more than I could have imagined in Pittsburgh.  I didn’t even get around to asking about Leadbelly, but I came away with a real sense of connection to black Pittsburgh, literary Pittsburgh, and the Pittsburgh that gave my ancestors a home during the first wave of the Great Migration.  I am enamored by the city and have an even greater appreciation for its history—a history I can share as part of my own.

Why I Love CLA (College Language Association)

 

I remember my first ever CLA Conference. I was finishing the final course of my doctoral degree and studying for my comprehensive exams.  It was April 2005 and the good colored folks were gathering at University of Georgia that year.  I had heard of CLA only the previous year, as my mentor and the other faculty of color at Florida State University were avid CLA-ers. If I was going to continue under their tutelage, I would have to be inducted into the CLA fold. I was excited and looking forward to the conference; I even chuckled at it being referred to as the “Colored” Language Association—a nod at both its cultural roots and the identity of its membership. I had no idea what I was in for.

Understanding that the study of Literature has the tendency to exclude and can be a lonely road for people of color, I was dumb-founded at the sheer number of scholars doing work in literatures and languages of the African Diaspora.  It was like I had died and my spirit flew off to Willow Springs.  Like Willow Springs, CLA exists between the control of two state apparatuses: the Modern Language Association on one hand and our home institutions on the other.  It is a place where students, faculty, and post-docs congregate to share and exchange knowledge; participate and engage in a black scholarly community; and support and expand an ever impressive web of professional networks. 

For a young, black, graduate student CLA presented a wealth of professional resources.  I had a chance meeting with Professor Bernard Bell—he, being without a car, happened upon my fellow graduate students and I who obliging gave the esteemed professor a ride to the local Kroger. He,  in turn, invited us to join his table at the banquet that evening.  He scrutinized my training in African American literature and schooled me over dinner and a few glasses of Riesling. It is an encounter I won’t soon forget as it prepared me for the later scrutiny I would face in my oral exams, my first job search, and, hell, the countless exchanges with colleagues who are yet and still uninformed about the vast tradition of African American letters.

As a professional, I still find CLA as equally amazing as I did as a graduate student.  Being of melanin-rich complexion and doing the work that I do, I am (as I find many other scholars of color are) continually faced with the challenges of being black in the Ivory Tower. Just when I am about to reach my limit of the academic fuckery that is wont to happen, April springs forward and I can find my reprieve in CLA.  I escape to reunite with colleagues, mentors, and for the first time in 2013—former graduate students Shauna Morgan Kirlew and Patricia Coloma Penate who are now among the professoriate. I cannot wait to seal the deal on my Life Membership in this organization that has been so central to my career growth.

CLA is a safe haven for this colored girl. I feast upon the plethora of scholarship on black literature and culture like Thabiti Lewis’s paper on teaching hip-hop aesthetics to a majority white student body or Mary B. Zeigler’s work on Gullah Geechee lexical heritage, or an entire panel on black vampires in Speculative Fiction.  I heal my professional aches and pains over tea and make new professional acquaintances at dinner. I gain new perspectives on my own work during the Q&A segment of my panels which always runs—always, always runs over time because of such engaging conversation and constructive criticism. 

But this is what happens at all professional conferences, right? I suppose on some level that is a correct assumption. I would interject, however, that the difference with CLA is that many of its members describe it as “home”. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a colleague put their experience at MLA or ALA in those terms.  Like Willow Springs, you have to be from there (CLA) to really understand how things take shape. If you are a scholar doing work in African American Literature or the literature and languages of the African Diaspora, you owe it to yourself to at least engage with this community once in your career. You have to put your hands in the care of CLA and believe you will be transformed. And you never know who will show up at CLA—you just may find yourself shaking hands with the greatest conjure woman on earth. Winking smile

Promotion and Tenure–The Long Sojourn

 

This August marks my sixth year in the professoriate.  It has been six years since I defended my dissertation and was hooded by my esteemed advisor Darryl Dickson-Carr.  Six years beyond the Ph.D. signifies another milestone in the academic career, particularly for the tenure track appointed, depending on which one of us takes a mind to it. In the strictest circles if one is not anxiously aspiring toward promotion and tenure, then the perception is that said person just isn’t intellectually productive and sharp enough to make the cut.

We all know the story. The hushed tone of voice when speaking of that colleague.  The sideways glance when someone asks when how long you have been out of graduate school and at so and so institution and your answer moves beyond that six year mark.  You explain, between nervous laughter and intimidation that you are still at the assistant professor rank, or, god forbid, relegated to a lower rank—adjunct, visiting, instructor. The conversation takes on a new direction—either one of pity or unsolicited mentoring.   You grin and bear it, feeling vulnerable to the whims of academic decorum.

Not only have I heard the story, I am living it.  I made a choice to leave, yes leave a perfectly good tenure-track position after putting in five years on the job. I cannot begin to even tell you what type of academic snubbing I have witnessed as a result of meeting other academics—usually of the tenured variety.  They offer their pity and heart-felt advice on how I should tighten up on my scholarship and wish me insincere luck on my next job search. None of these encounters last more than five minutes and no one cares to even inquire further into my circumstances. It operates like a type of academic bullying with all of the condescension and posturing.  

Spare me. I am neither an academic charity case, nor am I such a novice as not to understand the decision I made or build a strategy behind that decision. Obviously, the job was not “perfectly good” if I deemed it necessary to leave of my own accord and not because I wanted to avoid the tenure process—which is nine time out of ten always the unspoken assumption.

I admit, my transition was a bit unnerving.  I felt a little uneasy and quite insecure about how I would be perceived by my peers.  I did the nervous laughter dance and allowed the condescension to fly, believing it was just part of the hustle.   But now I have my academic weight up and I have met and had meaningful conversations with other people in the field who have opted to take the unconventional route to promotion and tenure. I am not an anomaly. I am not always already blacklisted. There will be no more bullying around this camp. 

Leaving tenure-land has meant churning out a manuscript or two, sharpening my grant writing skills, and hours upon hours of research and writing time. The University of Houston’s Visiting Scholar Initiative in African American Studies has allowed me to grant priority to my research in the early, budding period of my career—though very much off the tenure track—in a way my previous position would not (and I did give them an opportunity to match the deal in order for me to stay). Is not that the whole point of being among the  junior faculty in a research-oriented institution?  If veering off the track to pursue one’s research is not a worthy endeavor, then please explain to me what is?

Each path toward professional success (if that means tenure, great. If not, that’s great, too!) is a varied and winding road.  While I’m sure the sixth year rule shan’t be over turned in the near future, I am hopeful that the younger folk (and mid-career) realize that there are in fact many paths to tenure and it does not have to be the scary, gut-wrenching journey so many have trudged before us.  As I prepare for my second year as Visiting Scholar, I am empowered by my decision. I am free to sketch out my own plan and strategically place myself in a slightly more competitive position when I enter the job market.

The time I will have spent pursuing my research agenda, honing my craft, and expanding my network is invaluable to the goals I have set for myself. So please save the side eye and half-hearted inspirational speeches. I’ll get to tenure in my way and in my own right. I make no apologies for deviating from the script. It was the best thing that could have happened to my career.

African American Literary Studies and the Digital Humanities: Finding an Entrance

 

On my application for the NEH Summer Institute on Contemporary African American Literature I articulated my desire to think through and discover how African American literature could lend itself to a digital humanities project. I hoped to come away from the institute with a better understanding of what such a project would look like. I was anxious and excited to engage visiting lecturer Howard Ramsby on this very issue.  

I broached the subject with my fellow summer scholars, but as with other sessions we filled the time with phenomenal dialogue (on this particular day it was about Howard’s lecture on Afro-Futurism) that my inquiry did not receive much rotation. Maryemma Graham offered one response by extended an invitation to the group to attend the 2013 MLA Convention in Boston, at which three panels dedicated to this very topic will be on the program.  This was reassuring.  I’m glad to know that others in the profession have taken note of the absence of African American literature and culture among all of the hullabaloo over the digital humanities—more importantly, though, they are doing something about it.

I suppose I am invested in the answer to this question, not for my own research interests—though I certainly would like to delve into this new, sexy techno-savvy field—but more so for the sake of the tradition itself.  African American literature and culture as a field of study has endured its share of ambivalence among the more “traditional” academic disciplines.  It was not so long ago that it was considered unworthy of intellectual consideration.  I fear that if we—scholars who profess an expertise in African American literary studies—do not make our presence felt in digital scholarship then we will be left behind and perhaps even be placed in the position where we must, again, prove our worth.

As technology continues to advance and we are faced with virtual classrooms, interfacing with the cloud, and e-books, African American literature (and African American/Black/African Diaspora Studies for that matter) will have to fight our way across the digital divide.  I know that there are scholars out there doing the work, but across the board digital humanities is deficient in scholarly output that centers the history, literature, or cultural production of black folk. 

That is not to suggest that we are being denied access.  On the contrary, I believe there is ample opportunity and ample research funding to support projects that combine humanities scholarship with emerging technologies.  The question is why aren’t more of us doing this type of work? What are the obstacles standing in the way, if there are any? What type of projects can we conceive and feasibly see to completion? With whom should we be collaborating?

I am challenging myself to develop a digital humanities project.  I’m very unclear about what it will look like at this point, but I am committed to inserting African American literature into this trending discipline. Technology is the new frontier and its time for African American Literature to get on the bus. 

Trans-itioning: Moving across Academic Spaces

 

I was privileged to be among the chosen to participate in the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute on Contemporary African American Literature, directed by Lovalerie King at Penn State University. As I reflect on the experience, it is hard to articulate what actually took place in that space.  Sure, I can tell you it was a three week, intensive study of the field with a group of 24 scholars and 3 resident faculty (Trudier Harris, Maryemma Graham, and Dana Williams).  There was a great deal of intellectual discourse and exchange of ideas that took place.  The group collaborated over research interests, pedagogical approaches to certain texts, and professional development opportunities.  Those are the objectives one would expect to have met during the course of a summer institute of this sort.

What I am having more difficulty explaining is what took place outside of the intensive learning.  I came to the institute expecting to learn more than I taught; listening more than I spoke. I envisioned being able to share insights in my own area of research and expertise but figured that would be in the background. As one who is taking a non-conventional route to tenure, I imagined myself still a novice in the field.  I was sure my reserved, quiet demeanor would be the default position I would assume—as it always has been.

                      NEH Group Photo

I, however, have been trans-formed by this experience. I was not the mute girl sitting around the table copiously taking notes. I was unusually vocal and at times vehemently so.  I learned, but I was also in a position to teach something to my peers—not a position I am familiar with outside of publication where I am just a name in print with which the reader can argue.  I received validation and encouragement on my scholarship when both T. Harris and Dana Williams spoke about my forthcoming monograph with something of scholarly praise.  I contributed as much to the dialogue as I took away from it. They shy, quiet Kameelah was out the door.  I didn’t recognize myself!

It dawned on me that to continue to call myself a novice is to discredit all the hard work I have put into studying and becoming an expert in my field. As a newly minted PhD, all I could think about was how much inexperience I had. I felt perpetually wet behind the ears and allotted that when (and if!) I saw my monograph in print, then and only then would I be able to stand among the grown folk. I suppose in the six years since my defense, I have wallowed in that position—not allowing myself to see myself as the professional I have become.

With my book being released at the end of the year and following the phenomenal experience of the NEH Summer Institute, I have no choice except to claim that I am indeed an expert and that I have something to contribute to the field. It is both a humbling and gratifying feeling. I am thoroughly appreciative to my fellow summer scholars and the visiting faculty who created the safe space in which I found myself in metamorphosis.

I come away with a stronger sense of my professional self and a new network of colleagues with whom I have shared much more than intellectual energy. I count many of them among my friends with whom I can share/learn about the trials and errors of the academic life. I only hope that I encouraged someone else’s transformation in the course of those three weeks. As part of the academic community, we all have insecurities that must be hammered out.  I’m still working on mine, but I’ve had a helluva jump start!

Teaching English Majors vs. Black Studies Majors: A Reflection on Pedagogy

 

I recently completed my first semester in an African American Studies Department where 1 of the 16 seminar participants was an English major. This was a completely new landscape and as I prepared the course I gave little thought to adapting my teaching approach to accommodate students who did not have a literary background.  I took for granted that the “interdisciplinary” student would be trained and prepared to read and discuss a text with some level of critical engagement.  They were, after all, junior and senior level undergraduates. I assumed students would complete the reading material and come to class prepared to discuss the topic, which for this term was “Women and Voodoo”.

I was quite mistaken and the result was a very slow moving and pedagogically frustrating sixteen-week term. 

I think back on the many brown bag lunch seminars offered by the Center for Teaching and Learning on “the class from hell,” which I shrugged-off as unnecessary and uninteresting. My pedagogical ego was inflated and my tenure-clock sounded loudly in the background. Now, I am humbled by realization that I came face to face with that monster—and  am not sure I did my best to survive. I am also unsure if the monster was really a result of teaching outside of my primary discipline or if this generation of students is less inclined to active learning. 

The students enjoyed the content and learned more about African-based spiritual systems than what they entered with. I suppose to some degree I should be happy about that. My disappointment comes at the resounding fact that they could have learned so much more had they actually read and dealt with the material in a more critical way.  I take some responsibility for that and as a committed pedagogue I must take steps to remedy it. Am I being ridiculous to think that pushing too much reading could have stunted the growth of the class?

As I prepare for my fall course “Voodoo and Visual Culture,” I am more cognizant of the difference in learning styles and interdisciplinary leanings of the students I will be teaching.  I’ve adapted my syllabus and teaching approach to accommodate an audience of students who are less familiar with the idea of close readings, the function of literary devices, and using paratextual evidence to critically engage a work of fiction.

My intention is not to “dumb-down” the course, but rather to find a healthy balance between teaching students the foundations of literary studies and critical analysis and requiring them to apply that lesson to a number of texts. I will supplement much of the print material with visual texts—film, art, and a graphic novel.  In cutting the amount of required reading—three novels rather than my staple seven books—I anticipate that more students will complete the reading and we can spend more time actually discussing and dissecting what we have seen and read.

Perhaps I am overly optimistic, or perhaps I will recover from the angst I feel over not doing my best to adapt to the interdisciplinary classroom.  Will students respond to visual texts and bring the critical “funk” to the class or am I rearranging my pedagogy to pacify intellectually lazy students? I hope to find the answer to those question and resolve never to grant the monster access to my classes again.

Geechee Relatives????

In my secret, undercover life I am an amateur genealogist and have been working on compiling my family pedigree since
I was about seventeen.  Recently, I discovered a familiar name in the
most unlikely of places!!!  As I was preparing to teach my ENGL 3960
course, “The Gullah Presence in African American Literature by Women,”  I
read as much background info to refresh my perspective.  I picked up
the book Drums and Shadows: Survival Studies among Georgia Coastal Negroes
(1986) expecting to find some interesting folklore I could share with
my class.  As I read the interviews from formerly enslaved persons and
their descendants in Yamacraw, Georgia I was floored when I read the
testimony of James “Stick Daddy” Cooper:

Out
beyond Yamacraw, where the old brick and dirt streets of the community
give way to the broad, paved Augusta road, an old Negro named James
Cooper has for years conducted a miscellaneous business in a ramshackle
push cart. 1
James sells lunches to the workers at the Savannah Sugar Refinery; he
also cobbles shoes and repairs anything from broken pots to roller
skates. Because of his skill as a wood carver, particularly of walking
sticks, he has become known in the vicinity as “Stick Daddy.” A
decidedly original technique is evident in his carving, but he smiled
when this was mentioned.
“I nevuh bin taught,” he said. “I took up cahvin as paht time jis fuh the fun of it. Muh granfathuh, Pharo Cooper,
he used tuh make things frum wood an straw, sech as baskets an cheahs
an tables an othuh things fuh the home. I guess I sawt of inherited it
frum, him.”
One of “Stick Daddy’s” canes is a slender, snake-encircled rod with a handle made from a large black and white die (24).
[paragraph
continues] Another, slightly thicker, is carved with a single
crocodile. The third, a heavy stick topped with a flashlight handle in
which the snapshot of a young Negro girl has been inserted, is artfully
decorated with a turtle, a large crocodile, and a small, sinuous
snake. The chief characteristic of “Stick Daddy’s” work is the boldness
with which the carved figures, dark-stained and highly polished, stand
out against their unfinished natural wood background. Very different
is another stick that was found abandoned in an office building in the
city. This has a man’s head for a handle but the stick proper is so
covered with minute, unpatterned crisscrosses that the little figure of
a man upside down, a horned head also upside down, and an undetermined
object which may be either man or animal, are noticed only when the
cane is carefully studied.
“Stick Daddy,” besides being a general repair man and carver, knows a few “sho cuos” for illnesses (25).
Pharo
Cooper, you see, just happens to be the name of my paternal
great-grandfather.  I only recently recovered “Pharo Cooper” as my
relative and had done minimal research on him at the time I was
reading.  I have since been on a whirlwind adventure trying to prove or
disprove that the craftsman Pharo Cooper, referred to by “Stick Daddy,” 
is the same Pharo Cooper from whom I am directly descended.
I have discovered, through the agency of Ancestry.com, that
my ancestor was born between 1859-1862.  The earliest record in which I
can locate him is the 1880 Federal Census.  He was living in Indian,
Williamsburg County, South Carolina.  I researched the area to see if
there was a plantation owner with the surname Cooper.  I discovered that
William Cooper also lived in Indian, Williamsburg County, South
Carolina along with more than one hundred people of African descent
carrying the surname Cooper.  Now, logically this leads me to believe
that William Cooper was the owner (former owner by 1880) of a huge
number of slaves including Pharo’s parents (Manassa and Nannie) and
possibly had possession of Pharo during slavery.  Williamsburg County is
one county inland from the South Carolina coast and given the
historical fact that the enslaved population outnumbered the slave
owning population, especially in South Carolina, I willingly assume that
Pharo Cooper participated and was fluent in what we now refer to as
Geechee/Gullah culture.
By
1900, Pharo had married and moved to Sycamore Town, Irwin County,
Georgia.  He sired at least 12 children that can be documented in the
census record.  I have run up against a brick wall in my next phase of
research: trying to locate a direct connection between James “Stick
Daddy” Cooper’s parentage and Pharo Cooper’s progeny.
While
I am proud of my lineage regardless if my Pharo Cooper was a craftsman
and furniture maker or not, I am certainly excited about the possibility
of finding my ancestors name in a published book!  Before reading Drums and Shadows,
I was uncertain where my paternal ancestry would lead me.  I was
inspired to make a familial connection with the Pharo Cooper in the book
and discovered a whole new branch of my family history that is
connected to Geechee/Gullah corridor. I am continually amazed at how I
am able to intersect my work with my personal life.  As some black
feminist critics would say, “the personal is political.”  I have always
had an interest and profound respect for Geechee/Gullah culture; I see
it as the origin of African American culture as we know it.  So to
discover that I have ancestors that are more than likely part and parcel
of this originating culture is profoundly humbling and satisfying.  I
have a REAL, tangible connection to Geechee/Gullah Culture!!!!  This
make my experience at St. Simons even more horrific (See my earlier
blog), but it also fuels my passion for this part of the south and for
the preservation/reclamation of the African American legacy.  I still
don’t know if “Stick Daddy” may be a distant relative, but I’m always
working toward finding that answer! More to come soon!

In Search of Ibo Landing….

Back in September, my good friend and I ventured to St. Simons
Island to visit the ocean and place ourselves on historic Ibo Landing
and other various places our slave ancestors formerly occupied (See:  http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/nge/Article.jsp?id=h-2895
for the story behind Ibo Landing).  Much to our dismay NONE of the
visitor’s center brochures/maps even made mention of Ibo Landing. This,
however, had no bearing on us for we are known for going rouge and
finding what we have sought out. What was much more disturbing is that
upon discovering the location of Ibo Landing—a MONUMENTAL site of
historic importance for anyone of African descent in this country–we
were barred from it because “its on private property”.
Feel me?

I have been trying to work through the anger, rage, insult, and
feelings of being violated since then.  Daaiyah and I were able to view
the site from the side of the road, but I still feel a tremendous void
and ache in my soul about being denied access to something that should
by all rights not be ANYONE’s private property.  Ibo Landing is “in
someone’s backyard”.  Are you serious? How DARE they allow such a
sacred site to be owned, to be part of some affluent sub-division.  It
is shameful on an island that has resurrected and restored other
notable points on the map of American history, but has done nothing to
acquire this property for its historic value.  But then, I must
remember that what is valuable and sacred to my heritage is seldom
valued by others in this country.
Walk with me….

To add insult to injury…we did discover a map of African American
historic interests and immediately set out to find them after paying
the proper homage to Ibo Landing from a far. Some how, the slave
cemetery of Retreat Plantation has been protected and for obvious
reasons we sought it out. It is couched somewhere on the grand property
of the Retreat Golf Course and exclusive Golf Club.  It was
permissible to drive on to the property and view the “majestic”
greens…but when I stopped to ask the gatekeeper about viewing the
cemetery I was met with smuggness and a swift rejection: “Yeah, its
around here but its only open to direct descendents”.  He didn’t
entertain any other inquiries and it was obvious that he wanted us off
the property. Now, sure…I understand that one’s last resting place is
to be protected and respected.  I can dig it. Let’s be clear. Me and
sista Daaiyah only had intentions of doing some righteous praying and
maybe leavin’ a lil somethin’ in honor of the dead.  But really? You
are gonna deny me based on a genealogy that you made sure was wiped
from my memory and your records? I mean, we are talking about a slave
cemetery!!! How many of those who descended from the Retreat Plantation
slaves actually KNOW who their slave ancestors were or where they are
buried????  How does one prove that one is a direct descendant?Would
you know me by sight? By name?

I’m sure he could have provided an answer to these questions had he
entertained them…but for me that is neither here nor there.  As far
as I am concerned I AM A DESCENDANT OF ALL SLAVES and I have a right to
view and honor the last resting place of “the slaves who were
ourselves”.  I can’t help but come to the realization that in so many
ways we are still being owned.  This Golf Club literally OWNS some of
our ancestors and has the power to deny us access to our own people. 
Now what kind of TRASH is that???Was I expecting too much by thinking my
skin gives me some sort of privilege or access in this matter? I mean,
really…tell me if I’m trippin’.

I was overwhelmed with so many emotions.  I felt helpless.  I felt
the tears sting my eyes.  I felt the uncontrollable urge to moan and
wail like I had lost a child. I felt the hair on my arms stand up,
readying myself to assualt this man who meant me spiritual harm. I felt
that familiar tingle on the back of my neck telling me I was not
alone. I felt my mouth begin to foam in insane rage.  My breathing
became arhythmic and stuccato, my blood pressure rose like the sun, 
and my muscles trembled.

I suppose I’m sharing this partly because I need to get it off my
chest.  I have been so shaken by this experience, I think, because it
had so much to do with a spiritual connection to our past. I still feel
wounded right here in this very moment.  Another part of me wants to
have a conversation about how to heal from these subtle, but often
spiritually seismic blows.  I have to admit, I don’t feel empowered
enough to make any changes for future seekers of Ibo Landing or the
Retreat Village Cemetery, but I do know that my unresolved
tension/anger/hurt is not imagined and this time…I just can’t act
like it didn’t happen.  So let me hear from you….this is not just my
hurt.  Let’s talk about our ancestral legacies and what it means when
we can’t have access to them.    Let’s talk about the kind of damage
that is done and how to reconcile with it—I’m not sure I’ll really
heal from it.

Moving towards Peace,
KM

Dunbar’s Creek, the site of the incident @ Ibo Landing. St. Simons Island, Georgia.