Thoughts on Remembering

We have been in Virginia for some days now, heading first to Accomack County, and thence to Chincoteague, where we had two days of beach, birds, and a boat. I posted a few videos and counted birds. Seeing the bald eagles made my day, and more views of cardinals, Carolina wrens and chickadees, and the black vulture, plus seabirds, added to my pleasure. We had meant to go to Williamsburg and see the homes and buildings but we ended up going to the Jamestown archaeological site instead, which was less about reproducing the past and more about revealing it. Let’s just say I didn’t realize they had resorted to cannibalism. They did.

We went on to Shackleford’s, an unincorporated area near West Point and the top of the York River, past a smelly paper pulp company. The Shacklefords were a family that married into the Bailey family about 5 generations ago. Wealth follows wealth, and Frances brought her family’s slaving wealth to the Baileys. The area is farming land, with fields planted with winter wheat, oil-seed radish and other covering crops

The area formerly known as the Shacklefords plantation.

It is pretty country (once the living areas of the Rappahannock tribe), with clear fields, cleared by someone who was likely not a Shackleford, and pretty houses, the oldest most certainly built by enslaved humans. I try to imagine what it was like back then. This part of the country is so forested, there are hundreds of thick trees in every direction, except where it has been cleared — I cannot imagine clearing so many trees to make a tobacco field, a cornfield, a wheat field. All by hand, using hand tools and elbow grease. Long days, Sundays off, perhaps, maybe. I have no idea what it was like to be enslaved, nor to enslave others. It boggles the mind.

We went on to the next site, on our way to Norfolk, to an industrial town called Newport News. I should say under the town, because where there are docks and cranes and container ships, there was once the plantation called St. Marie’s Mount, and enough enslaved workers to make it tun: tobacco and food crops for the family, farm animals to fill the table. Daniel Gookin owned the property (taken or bought from the Nansemond and Kecoughtan). He was the administrator of American Indian affairs, or whatever it was called in 1680-ish, the first in American history, for better or worse. He held the land on the Chesapeake Bay at the mouth of the James River. The soil is sandy and the fishing is very good, but I don’t now how it was to farm there. His son took land across the Bay at Nansemond between the Nansemond River and Chuckatuck Creek, and so they moved along, as they sought fertile soils and better/different/more land. I couldn’t get close enough to stand on St. Marie’s Mount land so I got as close as I could on public land—the King-Lincoln Park fishing pier.

I read off the names of those enslaved by our family in Virginia, and collected some sand and razor clamshells.

I have been thinking about our great-grandmother, Willie Doris (Upshaw) Bailey, that elegant, Southern, snooty lady, who fished in hat and gloves and swore her sons would never work with their hands. She couldn’t abide the song, “Marching Through Georgia.” I have thought her weak and silly and overdramatic, and dismissed her feelings with the wave of a hand. But as we were driving along the backroads of Virginia, my sister said something like she was glad we went one way and not the other because there were more birds to see, “and birding trumps family history.”

As soon as she said the T-word, I flinched. “God, don’t say that word,” I said, “I hate that name.” And then I got it. And I felt—a kinship. I understood the feeling. I know what she meant with her visceral reaction. The South is complicated. So is family. I’m still wondering and searching.

Birthrights and Wrongs

I’m heading south and east this week to dig into some family history, the in-person research I can do only in person Ole Maryin Alabama. I’ll be staying in Jasper, with forays into Birmingham and down to Alexander City and Hackneyville. Part of the research will be digging into libraries and part will be driving around to see the environs where my forebears were slaveholders.

I’ve found what I could find on Ancestry.com¬†and at my local library; I have looked through old photo albums (hence the photo of Ole Mary washing clothes, from about 1915; it’s very possible she was a former slave). I have purchased deed-mapping software and found information in the strangest of corners online, but nothing beats feet on the ground.

I’ve never been to the south before. The furthest south I’ve been is Charlotte, Virginia, to visit a former relative by marriage, and to Baltimore. But I’m talking deep south, this Alabama journey, into the Black Belt where cotton was king. It’s a new experience for a California native — and part of my evolution. The paradox of moving forward is going backward, to see where I came from, which will help steer me ahead.

In the summertime when I was a child, we had lots of farm chores to do, especially before we went off to play. When I was about 12, my mother left a list of chores for us, and mine was to clear some weeds from the garden. I took the shovel, and I dug and sweated and shoveled, turning over the dirt, breaking a whole new row, fresh soil with no weeds. It took me about two hours in the hot sun to break that row. When I finished, I was so hot and tired I didn’t want to go out and play with a friend.

When my mom got home later that evening she said I hadn’t pulled the weeds.

“Yes, I did — look!” I showed what I had done.

But she shook her head, and showed me where the weeds were still standing in the rows already planted. What I could have done in ten minutes — pull the weeds and be on my way — I had not seen, had missed altogether. I still had to pull those weeds the next day — but I had broken ground, made the garden bigger.

Somewhere in there is a metaphor for privilege — just pulling a few weeds and skipping away, when someone has done all the work of breaking the soil, throwing the rocks aside, making it friable and fine enough for seed. I’ve done it both ways, the easy and the tough, and believe me, it was galling to think how hard I had worked when I could have had it easy. I imagine if I always did the hard part and someone else always did the easy job, I would be pretty fed up.

Am I a good person? Am I in integrity with my roots, with my future actions? Am I standing on the backs of others who broke the path? Enjoying the fruits of someone else’s labors? Am I bold enough to tell the story I find, regardless of what it is? Of how, or whom, it hurts?

I have many thoughts going through my mind as I prepare for this first venture into the past. But consider this a vow: Whatever I find, I’ll write about it, unflinchingly. I hope to tell it well enough so you want to read it, too.