Song of the South

I was looking for something and I needed to find it. I didn’t know where it would be, but I felt that it could be found. In August of 2016, I embarked on a road trip through the South. I received a research grant and I wanted to take some time to travel to help the research process of my thesis project on slavery. So my mother, my 10 year old cousin, and I crowded ourselves into our rental SUV and made the drive from Hampton, Virginia.

Technically, Virginia is the South. Although some don’t see it as being a part of the South. In our cultural imagination, when we think about the South, we’re thinking about the Deep South. I originally proposed a project to travel to New Orleans and study its relationship to the legacies of slavery. Instead, I decided to go to places that had specific ties to slavery. We drove through 8 states: Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. We stopped in Charleston, Sullivan’s Island, and St.Helena Island in South Carolina. Saint Simon’s Island in Georgia. And New Orleans and surrounding areas in Louisiana.

What do all of these sites have to do with slavery? Sullivan’s Island, SC was the place where 40% of enslaved Africans came through before they were sold in other places in the US. Meaning most African Americans have ancestors who passed through this point. St. Helena’s Island was/is the seat of Gullah/Geechee culture. Saint Simon’s Island, particularly Dunbar Creek, was the site of Ebo’s Landing. And New Orleans was the site of the largest antebellum slave market in the country.

I was hoping to reconcile the uneasiness that I felt about slavery, a history that I am both inside and outside of. I was hoping that by visiting these plantations and by going to these sites, I would feel a kind of connection, or a reconnection. Instead, I felt disturbed and further isolated. Here’s why. When a loved one has passed away, you go to their graveyard and lay flowers by their tombstones. You sit on the ground, face the tombstone, and just talk and cry. Now imagine going to a graveyard with flowers in your hand, except you have no idea where your loved one is buried, or even the name of your loved one, there is no tombstone. Matter of fact, there is no graveyard. All you have are flowers in your hand and a burning fire in your heart to mourn and remember, but there is no where to go. That is exactly how I felt.

Plantations are peculiar spaces because they are, in a way shrines to their former (slave) owners. The enslaved Africans are the post script. The tour guide, dressed in antebellum attire, jovially speaks about the former slave owners and the intricacies of their everyday lives, and switches to a woeful tone for three minutes to describe the conditions of the enslaved, and brightens up to resume speaking about the china plates the masters ate off of.

I felt most uneasy when we were in Georgia. Saint Simon’s Island to be exact. If you are not familiar with the story of Ebo’s Landing, click here. I was hoping to go to, or drive by Dunbar Creek, the place where the incident occurred. I was dismayed, to say the least, when residential summer homes blocked any kind of access to the creek. There was no sign of it. The same thing happened in New Orleans, where I expected to see a plaque or some kind of tour about the legacies of slavery in New Orleans. Instead I saw Omni Hotels and casinos most likely built on top of enslaved people, their stories, and their histories.The Whitney Plantation was different. The whole plantation was dedicated to the lives of the enslaved people at the plantation. And it was extremely necessary to hear the other side of history.

I am reminded of a quote by the great African filmmaker, Ousmane Sembène, “If Africans do not tell their own stories, Africa will soon disappear.” In that same vein, if we do not remember, if we do not mourn, if we do not tell our stories and face the brutal institution that slavery was, not only will we disappear, but there will always be a part of us that is missing and incomplete. And even more frightening than that, if we refuse to understand our past, we will misunderstand our presence, and we will never make it to the future.

That is the work I’m interested in doing now.

Until next time,

Kemi


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