BLEAK HOUSE – LINKED FIRST BY PLACE, THEN BY HEART (1)

Part 1 – Finding the House, Looking for the People   

At the Telling the History of Slavery conference, the woman I sat next to looked to be about my age, and like most of the attendees, not someone I knew. We introduced ourselves before the speakers began, and at the first break, shared more information. Something about the same way we each dealt with the question “where are you from?” alerted me to listen more carefully. As my neighbor listed the countries she had lived in as a child, “Burma” rang all the bells. “Alice! Alice Cannon! Are you Alice Purnell who lived next door to me in Rangoon?” She is. Our families were next door neighbors when Alice’s and my fathers worked for the American Embassy in Rangoon, Burma, in the early ‘50’s. We were very small then, but we could remember our cats who were siblings, our shared disaster with the bees in the hedge, and our study partnership in Miss Gevney’s one-room American school.   Alice is an only child, but she remembered my little brother, too.

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Whitney Plantation: What I Want for My Linked Families, Now!

Whitney Plantation, the first plantation museum to make the lives of the enslaved community the central focus of the site, to depict the truth of their lives and honor their contributions. This is what I read in the February 26, 2015 New York Times article.   http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/01/magazine/building-the-first-slave-museum-in-america.html?_r=1

A jambalaya of emotions was stirred within me.

whitney plantation cabinHow exciting, remarkable and inspiring! At last, truth is told, hidden history is brought to the fore, and people, whose lives and work were invisible, are seen. The past is not sugarcoated, the depths of the sin of slavery are out in the open. Perhaps this is a stimulus for serious, wide-spread conversation about the living legacy of slavery that burdens this country. I wanted to jump on a plane, fly to New Orleans, and visit Whitney Plantation immediately. I wanted to walk on the ground of this bold institution right now.

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You Discovered a Slave Owner in Your Family Tree? What Does That Mean to You?

A few years back, when I first met some of my African American linked descendants, I was excited and enthusiastic, ready to embrace them warmly. They opened their arms to me, and the renewal of our family connection has remained a positive part of our lives. For a while, I assumed that every African American with whom I had a family connection would be as glad to meet me as I would be to meet them. Fortunately, one of my linked cousins has kindly and frankly made it clear that she does not want to be hugged and called cousin by every new white relative she discovers in her family history research. I believe that she wants the warmth and friendship to grow out of time-tested relationship and candid dialogue.

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Being Linked Through Slavery Means …

Being a “linked descendant” puts racism and white privilege in a harsh light for me.  It makes speaking out honestly about the legacy of slavery a personal and family imperative.

I always knew that my mother’s ancestral roots went back to at least one plantation-owning Virginia family, but not until well into adulthood did I realize that being directly descended from one plantation family actually means being descended from many such families, and related by marriage to as many as 50 others.  Furthermore, this heritage for “first families of Virginia”  turns out to endow me with an extended family of European American cousins, but an equally large or larger extended family of African American cousins.  And the longer I studied my family tree, the more I realized how large, extended and “linked” it is.

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What Do We Want to Say?

The Storytellers of BitterSweet have wide-ranging conversations and share stories on many topics, and we imagine that our readers and guest contributors will expand the exchange with new topics and themes. Our stories touch on all periods in U.S. history, from the arrival of Europeans and then of enslaved Africans in North America in the colonial period, right up to the present, and take place in regions all over the country and the globe. The characters we write about come from many walks of life, in stories of work, family life, creative endeavor and spiritual tradition.  The legacy of the relationships of bondage and vastly unequal power emerges regularly and has moved many of us to take action toward justice, healing, truth-telling and peace-making. Together and separately, we are on journeys of research, learning, connection and transformation, full of surprises, joys, frustrations, fears, uncertainties and fulfillment.