June 11, 2021

Where the Air Grows Thin: A Shared Passion for History

Simone Jacobs, LCSW-C

“We are here today to say - we were here.” Rev. Dr. Caesor Johnson, Spring Hill Baptist Church

This weekend as part of the Slavery Inventory Database, Maddy and I attended “Precious Memories: How they Linger,” an event to re-dedicate the burial grounds of those enslaved by Patrick Henry at his Red Hill Estate in Brookneal, VA. For those of you who don’t know, Patirck Henry was the founding father best known for his declaration, “Give me Liberty or Give me Death.” I’m not the first person to point out the irony of a man who ignited the fires of national independence while at the same time enslaving people. When Patrick Henry gave his speech, those enslaved to him worked his land and cared for his family but did not get to hope or share the very freedoms he was pursuing for himself, his family, and his country. 

But I’m going to save a discussion of that particular type of hypocrisy for another day. Partly because these kinds of experiences of hypocrisy at the various sites we visit, often leave me depleted. Sometimes when we go on our #fieldtripfridays, I get angry, despairing, and frustrated at the past, present, and future. I often leave these kinds of events feeling disappointed, sad, and afraid. This may seem strange--why would I continue to participate in activities that leave me feeling so overwhelmed and exhausted by the emotional intensity? 

I’ll tell you why I do this--it’s because there is something in these historical excursions that is more powerful than the negative psychic overload. In these historic places, in these moments shared with others who choose to engage, I feel something. It’s almost as if the air grows thin, as the lines between past and present blur, I hear more clearly the whispers of the past, of those who have gone before, and I am, we are, at once nothing - small specks of dust in midst of a brief moment in the vast universe - and yet not. I become part of something bigger, not just a witness to a past long gone, but an active participant in the long and ongoing narrative of the human race. Because in these moments, in these forgotten stories, or well known stories, in the revelations of history that are both good and bad, glorious and horrific, profound and mundane, there are moments of wonder, connection, and peace. 

Those who were enslaved did not get to sit on top of the hill and survey their territory with a sense of ownership as they played the fiddle surrounded by their grandchildren. They did not get to feast in delight at what they had produced. They worked hard, they were abused, tortured and killed in service to a master who cared little for their worth as members of the same human race. And yet they survived. They persevered. They lived lives that were worthy, honorable, and dignified, even when they weren’t treated that way. And that’s why I go. I go to honor those who came before, so that I can stand here today. I go to pay my respects to those who chose to keep on living in spite of the horror, in spite of the sorrow, in spite of the fears, shame, and humiliation. They lived, and so I  write about them, know them, honor them, and say thank you. 

But what difference does my experience make to them? I don’t know, but it makes a difference to me. These events change  the way I view the world, in the past, present, and future. Bringing to light this history, standing with those who share the same past or interests, connects us, so we can share our grief, burdens, and joys, we are no longer alone. In the present it affects how I interact with those who struggle, with those who suffer, and with those who lift themselves up on the backs of others all the while claiming they stand on their own. My participation also makes a difference in the future. It matters when we choose to uncover a headstone, trace a forgotten family tree, attend an event, and connect with others who share this same passion. Because sometime in the future, someone will discover something in the history we have preserved, that helps them reconnect with themselves, their story, and perhaps find the courage to face adversity, rediscover their dignity, or reclaim the honor and respect for something that was once deemed shameful. I believe that all these experiences - the stories told, the events attended, the cemeteries recovered, the work of finding history - make a difference. I believe that now and sometime in the future, the disconnected name in an accounting ledger will mean something. The enslaved did not live meaningless lives that nobody will remember. I remember, we remember, and hopefully so will you. 

“Their story has not died. It just hasn’t been told.” 
Rev. Dr. Ceasor Johnson, Spring Hill Baptist Church, Brookneal, VA