What Visiting Plantations Taught Me About Historical Erasure
LaTanya McQueen on Piecing Together Her Family's Past
I have a family member, a professor, who once told me she liked studying history because it felt safer because she already knew the outcome. There was no worry about what could happen since she already knew. She also believed that looking toward the past was a great way at understanding the present, because history repeats, and if you waited long enough, you would eventually see the pattern.
Because of this, during a graduate program I became obsessed with the past. I lived in Missouri the year Michael Brown was murdered and was there during the unrest that followed. I was also there when the university made national headlines from student protests that lead to the resignations of both the president and chancellor of the university. Amidst this, I was in a program where every day I felt I was told, both directly and indirectly, that I didn’t belong. Frequently, professors missed scheduled meetings where I’d hoped to talk about my work or the class, and during my oral defense, one professor didn’t show, almost causing me to fail because of it. I often experienced microaggressions both in and outside the classroom. I was called a racial slur twice by strangers and once by a student.
Midway through this program, I learned that my grandmother was suffering from dementia and that she was dying. I could not afford to go back to North Carolina so I had to settle with phone calls with her where she would alternate between lucidity and dementia. Her behavior reminded me of the conversations I’d had with my mother when she was dying of cancer. My grandmother would slip between moments of awareness of who I was to not even being able to recognize my voice.
During one of the last times I spoke with her, I asked about my mother. I knew once my grandmother died, there would be no one else to tell me the truth of what happened to my mother growing up. It’s long been suspected by other family members that my grandfather sexually abused her, and throughout my childhood my mother inferred as much in the stories she told about her upbringing. I never met her father, my grandfather, but I have heard the stories of how he was. He was a man who hated his Blackness. He resented marrying my grandmother, a woman of a darker complexion, and treated her terribly throughout their marriage because of it. He was also an abusive man that my mother feared until he died, and even after she would still have nightmares about him.
I did not know how to ask my grandmother about what may have happened to my mother, but I had to try to find a way. “Mom,” I started. “You know she—you know something was wrong with her. She used to say—”
I couldn’t finish. In the end, I couldn’t do it, but my grandmother—I’m not sure if she knew or didn’t. I don’t know, but she was silent for a while. “I know secrets,” she told me when she finally spoke again. “I have secrets I need to keep.”
She wouldn’t go further, refusing to clarify what she’d meant, and I knew she would take whatever she knew to her grave. Some truths, she seemed to believe, were meant to be buried.
I once read about how trauma can be inherited, that it’s possible for trauma to leave a chemical mark on a person’s genes to be passed down to future generations. My mother was a damaged woman but how much of that damage was inherited? I wanted to understand more of what had led my mother to be the way she was. I felt like I needed to learn the past in order to understand my present, and if I explored my family’s history then I could find some sort of answer.
My family used to tell this story about one of my ancestors, a woman by the name of Leanna Brown, my great-great grandmother, who was once a slave to North Carolina Senator Bedford Brown. She had a relationship with a man on a nearby farm, had three children with him. One of them, the boy, was able to carry on the name of his father.
I tried for a while to find the truth of this story. I looked through all sorts of records in the hope of finding a clue that would provide answers, but anyone who’s ever done any sort of ancestry research knows how much of a needle in a haystack that can be, especially for African Americans. So many records have been lost or destroyed, if there were any records at all, that it becomes close to impossible to find anything.
Still, my family exists, and their name is evidence of the connection between them and this white family that disavowed them. What must it have been like—two families, one white, the other Black, both with the same surname living within a few miles of the other? What did each of the children think? Did they all know they were related? In relayed stories, I was told that the son would travel to visit his father, but he had to pass in order to do so. Known as Black in one town but passing as white in another just so he could see the father who in any other circumstance would never claim him.
Yet, there is the name. It is evidence of some kind of acknowledgement, despite his denial in life.
I’ve often wondered if the legacy of this story existed in my family’s desire to align themselves with whiteness, if part of their self-hate had to do with this family that rejected them.
I spent the summer of 2016 visiting plantations across the south in attempt to learn more about Leanna’s life. While I’d read about plantations, I felt I needed to see these places in person to get a true sense of them. I’d mapped out a plan to visit plantations in Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and to end with the trip trying to find the Bedford Brown House, the plantation Leanna Brown lived on in North Carolina. I ended up visiting plantations in some of these states, not all of them, because what I found after a while was the same story at each of them. There was little, if any, mention of slavery. Instead, I listened to stories about the owners, often told to me by guides dressed in period costumes as they gave their little narratives about the plantation owner’s family history. Tour guides dressed in period costumes told me details about the architecture of the houses and not the backbreaking work that went into building them. While I learned a lot about the wealth of the plantation owners, I rarely learned about the work involved in slave labor, especially on sugar plantations that had some of the highest mortality rates. There was a complete erasure of what made these places exist in the first place.
I expected to go to these plantations where I’d be told the history of my ancestors, and what I got instead was a proliferation of tourist attractions meant for the white gaze. The majority of the people I met while visiting these places were there on their own sort of holiday. At one place, you could rent out bungalows to stay the night in, and the weekend I went I inquired about them out of curiosity only to learn that they were all booked up.
In a place that Black people built, lived, and died, often violent deaths, they were not even the story. They were an afterthought to history.
These plantations aren’t the only ones that revise or erase history. Consider the backlash to the 1619 Project, and the recent banning of CRT in schools. As I write this, in Tennessee, there is a debate over the contents of English language arts curriculum with criticism over the inclusion of, among other things, a book that teaches about Ruby Bridges, who at six-years old was one of the first Black students to integrate the New Orleans all-white public school system.In a place that Black people built, lived, and died, often violent deaths, they were not even the story. They were an afterthought to history.
During the time I did that graduate degree in Missouri, the Black student organization had advocated to try and get a marker established in recognition of the lynching of a Black janitor at the University of Missouri’s medical school. In Iowa where I live now, as an assignment I’ll ask my students to research sundown towns. I have them look up their hometowns in the Sundown Town database, created by James Loewen, and they are always surprised to learn the areas they come from were once sundown towns. They’ve never wondered before what might have contributed to the racial makeup of where they lived, and now here I am, forcing them to reckon with a history they’d never known.
In North Carolina, like many states in the South, we pay homage to the Confederacy in the preponderance of memorials. They are meant to honor those who fought, the argument goes, while ignoring that these memorials were erected as part of propaganda campaign to terrorize Black communities.
For every Confederate memorial I see, I am reminded of the story of the cousin who disowned our family and passed for white. I think of the way they must have lived in an area dominated by the Klan. I remember visiting my grandmother and how she was always afraid to travel at night. I remember once, after coming out from the grocery store, someone had put Klan flyers underneath her car’s windshield wiper. A regular occurrence, she’d told me before crumpling them in her bag to throw away later.
Our country rarely reckons with the past in any real way, and any attempts at trying are often meant with resistance. We are afraid of looking back to the past because it might show us similar horrors in the present—as well as the horrors in ourselves.
I started writing my novel with an intent of writing about history—about the way the history of Black people has been revised, forgotten, and outright denied, but around the time I got the idea for it, I came across a news story that was circulating in the town of Rolesville, NC where my father lives. The story was about a high school police officer who’d picked up a 15-year-old girl and slammed her to the floor. There was cell phone video of the incident that went viral.
These images in the video haunt me in the same way the stories of the past do, but what also haunts me, are the conversations that have surrounded each one, the criticisms of each of the victim’s actions, as if to say that if any of them had dressed a certain way, had spoken differently, had acted in a way deemed as “acceptable” that they lives would not have been met with deadly force. This is another type of revisionism that works to shift the conversation, placing blame on the person who is dead and not the one who killed them.
There have been so many acts of violence enacted on Black people since, so many videos recorded and shared and then forgotten. The videos circulated and then forgotten until another event happens, until there is another recording, and with each time, no matter how much I try to avoid it, I come across these videos and am reminded of how this country treats Black people, how they think of them, and I relive the trauma of that feeling all over again. What always remains is the fear I felt when I first watched them, and the horror in knowing this was how our country sees people like me, and there was nothing I could do to change any of it. How does one escape a horror like that? When everywhere there is a reminder of what you’re seen to being worth?
In my novel, this is the dilemma the main character, Mira, is faced with. She’s a woman who has lost sight of who she is out of the fear of how she’s been seen. She knows how Black people have been treated but has taught herself to believe if she behaves a certain way then maybe she’ll be absolved from the dangers of what can happen. It is a false belief, one she learns over the course of the book, but at the beginning she has not realized the depths of influence behind the respectability politics and antiblackness instilled by her mother and the world around her. This influence has affected every aspect of her life—from the way she handles her job, to her relationships both past and present, and to how she has come to view her own identity.
I started writing this book in an attempt to write about history, but in the end I wrote a horror novel. It’s a novel about the horrors of the past but also the horrors of the present, and how both have come to shape a person’s understanding of themselves. But there is another, albeit different, kind of horror lurking throughout the book, and that is the way in which a person lets how others see them affect how they see themselves. Of navigating a world that will forever see you as less than. The dread that comes from knowing this is how you’re seen, and of the ways it can shape you, make you lessen yourself. And of having all of these feelings about yourself and not realizing that it’s not your fault, of not understanding the way history has contributed to that. Perhaps it is not the horror readers are expecting or wanting, but it’s worth reckoning with just the same.
When the Reckoning Comes by LaTanya McQueen is available via Harper Perennial.