The following is excerpted from a creative nonfiction piece published in the October 2019 online issue of Atlas and Alice. The work reflects on my second visit to the LeNoir plantation home. I and several of my cousins did a photo shoot at the plantation to chronicle the visit. You will find the piece in its entirety here.
The time it took for me and my sister to find Robbert was ten years. The drive to the plantation in Prairie is two hours away from my home in Memphis, Tennessee. It took six months and two emails to decide we would visit the plantation. The initial phone call to Liz lasted about thirteen minutes. It took four hours to tour the sprawling plantation that held the history of 87 slaves, give or take. The first video we made of our findings is two minutes and nineteen seconds. Only 330 people have watched it. There is a five-page spread in The Monroe County Magazine written about the seven generations of Lenoirs who peopled the plantation home. Within that article, Robbert and the other slaves are never mentioned.
There are eight boxes of documents in the Mississippi State archives left by the Lenoir family who owned my family as slaves. It took eight hours to comb through the receipts, pictures, letters, almanacs, and blueprints, piecing together the lives of an oppressed group as narrated by the oppressor. Some of the details of the Lenoirs and their slaves were kept out of the collection, leaving gaping holes and about a thousand questions. Other narratives have been washed away over time, storied away with hyperbole or watered down in understatement. For the Lenoir slaves, there are no full stories—only crumbs.
Like the one about the slave girl who died, her body found splayed, arms akimbo at the foot of the home’s beautiful Romeo and Juliet staircase. It was a dark and stormy night. A degenerating star-crossed tale is told about the fileting of a white man in the same home, at the top of the same stairs, a few nights after. The rumor is that the slave girl was 16? 12? Yes, 12. That she was Cherokee? Mulatto? African? But definitely pregnant.
Vengeance. Where tired black men are worn out by fieldwork, weathered by grief. Men who could have been the girl’s father or grandfather, uncle or brother. Men who were fed up with watching their daughters be split open between two lives, two families. Men who knew their daughters were not their daughters. Men who had their women—when they were allowed to be their women—grease door jambs of the plantation home with pig lard, so when their men came through the big house, dragging their grief behind them, the shishing of their suffering would not be heard. The men from the quarters would balance the scales with the white man in the big house, the one who killed the slave girl and her baby. Two for one.
This is all conjecture, but you were warned.
For the Lenoir family, my family, this is a necessary fable that has mutated itself into the story of all black people who had to move from one place in the south to another location in the United States. If you are black, you’ve heard these stories. Your grandmother has told you the reason you ended up in Kokomo or Chicago or Tampa or St. Louis or Oakland is because your great-granddaddy killed a white man, and he had to be spirited out of town—most times by other white men. I’m here to tell you, it is highly likely that most of those stories are not true. Find out who got pushed down the stairs and what was done about it. Get to the bottom of that shit; the bottom may surprise you.
Here is another surprise—my ancestors were slaves and rebellious as hell. Not subservient or agreeable, not happy and content, not passive and afraid. The slaves did things in the background—behind the words in the letters I read, things of which I should not be proud; really, I should be embarrassed. Truth: I am proud.