Monday, May 16, 2005

Harsh Realizations: A Personal History

This morning, a bright May sun broke my deep sleep, in more ways than one. The Sunday edition of the Washington Post still lay unread on the couch. It was only Monday, "there's still time." A cover article highlights a Prince William, Virginia family that's selling their land to a host of developers, to the tune of $4.5 million. It'd help to mention these folks are African-American, with historic ties to a scrappy 15 acre parcel now being sought after to build luxury homes. In "Cashing Out Their History, Nikita Stewart writes:

"They called the land, which lies roughly along Routes 29 and 15, the Settlement. It became one of Northern Virginia's most significant, and most stable, black communities."

Now, it's going to be lost to cardboard colonial homes and probably a strip mall or two. After re-reading a couple of times, I felt both excitement (for their potential new "freedom" from economic hardship) and resentment (for the "cashing" out part). Above all... the victory seems bittersweet. That feeling somehow led to a web search of the hospital I was born in. After about 30 minutes of googling, I came to the realization that my entire life has been, and still is deeply intertwined with the pains and horrors of slavery and Native American genocide. I don't harbor a disdain for European Americans, or maybe I do. The jury's still out on that. We're all guided by unconscious thoughts and memories, perhaps even those of our ancestors.

I'm a river "negro," and much of my life has been spent on or around rivers, the Chesapeake Bay, and the Atlantic Ocean. As I learned a while ago, most blacks in the early days of America were involved with the water in some form or another. I was born on a plantation in 1977. Yes, a plantation. John Randolph Hospital in Hopewell, Virginia sits on a bluff overlooking the Appomattox River, just upstream from its confluence with the James River. The site was once part of a plantation called Cawson, owned by the wealthy John Randolph in the 1780s. Supposedly, he's a 7th generation descendent of John Rolfe and Pocahontas. She is sometimes considered a "sellout" to the "pale face invaders" that brought destruction to Native peoples. Randolph himself owned about 400 slaves throughout his tobacco empire, which stretched southeast to Tidewater. It is written he was vehemently opposed to the institution, but kept slaves nonetheless.

My parents own a small farm in Tidewater. It belonged to my father's parents and sits down the road from some of the first peanut and tobacco plantations in America. His great-grandfather George Washington King was a carriage maker on a plantation near Hampton, Virgina. It's not too far from Jamestown, site of African's first entry into America as captives. Pop's father was a black farmer. His mother was half-black, half-Powhatan Native; her family was from a small town on the banks of the Nansemond River, known for crabs and oysters. Our land was also once part of a plantation, with the original house sited near a major railway. It burned down in the 1940s; my father says it was either a spark from the train or perhaps, something more ominous. A new home was built farther from the tracks. It's been the site of countless King Family Reunions until failing health, continued migrations, and financial troubles threatened its future. Each year, developers stop by to ask if we'd like to sell. Suffolk is Virginia's largest (by land mass) and fastest growing city; the suburbs are inching into the agricultural hinterlands of Isle of Wight County. Isle...of...Wight. I think my father'd die first before selling land to developers of McMansions.

My mother is from a small town near Raleigh, North Carolina. Her father worked hard as a tobacco laborer. Her mother dropped out of school to pick tobacco and work as a domestic in the off-season. She ironed and cleaned most of her adult life, never finished school, but was one of the most intelligent and witty women I'd ever meet. I remember stories about Klan crosses being burned in the field near her childhood home. Her family was descended from African slaves and Algonquian lineage (as are most African-Americans today). I never knew my grandfathers; they both died early of heart-related illness. Stress and diet, I'm sure. My grandmothers always told me to get an education so I wouldn't have to struggle, to work hard outdoors or serve people like they did. I still remember those conversations.

My parents independently moved to Petersburg, Virginia, where they met while my mother worked at a state mental hospital, also the site of former plantations. Petersburg was an important hub on the rail and shipping route during the heyday of the Old South. It is the site of the longest siege of the Civil War (a war about slavery?). One of the major tourist attractions is "The Crater," a failed Union attempt to tunnel under Confederate lines. Black troops suffered the heaviest casualties. One of my jobs in the summer was working at a veterinarian...on Crater Road. The money from this job funded my first kayak purchase; I learned to paddle on the batteau canal towpaths of the Appomattox and James, directly under the Tredegar Iron Works, which produced cannons for the civil war. A high school internship found me a few blocks upriver, in a pharmacology laboratory. The office was several stories above the White House of the Confederacy, smack dab in the middle of the Medical College of Virginia. Without shame, I and my black peers would sometimes pry open the windows in our building and attempt to spit on the building. Coincidentally, I took Jefferson Davis Highway to work.

Later in my career, I'd work for a James River Conservation group, planting hundreds of trees on numerous plantations along that river, including the birthplace of Robert E. Lee. Some days, I'd be out in a huge field, presumably where slaves once toiled under a hot Virgina sun. I'd be alone, occasionally accompanied by the cackling warble of wild turkeys, or a silent lone doe. The feeling was intense and unnerving.

The Petersburg National Battlefield (also on Crater Road) lies adjacent to historic Blandford Cemetery, site of the nation's first Memorial Day. The holiday originally commemorated the deaths of Confederate soldiers lost during the siege. Their flags still wave resiliantly beside the more politically-correct American Stars & Stripes. An uncle that helped to raise me is buried there. Today, Memorial Day usually means time off and cookouts galore. For me though, there's still a sour feeling to it all.

Most of my childhood was spent fishing or playing along the Appomattox, James, York, and many other local rivers. Their shores are dotted with old plantations, hundreds of them. All of my schools (except high school) were named after Confederate generals that owned slaves. I never went to Robert E. Lee elementary...that one wasn't very close to my neighborhood. I did attend J.E.B. Stuart though. After college (in Hampton, Virginia, site of the first reading of the Emancipation Proclamation to southern slaves), I taught at A.P.Hill Elementary School. My boy scout camps took place at Fort A.P.Hill. Our 10-year High School reunion is taking place at Pamplin Park, site of the "breakthrough" that led to the Confederate evacuation of Richmond and the end of the war. I'm sure slaves worked there as well. Of course, we'll just be catching up on old stories and eating barbecue. Pamplin park is a couple of miles from my parents' house, along the first wood-plank paved road in America and riddled with civil-war fortifications. As a child, we'd ride our BMX bikes along the gullies. The historical implications mattered little at the time.

Currently, I work in a building referred to as "The George Washington House," one of many in America I'm sure. A historic port existed just across the street. The story goes that after the Civil War, someone dismantled the slave block and tossed it into the Anacostia River. Who knows if it's true. We hosted a meet-and-greet for a Maryland participant in the PBS histo-reality show "Colonial House." Oprah paid a visit, of course knowing she'd have probably been a slave at the time. The day of the event, I decided against dressing as a "colonial character." The joy of the occasion is still lost on me.

There's a lot more to this story. Maybe I'll come back over time and edit this post. I'm not sure what the point is. I guess I need to exorcise some demons. Or maybe, just realize who I am, where I came from, and use that to move forward.

3 Comments:

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Blogger Queen T said...

thank you for sharing your history and thoughts on it. i would love to hear more...here or privately...peace

10:53 AM  
Anonymous Fa said...

I read today..

I'm glad I did.

*smile*

9:08 PM  

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