Discovering Our Ancestry

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Recently I’ve seen numerous ads on TV for DNA kits promising to help you “discover your true ancestry.” I’ve tuned into the PBS program Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates to see people stunned and enthralled by tidbits of information about ancestors from centuries ago. I’ve even briefly explored the wildly popular website Ancestry.com to see what I could dig up about my own family roots.

There seems to be a craving in our country right now to find out where we came from and more importantly who came before us.  What kind of lives did they live? What kind of people were they? It’s no secret that it’s much harder for African Americans to trace their roots due to the poor records kept by slaveholders in the 1700’s and 1800’s. And even if they were able to trace their roots, what would be left for them to discover about the lives of their ancestors?

What if you did trace your ancestry back to enslaved people, and you had the opportunity to visit the very place your ancestors were enslaved? Would you do it? Even more pressing: What if you had the chance to meet some descendants of the people who’d enslaved your ancestors during that visit? It seems far-fetched and unlikely, but it’s exactly what has recently happened at Prospect Hill Plantation in Jefferson County, Mississippi.

My second novel, Burning Prospects, is based on the true story of the events that took place on this plantation after the death of Isaac Ross. I’ve found the story fascinating ever since I heard it as a child. But in past years, I’ve had the privilege of talking with those who trace their ancestry back to Prospect Hill slaves. They have gone back to the plantation and met with the descendants of the very people who enslaved their ancestors many years ago. Their graciousness has been an inspiration. I wanted to share two articles recently published about a reunion held at Prospect Hill as well as a link to a video about a young man’s solitary visit to the site.

Alan Huffman, author of Mississippi in Africa wrote an article for The Guardian titled ‘This is surreal’: descendants of slaves and slave owners meet on US plantation. It’s a fascinating read with a brief summary of the case that inspired my novel. His book further explores what happened to a group of slaves from Prospect Hill who went to Liberia, so please check out his book if you’d like to know more.

Just today, I saw a link to an article on NEWSONE, posing the question “Would you Meet with the Descendants of Those who Enslaved Your Ancestors?” It references Mr. Huffman’s article in The Guardian, but adds even more background about the people who chose to attend the reunion and why.

Perhaps the most poignant piece on descendants of enslaved people visiting Prospect Hill comes in the form of a documentary film by Blue Magnolia Films. Please take a moment to watch this beautiful story here.

I’d love to hear your comments. Would you go back? Why or why not?

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The Power of Language

A man named Alex Tizon wrote an article for the June 2017 issue of The Atlantic magazine detailing the life of the woman he says raised him. He called her “Lola” and she made the journey with his family from the Philippines when the author was 5. It would be a lovely endearing story of a woman dedicated to his family except for one thing–she was essentially his family’s slave–unpaid, overworked, and unable to leave due to an expired visa.

Mr. Tizon died unexpectedly prior to this publication, but his wife was interviewed on NPR about the backlash the family has received after his revelations became public. One interesting thing about this story is the author’s decision to refer to Lola as a slave. In fact the title of the article is “My Family’s Slave.” According to Mr. Tizon’s wife, this terminology was never used to describe her by the family. But as her husband began the process of writing this story, he decided to use the word that best described her status in relationship to his family.

When I wrote Go Forward with Courage, I conducted extensive research about the evacuation of Japanese Americans from the west coast during WW2. I came across discussions about the importance of language–specifically the terms we use as a society to define people and events. Roger Daniels wrote an article, Words Do Matter: A Note on Inappropriate Terminology and the Incarceration of the Japanese AmericansHe makes excellent points about why, as a society, we still use the terms internment in relocation centers rather than incarceration in concentration camps. I get it–we all associate the term concentration camp with Nazi atrocities, making the term practically taboo. But our aversion to using the more correct language only serves to whitewash over the reality of what actually happened to over 100,000 people in our country.

It’s tempting to use lighter, fluffier words to diffuse the negative connotations associated with the harsher, but often more truthful definitions. In the case of Mr. Tizon and his family’s relationship with Lola, his decision to refer to her as his family’s slave seems to suggest that he understood the power of language.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Why Dedicate the Novel to the Slaves who Burned the House?

Book Cover

When I have been asked this question about the dedication page of my novel at various events, it is hard to know exactly how to respond. The simple answer is that the slaves were the one group represented in the saga of Prospect Hill Plantation who had absolutely no legal voice in what happened to them. The complete lack of voice is summed up in the laws of a neighboring state to Mississippi during the time period leading up to the fire at Prospect Hill.

A slave is one who is in the power of a master to whom he belongs. The master may sell him, dispose of his person, his industry and his labor. He can do nothing, possess nothing, nor acquire anything, but what must belong to his master.

Louisiana Civil Code, Article 35

June 20, 1825.

When I wrote the dedication of Burning Prospects, it never occurred to me to dedicate the novel to anyone other than the Prospect Hill slaves. I don’t think this was something that I put a great deal of conscious thought into–it was just what I envisioned doing from the moment I decided to actually write the book.  It was a book that I’d considered writing since I was a child. Having heard the story of the fire at Prospect Hill told so many times, it just seemed like it needed to be made into a book. Once Alan Huffman penned his wonderful book, Mississippi in Africa, I decided that I still wanted to make the story into a book of my own. But I wanted it to be historical fiction, for the simple fact that it would allow me to take some creative license with the characters. After all, no one could possibly know what words were spoken within the walls of the big house or the slave’s quarters on the days and nights leading up to the fateful fire. And I wanted to be the person to imagine what was spoken and to write it down on paper. In addition, I wanted to finally give the slaves a voice, even though I realized that it was too little, too late.

According to Ross and Wade family lore, as well as the Belton family (who are descendants of some of the Prospect Hill slaves), the house was burned to the ground by a small group of slaves in hopes of gaining the freedom they had been promised. For those of you unfamiliar with the story, Captain Isaac Ross had freed his slaves in his will a decade before the fire. Ten years passed without the stipulations made in his will being carried out. Ten years of waiting and hoping that something would be done, and justice would eventually be delivered. Faced with no legal options and mounting desperation, it isn’t hard to imagine that killing the man standing in their way of freedom would eventually be decided upon. Obviously I find it heartbreaking that a young girl died in the fire that night. But I also find it heartbreaking that people were held in limbo, working in the fields and praying for a miracle–eventually realizing that no help was coming for them any time soon.

I doubt any of us living today can fully imagine the lives lived by the slaves of Prospect Hill. But most of us understand what desperation and powerlessness can drive a person to do if allowed to fester long enough. So, I make no apologies for my choice of novel dedication. But I would love to hear your views on it. Feel free to comment.