17 Nov Remembering and Telling the Past
How is the past remembered and told? Who owns memory?
Upland South Carolina that June was a thick ripening green, grown from red-rust soil on the ancient metamorphic Piedmont. Two questions caught between my breath and humid air as I walked the path from the cemetery at Walnut Grove plantation.
Chains encircled swept, weeded earth around marble headstones and footstones marking the landowners’ graves. But beyond the footpath angular rocks spread like stepping-stones through an understory tangle of leaf litter and vinca. One . . . two . . . three . . . four . . . I stopped counting at thirty. These, too, were graves—untended and unnamed.
I later saw Lesson 22 of Project Discovery, a virtual fieldtrip for school children to Walnut Grove. “Discovery words” in the teaching guide include plantation, “a large estate or farm on which crops are raised, often by resident workers,” and self-sufficient, “capable of providing for oneself without the help of others.” Lesson 22 gives much information on how to make candles but it offers no words on those “resident workers” who somehow weren’t yet were “others.”
[dropcap]S[/dropcap]eeing African American children visiting Walnut Grove in the lesson video pricked a memory: I’m asking my fifth-grade social-studies teacher if I could become a slave. To that outdoors-loving child the job of a resident worker on a self-sufficient farm would have seemed a wonderful thing.
I’ve found few plantation or colonial attractions, north or south, that honestly acknowledge the presence and contributions of African Americans. Offerings of “the American experience” often exclude slavery and its aftermath or they present stories that are uncritical or unquestioning of convention. One can still find sentimentalized images of “moonlight and magnolias” and “contented slaves.” Perhaps worse are the false facades that appear to present slavery to the public but instead empty it of substance and meaning.
Walking by so many untended, unnamed graves I felt as if part of me lay beneath field stones, buried by a white-washed past. Those who once owned this land dared to own those forced to work it. It seemed that Walnut Grove’s memory was fenced property, too.