40 Days with the Narratives of Enslaved People
I hadn’t decided what I would do for Lent. As a relatively new Episcopalian ( I’m like, 7,) I’ve learned to give up less and take on more.
With the help of friends, I had already made and distributed coats for the homeless. I mentor millennials on the regular, and try to do my part to clean, defend and protect mother earth.
I had prayed and meditated, but nothing came to me. Then I heard two sermons that helped guide my path. One came from our rector, Michael White. He’d preached about the Weeping Time where 436 people were sold away here in Savannah in 1859. He talked about how close we are in time, and still, we don’t always remember.
The other sermon came from our deacon, Samantha McKean who talked about the Lenten season as a time when we go back through to recall, recollect and remember what we have endured.
After hearing both, I knew and understood what I was being called to. So, for the 40 days I read the narratives of enslaved people. I wanted to go back into the wilderness of the time of enslavement to hear the words of those who had made it to freedom.
At first, I wondered how I would get through it. I was angry, rightly so, but I was also appalled by the details that I had turned away from. As a sociologist and author, I had already spent a great deal of time studying that horrible period that is our history. I collect first edition books by and about slavery. Throughout the years, I have also collected the “bills of sale” of enslaved men, women and children and I have tried my best to write and speak the truth about the building of America with free labor on stolen land. Still, it is a different thing to submit one’s self to hearing the voices of those who lived that enslavement and another thing entirely to do so for 40 days straight.
The constant beating, raping and degradation was far too much for my psyche. Still, out of a sense of obligation I continued to read and when I did, something miraculous happened. I became ever so grateful for all my ancestors. My anger towards others turned its gaze on me and I was sorry for not spending enough time in gratitude and appreciation.
Then, the gratitude became the inspiration I needed to move beyond my own physical limitations; the chronic illness that had stopped me from moving beyond my limits. Each day, I got up to mediate and then exercise through the pain in my limbs and lungs and then I would read some more.
The reading became a part of me and everything else an interruption. I didn’t want to part from the voices in those books who literally left blueprints for freedom from absolutely anything; for if they could get past the lash, the dogs, cold wet nights, starvation and lack of direction, then surely, I could get through my New World mess.
I have continued to read these narratives and have added books about enslavement and Reconstruction as well. As I read, I am rewarded with a history that is replete with not only suffering, but also rich with survival. Each day, I feel blessed and in awe of the fact that through all of this, I am still here.