Slave Cemeteries: Finding Inspiration in Preservation

I used to wait for inspiration to come. I’d wait for the wind to blow, the sun to set, the season to change. I waited for some monumental occurrence–A moment, such a brilliant special moment!–I waited on for years like watching a shooting star or a falling one; or for a tadpole to change into a frog.

I experienced moments like this. But those moments were so far and few that I realized if I were to truly wait for inspiration, I would die an artist without any art ever completed.

When I was in college, I’d sneak away along one of the trails behind the campus and walk. Sometimes I’d create my own trails through thorny bushes and high grasses. Most often, people would never know where I was going or where I went. I’m a strong believer that people, artists especially, deserve to have a secret get-away place to find inspiration or solace from their daily lives. But upon one of my disappearing acts, with my green Jansport backpack filled with snacks, water, a pen and my journal I stumbled across a Quaker cemetery. Here, I would find solace. Here, I would find inspiration. And it would become (what I assumed to be) my own secret place.

Most of the names on the tombstones were so unique that I had to write them down in my journal and use them in my own stories. Names that were taken from, or inspired by those found in the Old Testament.

Scared to walk in front of each headstone, thinking that the soft ground would give and I’d fall into one of the graves, I’d walk along the edges and peek at the names on the tombstones while writing the names down one by one. I wondered who maintained this land? Someone must, because the grass was always low. But, who would mow atop the burial site and not afraid that they’d fall in. I had assumed the buried caskets were made from wood. Wood now, perhaps, rotted and would cave in if the earth moved slightly. What intrigued me so much was that the old cemetery was in the middle of a wooded area, dating back to the early 1800s. Perhaps it had been registered in the National Historic Landmarks and that was the reason it was well maintained. I’m not sure.

Regardless, I’ve always been intrigued with the Quakers since my college years and how they were among the first group of people to protest against slavery in the US, Europe, and the Caribbean. And, as abolitionists, played an important role with the Underground Railroad. And, I truly believe that’s why this cemetery became special to me.

Many years later, I reminisce about my alone times at this cemetery. A cemetery that I probably couldn’t find today but I can clearly remember and can even show documented details of it in my old journal, including the names on the tombstones and how it was so well preserved.

One major problem with Black History, though, is there’s no preservation of it. It’s difficult to trace family history like White Americans can. Ellis Island didn’t exist for us, but rather half-destroyed paperwork with only first names on a slave sales receipt or an old census report. And, once we discover the plantation from where we were owned, last names are added and it’s difficult to discover who was related to whom or even go even further than that into our history. We reach a dead end at most attempts to research our history unlike our White counterparts who can claim their ancestor touched the Magna Carta, shook Shakespeare’s hand, or navigated a slave ship that took my ancestors to America or to any of the islands in the Caribbean. Blacks have to make things up and end up passing down lies from generation to generation like the extended myth that we came from African kings and queens or native American ancestry (when in actuality only less than 10% of Native Americans actually owned African slaves).

But what truly saddens me more than anything is that many of the slave cemeteries have been destroyed and dug up, unlike the Quaker cemetery I grew to love. While the slave remains have been sent to laboratories or museums. Still yet, the actual plantation homes have become registered with the National Historic Landmarks. It’s a disheartening moment to know that Black History is being destroyed and disappearing but something like the Quaker Cemetery or the Plantation homes are being preserved.

New York City is location to one of the largest African burial grounds known in the United States. A suprising discovery for many since New York City claims to be so accepting and diverse now coupled with the notion that it wasn’t actually the South; and finally, no one discusses it. Still yet, we discover New York City was a large trading port for slaves; and an area where they died and were buried and soon forgotten until modern-day New York City was built, skyscrapers emerged, and the bodies found were moved. Years later this burial ground has become listed on the National Historic Landmark Registry.

But how many hoops did the community have to jump through to make this happen? How many bodies had to be dug up, analyzed, and relocated? Too many.

As I age, a source of my inspiration is found within the preservation of my culture, researching it, writing and discussing it. There’s a sense of uniqueness in it and the information I discover I know I’ve had to trek hard and deep to get it. Discovering my family tree has become a twisted game with which I like to torture myself on occasion with attempts to put things together with foggy clues because the preservation has been slim to none. Importantly, what I’ve learned is that I have to take myself on a journey–a hike through a wooded area, perhaps. And, once we find something–that hidden cemetery filled with tales from our ancestors–that inspires, we’ll cherish it and hold it closer to our hearts for a lifetime.

About Stephen Earley Jordan II

Author of "Beyond Bougie", "Cold, Black, and Hungry" and many other books.
This entry was posted in Inspiration, Literacy, Race, Uncategorized, Writing and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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