Reflections from the slave dwelling

We appreciate the experience that Joesph W. Jenkins, current president of the Surry County African American Heritage Society, shares from Bacon's Castle. Thank you for lending your voice to the call for unison! Accounts submitted from participants of The Slave Dwelling Project will be published individually going forward so that we can take the opportunity to focus on their reflections on an individual basis.

Robin Foster
About Our Freedom

                                                  Joseph W. Jenkins
                                                   October 21, 2012

I am not a superstitious person but I come from a long line of people (farmers) who look for signs in nature to forecast events:  The weather, how well or poorly their crops may turn out and when a child might enter the world.

A couple of days before my stay in the slave dwelling at Bacon’s Castle, as I drove down Rocky Bottom Road, I noticed, at the side of the road ahead of me, an unusual sight.  As my car drew closer to the object, it took flight.  It turned out to be a good sized hawk which was unable to gain altitude because of what it was holding in its talons.  As I drew closer, I saw that the hawk was holding on to a large black bird – a raven.  The predator hawk was flapping its wings but the raven’s weight was keeping it from ascending.  I was concerned my car would hit the birds.  As my car drove even closer to them, the hawk released its prey.  The freed raven flapped its wings and quickly joined its flock that had been watching the drama unfold.  The unsuccessful predator, having freed its burden, soared above the trees and into the sky.

Bacon's Castle was occupied by Bacon's followe...
Bacon's Castle was occupied by Bacon's followers during the rebellion (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The image of the drama stayed in my mind throughout that day and night as well.  It even entered my thoughts the Friday afternoon while on my way to Bacon’s Castle.  I kept trying to determine if what I witnessed was just something normal in nature, or was it some sort of sign?
I didn’t know what to expect from my stay in the slave dwelling.  As the current president of the Surry County African American Heritage Society, I felt a sense of obligation to take part in the project to represent our organization and in some way, help make certain the truth about how the aftermath of Bacon’s Rebellion set the stage for the type of bigotry and discrimination we still have today.  What is more, I felt that my stay in the slave cabin would provide a forum for me to express openly my strongly held belief that race is a lie and racism is a divisive, debilitating disease.  My emotions and feeling of wonder heightened as I got closer to the main house on the castle estate.

More photos:
When I entered the main house at Bacon’s Castle, the people who were to participate in the dwelling stay were already assembled and sitting in a circle.  Introductions were made and we were given an opportunity to talk about our expectations relative to our participation.  I was very impressed with the individuals who had come to participate.  It was one thing to have Joseph McGill from South Carolina who was the project’s catalyst but it was quite another thing to be with individuals (descendants of Africans and Europeans) who had traveled from Texas, California, and North Carolina to be part of the  project – together  with Virginians whose family members were slaves on the very land we were occupying.  So why did they come?  To connect with their family history?  To atone for someone’s past ills?  To find release from guilt or just to acknowledge and better understand our country’s history?  I guess we all had our known and perhaps suppressed reasons.  Whatever the case, I noticed that as we talked the veil of unfamiliarity began to lower.  Something unique was starting to unfold.

Perhaps one of the most extraordinary things occurred that Friday evening during and following the libation ceremony conducted by Ms. Toni Battle, who had come from San Francisco to take part in the project.  Each of us was given an opportunity to remember and acknowledge our family members and ancestors.  According to family lore, my paternal great grandmother (Cordelia), who was born of a free black woman, had at some point in her life worked at Bacon’s Castle.  So, for me, there was a vague connection with the site.  However, my maternal great grandfather, Peter Clarke, Sr., had been enslaved.  Reportedly, he had been sold twice and was somewhat proud of a scar that was on his light complexioned face. We can only speculate as to how his facial wound came about and why it was a source of pride for him.  Given that bit of family history, I decided to dedicate my stay in the slave dwelling to the memory of my great grandfather, Peter Clarke, Sr., and all the people who endured the pain, suffering and humiliation of slavery in this country.

After the ceremony, we all remained standing in front of the slave dwelling and began to talk about all manner of things related to the dwelling, the plantation, the institution of slavery – and its impact on society; the pain and humiliation people endured; the stupidity of discrimination based on skin color; race as a social construct; the system of economic divide and conquer, and so on.  As the content of our discussion became deeper, our inhibitions lowered even more.  I felt that “we the people” were at long last being open and honest with each other about our anger, our fears, our pain and even our hopes.  Truth was being spoken and something more honest was about to happen.  And then it was time to lay down our heads on the slave cabin floor.

The cabin is rather small and it’s hard to believe that, at one time, it housed four families:  Two on the first floor and two on the second.  Fortunately, the cabin had a wooden floor.  (Some slave cabins had dirt floors.)  I anticipated gross discomfort being on the floor in my sleeping bag but to my surprise, I didn’t have any aches or pains.

As I lay there on the room with six other people in our section of the building, I guess I was waiting for something unusual to happen – -I had no idea what.  Two of the people chatted about their families and ancestors.  Two eighteen year old college students kidded with each other and my thoughts drifted everywhere and nowhere.

I tried to picture myself as a person enslaved.  What would I do?  How would I handle it?  Could I survive the ordeal?  Macho man notions entered my mind.  Of course, I would invoke warrior powers and fight and prevail against all odds and reclaim my freedom and ride off into the sunset – to go where in a place I didn’t know?  What would I do?  And then I recalled hearing Billie Holiday’s song about southern trees bearing strange fruit.  That was disconcerting.

As I lay there on the wooden floor, nothing mystical happened.  I don’t think I expected anything to happen but it occurred to me that we folks of African ancestry are, in many ways, a unique and blessed people.  We have survived trials in this land by the strength of our faith, the power of our hope and our capacity to find light in the darkness of despair.  While I did not consciously expect anything in particular to happen while in the cabin, I was glad to be there at that time for whatever it mattered and for whatever difference it might make.

Out of the window that faced southeast, I saw a distant star that held my attention.  I searched for meaning in it.  It said nothing in particular.  It just stared back from a distance.  In the meantime, the students to my left were still restless and perhaps somewhat disengaged from the experience.  So, at about 4:00AM, it occurred to me that perhaps this old man might be able to say or do something that they may recall favorably when, years from now, they think about their experience at Bacon’s Castle.  So, I told them that our African ancestors who were brought here were not a homogeneous people.  They came from different cultures, spoke different languages and had different religious beliefs.  Some were animists.  Some were Christians and some practiced Islam.  I told them that it must have been extremely challenging for those diverse groups of people to be thrown together and to become one people in the harshest of circumstances.  I told them about Bilal ibn Rabah, a black African who was born into slavery in Arabia.  Bilal was treated inhumanly by his master and he was persecuted severely when he became one of the earliest followers of the Prophet Muhammad.  However, despite the abuse Bilal ibn Rabah had to endure, he attained an honored status among the followers of his faith.  He was the first person to call the Adhan (the Muslim call to prayer) at the Kabah in Mecca.  His call to prayer is made five times a day and is heard around the world.  And for the students, I called the Adhan.  
.I wanted the two students to know that despite their hardships; despite their setbacks; and despite their disappointments, they can make a difference in the world like Bilal ibn Rabah and so many other people throughout history.

Although it was unintentional, the call to prayer woke up Joe McGill (who slept next to me) and Toni Battle and Prinny Anderson, who slept on the other side of the cabin.  
Toni and Prinny came and sat with me and Joe McGill, and we all talked at length about all manner of things related to our country’s history and the general plight of our people.  We agreed that the need for broad discussion among people of goodwill within our nation is a catalyst for healing, reconciliation and progress.  We talked about the depth of the challenge we face in bringing people together and helping to end animus and the stupidity of discrimination based on skin color.  We agreed there is a need for initiatives like “Coming ToThe Table” and the Slave Dwelling Project to raise awareness of the festering sore on the face of our nation.  I pledged anew to myself to join the struggle.

During our early morning exchange, the image of the hawk and the raven I encountered a couple of days earlier came to my mind.  I asked my colleagues what they might infer from my encounter:  Had I just witnessed a natural phenomenon or could it have been a sign related to our experience at Bacon’s Castle.  I’m not sure that we reached a consensus about the matter but I felt better knowing the raven went free to live out the day.

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