Nonfiction from DiAnne Malone
“She didn’t say come in,” my sister whispers. She places her fingertips on my forearm as if that would stop me from opening the door, but my hand is already twisting the knob; my foot hangs, mid-step over the front door threshold at the house where my ancestors worked as slaves. I roll my eyes up at her, looking over my glasses, annoyed. I know not to enter another person’s home unannounced, without knocking, without waiting for an invitation. I have home training. But this time, it is different.
“You just can’t walk into the woman’s house.”
“You damn right I can,” I hiss back. “We built this shit.” My sister, Hope, drops her head, as she giggles; her shoulders bounce up and down. She doesn’t move her fingers from my arm.
She knows me. She knows that I will stride through the double doors, afro and all like I own the place. She knows I will not seek permission and I do not want to wait. It is odd to be asked to wait in this situation. There is something inside the home waiting for me; hanging in the air, like a heady musk, the spirit of my ancestors beckons for me, bidding me rebel, to come on in without knocking. My sister, however, did not allow me to do their bidding. She halted the connection. Contact was made, but intimacy was postponed until I was given permission to walk the floors that a young male slave, Robbert Lenoir, had hewn from large dogwood trees felled to build one of the most beautiful plantation homes in the state of Mississippi.
Elizabeth, whom I call Liz without asking, directs my attention to the long planks of hardwood stretching from one end of the entryway to the other. “These,” she says, “are the original floors from 1847.” Liz is proud of the floors as if she is the person who laid them; as if they are her original handiwork. They are not. She just bought the place. She bought the house and outfitted it with authentic décor from the 1850s. The fruit of her labor is staggering. The home is beautiful, every room save one is meticulously adorned with ornate period pieces, deep red walls, delicate trinkets, heavy drapes tailor-made for the floor to ceiling windows. It is an uncomfortable stumbling back in time, and I am upended by it. In the background, Liz is speaking as if she is a tour guide, her words lead me around a place that my folks knew like the backs of their hands.
Liz is the kind of woman whose hair does not move. Blond with a pin-curl shellacked over her right eye, she makes a flourish with her tiny hand toward the glistening wood. She is short and smiley. Though I want to be, it is very hard to be mad at her. It is also very hard to pay attention to her. You know, given the circumstances. I block her from my mind. I need a moment to kneel and run my fingertips across the patterns in the planks.
I close my eyes. It is 1847. I am Robbert, a slave boy of 13, maybe 14 years old, laying down the floors, measuring, buffing, sanding, and repeating. I am him, gliding my hand along each slat, my fingernails black and grimy, my knees scraped with shards of wood and stabbed with tiny rocks trailed in from outside, little rips in my palm snag on the small jagged splinters in the grain.
Robbert, at 12 years old, was relocated to Mississippi to build a pretty house and tote a shit-ton of bales. He was sold off from one of the largest plantations in Sumter County, South Carolina owned by Isak Lenoir. Robbert and a few other slaves from Isak Lenoir’s passel were bought at a cut-rate by Ike’s kin, William Absalom and William’s stepfather, Hope Hull Lenoir. Hope and Will got wind of a way to make good money in the deep south. Cotton. They’d also heard of a speculator in Mississippi who had weaseled a group of Cherokees out of 3000 acres of land. With Robbert and three other slaves in tow, the Lenoirs made the 520-mile trek west to Prairie, Mississippi, headed for acreage they’d bought but never seen.
I think Robbert’s closest known kin was his momma; “female slave,” is the name she shared with sixteen other women of African lineage on the Sumter County plantation. I found her in the special collections at Mississippi State, on a fading list headed “inventory” amongst the hogs, cows, and horses. The dates match up…well, almost. I can’t be sure. Robbert never laid eyes on his momma again after leaving South Carolina. He got a new master who bought him to make new money; to work new land; to build a new house. The 1880 census implies that by the time Robbert turned 47, he’d forgotten where his momma was from, where he was from. He is listed as Robbert with two b’s. He is my third great grandfather.
The time it took for me and my sister to find Robbert was ten years. The drive to the plantation in Prairie is two hours away from my home in Memphis, Tennessee. It took six months and two emails to decide we would visit the plantation. The initial phone call to Liz lasted about thirteen minutes. It took four hours to tour the sprawling plantation that held the history of 87 slaves, give or take. The first video we made of our findings is two minutes and nineteen seconds. Only 330 people have watched it. There is a five-page spread in The Monroe County Magazine written about the seven generations of Lenoirs who peopled the plantation home. Within that article, Robbert and the other slaves are never mentioned.
There are eight boxes of documents in the Mississippi State archives left by the Lenoir family who owned my family as slaves. It took eight hours to comb through the receipts, pictures, letters, almanacs, and blueprints, piecing together the lives of an oppressed group as narrated by the oppressor. Some of the details of the Lenoirs and their slaves were kept out of the collection, leaving gaping holes and about a thousand questions. Other narratives have been washed away over time, storied away with hyperbole or watered down in understatement. For the Lenoir slaves, there are no full stories—only crumbs.
Like the one about the slave girl who died, her body found splayed, arms akimbo at the foot of the home’s beautiful Romeo and Juliet staircase. It was a dark and stormy night. A degenerating star-crossed tale is told about the fileting of a white man in the same home, at the top of the same stairs, a few nights after. The rumor is that the slave girl was 16? 12? Yes, 12. That she was Cherokee? Mulatto? African? But definitely pregnant.
Out of the dozen times I’ve heard and followed this murder mystery, the pregnancy remains constant. The dead mother and subsequent dead baby are consistent in all accounts. This is one of two stories about which white Lenoirs have decided not to talk. No matter. I can make do, because that’s what black folks who worked as slaves had to do—make do. I am of their issue. I can make decisions, too.
I’ve decided a 12-year-old slave girl was raped.
I’ve decided she was impregnated by a grown-ass white man in that house.
I’ve decided she was in the house, in the wee hours of the morning, in that white man’s bedroom, because he wanted her to be there.
I’ve decided if it were left up to her, she wouldn’t have been there.
I’ve decided there was a kerfuffle, a push, and two murders.
Someone decided the white man got to live, even though the slave girl and her unborn baby died.
The men-folk in the quarters decided he would live, but only for a little while.
Vengeance. Where tired black men are worn out by fieldwork, weathered by grief. Men who could have been the girl’s father or grandfather, uncle or brother. Men who were fed up with watching their daughters be split open between two lives, two families. Men who knew their daughters were not their daughters. Men who had their women—when they were allowed to be their women—grease door jambs of the plantation home with pig lard, so when their men came through the big house, dragging their grief behind them, the shishing of their suffering would not be heard. The men from the quarters would balance the scales with the white man in the big house, the one who killed the slave girl and her baby. Two for one.
This is all conjecture, but you were warned.
For the Lenoir family, my family, this is a necessary fable that has mutated itself into the story of all black people who had to move from one place in the south to another location in the United States. If you are black, you’ve heard these stories. Your grandmother has told you the reason you ended up in Kokomo or Chicago or Tampa or St. Louis or Oakland is because your great-granddaddy killed a white man, and he had to be spirited out of town—most times by other white men. I’m here to tell you, it is highly likely that most of those stories are not true. Find out who got pushed down the stairs and what was done about it. Get to the bottom of that shit; the bottom may surprise you.
Here is another surprise—my ancestors were slaves and rebellious as hell. Not subservient or agreeable, not happy and content, not passive and afraid. The slaves did things in the background—behind the words in the letters I read, things of which I should not be proud; really, I should be embarrassed. Truth: I am proud.
Elizabeth-called-Liz couldn’t say the word slaves during our first visit, back in October 2018. At least six times she faltered when the sentence she spoke required it of her. Even when we asked her about the staircase murder, she labeled the young slave a young servant. On occasion, she used the word “help.” She didn’t call them what they were treated as: chattel, whores, animals, slaves. Most certainly, she did not call them murderers.
When Liz falters on the word slaves, my sister and I fill in the blanks. “Slaves,” we say, much too loud for the occasion and number of people in the room, for there were only three. We say it in unison as if we are answering questions asked by a Kindergarten teacher. We are on the fill-in-the-blank part. We want the teacher to hear us, to know that we know we have the right answer. Liz toggles between the words workers, servants, help, and people. And, because she cannot face her people’s past as easily as we have faced ours, Liz saying people is okay with me.
I can say this with ease: the people in my family were slaves. The slaves were not treated well, so the letters we read in the special collection that say, …and as for the negroes, they are all fine, those are lies. A set of white people owned my people and treated them poorly, and my people still got up every day and worked, put in their twenty hours and started over again. Fo’ day in the morning. They still managed to cook the food they could not eat for folks who did not live in their shacks and shanties. They managed to erect a mansion in 1847 that still stands today—a mansion in which they could never lay their heads to rest, an estate that witnessed the death of at least one their own, one of mine. After the slave girl and her baby died, the house slaves started with the strychnine. I told you, I should be ashamed.
Liz is proud to say that “almost everything is original to the home.” I believe her. There is original anguish there; I feel it. There are hints of quiet killings covered up by antique furniture and original portraits of people neither I nor Liz know. The bitter taste of 240-year-old strychnine slips past my throat; I smell it as it eases down. I exhale and it is gone. It’s true, almost everything is original except the DNA of the people who built and served within its walls.
Crossing this threshold transports me beyond my tears. I did not cry then, and I have not cried since. The legacy is in me; the tears are not. The score is settling, but many things are up in the air and scattered in places I cannot see or touch, as hard to grab as specks of sawdust, rising and falling when disturbed. I make do with the dust, and I know this: I am from the lineage of a builder, a floor-ist, a groundwork-layer. I am a member of the clan of Robbert-with-2-b’s. I have home training. I am remodeling and renovating, rebuilding the narrative, reupholstering lives and tumbled-down histories. I am not knocking. I’m walking right on in.
On a breezy day in June, seven women from the tribe of Robbert-with-2-b’s got a chance to line those stairs where the slave girl died, splayed out with her never-waking baby in womb, arms akimbo. We dressed in redeeming white garb, angels on earth, like seven candles lighting up the dark, one woman per step, not pushed, not fallen, but standing on the smooth wood Robbert laid with his own two hands.
DiAnne Malone is a professor of English and Associate Dean of Student Affairs in Memphis, TN.