Hidden Stories of American Racial Intersection
History is more than recording the election of state leaders, a timeline of momentous battles, or the changing geography of civilizations. It is the story of people, of communities, of life, loss, and, hopefully, redemption. Sometimes, the important stories are lost. In the USA, many stories of our Black communities, along with their intersection with the White communities neighboring them, are being lost to Time.
If that happens, if we lose the historical memory of much of our population, we cease to exist. We are half of who we were, half of what we could have become. These stories of intersectionality are what define us, tell us who we were, and suggest who we should be. With that in mind, I am looking to find those stories that have the touch of legend, of the extraordinary, of the memorable but most importantly, of the commonplace, in re-defining the American Dream.
What started this search was an accident, a whim of the universe.
For years, my friend and playwright Patti Wray has been writing and promoting 2 plays based on Nat Turner’s Confessions to Thomas Gray. Honing away at these scripts, she has created nuanced portraits of not only a slave and an insurrectionist, but a man needing to find meaning and purpose in a life he did not choose for himself.
Nat Turner’s Last Struggle: Finding His Way Home and Nat’s Last Struggle were both honed at Wray’s small cabaret theater, The Venue on 35th in Norfolk, Virginia. They went on to be published by Blue Moon Plays and performed at various theaters and schools around the country.
Wray often speculated about her intense interest in this historical character. She is White. Turner is Black. She never knew enslavement. He knew nothing but captivity.
They shared roots in Southampton County, Virginia. They have in common a family surname — Turner. Wray has family buried in Southampton County, as did Turner. Could there be some connection? Some relationship buried in the distant past?
Why else did a physical-therapist-turned-playwright find herself enmeshed in the history of this area of the country marked largely by farms and agriculture?
For a long time, Wray avoided exploring her own ancestry as she worked on refining and defining this character and his drama.
The Story Of The White Convertible
The story of Wray’s search for Nat Turner had its origins in her youth. When she was sixteen, her grandmother, whose maiden name was Turner, asked Wray to drive her to Southampton County for a Turner family event. Wray immediately said yes, partly because her grandmother had just purchased a cool new white Impala Convertible with a baby-blue interior. The two reportedly tied on bandanas, put their sunglasses on, and headed for the country with the radio blaring.
Wray made her first visit to Southampton.
The event was held at a relative’s house on Main Street, a stone’s throw from the courthouse and just down the block from where the hanging tree stood in 1831. Wray wasn’t there long before some younger cousins grabbed her hand and excitedly wanted to show her something down the street.
They ran past the courthouse and then they stopped and started pointing to this area. “You see that spot right over there? It’s where they hung Nat Turner!” one said. Another continued, “And when he was dead, they cut him down, cut off his head and skinned him.” Another pointed up the street a ways, “Then they threw what was left of him in a ditch right up there. Yeah! He got everything he deserved because he killed white people!”
Wray was shocked and confused. Was this Turner some distant relative of hers? Why were these kids telling such a horrible story with such glee if he was? Even if he wasn’t — who was this man? She did not know.
Perhaps that explained it. Wray was annoyed that her snotty young cousins knew something about history that she hadn’t been taught. On top of that, she recognized the inhumanity of it all — and the indignities of young Southern White children laughing at atrocities done to a Black man many years ago.
Maybe that was it.
Then, she found herself living near a neighbor who was a genealogist who was fascinated by possible connections. And she began to explore further.
One of the lines Wray gave to Nat in Nat’s Last Struggle, “Why’d you kill Missie Whitehead — she was so young and kind and friendly to you? Why’d you do it, Nat?”
Why did Wray write this line?
Other authors, like William Styron, have linked Nat Turner to Missie, the one person Nat actually killed. But did they have the link, the calling to connect Turner to the Whitehead household that Wray has?
The Legacy of Missy Whitehead
As Wray explored her past, she discovered that Missie Whitehead was her third-great aunt, who was living on her mother’s (Catherine Whitehead) farm at the time of Nat Turner’s uprising. Catherine Whitehead and six family members were killed there.
One survived, Harriet Whitehead, who had concealed herself between the bed and the mat that supported it, while they murdered her sister in the same room, without discovering her. Had Missie’s brother, and Wray’s third great grandfather, William Whitehead, been there that day, Wray would have never been born.
As a child, Wray had been taught by her Southern schools that slaves were happy, better off here than they would have been in Africa. She never truly bought into that mythology and was increasingly outraged as she researched and discovered the realties of a slave culture.
Long an advocate for the humanization of the oppressed, she devoted much of her writing to issues of social justice.
So, how did the discovery that her own family had been coopted into the Nat Turner story and barely survived to tell the tale? Only she can answer that
When I discovered the truth of my genealogy I was shocked because I had not thought there might be a Whitehead connection.
A few Turners had been killed during the insurrection and I thought maybe I could be related to them. I also wondered if someone on my family tree would include Benjamin Turner who bought Nancy, Nat’s mother, and who also enslaved Nat and passed him on to his son when he died.
But deeper than this, I had to consider perhaps — if I might have descended from Benjamin Turner, so might have Nat — and we could be related by blood. When I interviewed James McGee, well known visual artist and African American gadfly in Southampton County, he told me he thought that Benjamin Turner was Nat’s father. But no one really knows.
And now, with what I do know as the truth, I’m left to wonder many new things. I may not share Nat’s blood, but the blood of my family members was spilled in his rebellion, as was Nat’s after he was caught — and both are still in the soil there. And the bodies of my family were mishandled, as was Nat’s by some of the same people — and their bones are still buried in the ground somewhere there. And, Harriet Whitehead, who survived the attack — was later abused by a white planter, a neighbor for profit — the same as Nat and his family were used to profit whites.
What a painful legacy we two share. For a few moments after the initial discovery, I wondered if I had known this, would I have written my plays as I did. After discovering more of the truth, I’m glad I recognized Nat’s humanity and focused the plays on that. And I’d do it the same way again.
Truth and Consequences
There are no “versions” of the truth, of facts, only in our interpretation of them. And sometimes these facts appear to be contradictory.
There were, no doubt, loving relationships that crossed the color line before and after slavery.
There were also unloving sexual relationships made possible by a power imbalance at the same time.
There were Southerners who clung to the idea that the South would rise again, that darker-skinned people are inferior; that “white” blood has some intrinsic value.
Robert E. Lee wanted the final surrender to end it all. He wanted all symbols of the Confederacy to be abolished and a new nation to arise from the ashes of a bloody and heartbreaking loss of lives.
Wray’s search is ultimately about the dissemination of the truth. What are the facts? Facts are the nuts and bolts of our existence that can be proven true or not. By a microscope, a physical examination, a recounting of movements, gestures, decisions, and judgments. What really happened? Who did what to whom? In what order? For that, we have to examine the shards of history — the decisions of politicians and citizens, the actions of generations.
There is much more to this story. There are other hidden intersections to be revealed that demonstrate an interdependence we are growing more and more reluctant to admit to or allow to continue.
Historians must join hands with archeologists. Archeologists evaluate the detritus of our physical past without judging the value of a shard of pottery except for its authenticity–what it tells us about who lived and how at a given place in time. They don’t discard an artifact because it belonged to a slave or a captive.
We have to tell the stories about the demolition of entire African-American thriving communities by their White neighbors. But we also have to tell the stories about loving families who broke the anti-miscegenation law and prospered. The community members who reached across the color line to find friendship and support for a stronger community.
These are stories here that have long needed to be told. The historians have left them in their scattered, untended graves. It is the people who have lived them, have descended from their tellers, to bring them to light.
The Mississippi Murders
Bo Kagg has begun that journey of bringing oral history to more permanent pages. In her insightful article, Who Will Remember the Mississippi Murders? — the Atlantic, she details the often-frustrated attempts of her stepfather, Obbie Riley, to keep alive the history of the earlier days of the Civil Rights Movement in Philadelphia, Mississippi where three student marchers were murdered.
History is more than a collection of dates and events recorded by scholars in dusty tomes. It is the living memory of the struggles of human communities to build and populate homes, to find and often fail at developing communal bonds, to record their pasts not only as memories but as guides for the future.
Like individuals, communities prefer to remember and record their gracious moments in which they behaved ethically and kindly. Like individuals, the most egregious and unlawful moments of our pasts are relegated to the middle of the night to wake in our collective beds and say to ourselves — “Oh, no, we never did that.”
And so, it is up to the participants in this country’s history and their descendants to make sure that this oral history becomes part of the records. In the past, some local guardians of museums and historical societies wanted to keep the record of their communities “clean.” That, fortunately, is changing as they, too, embrace our history, warts and all.
Our Burden/Our Joy
As we honestly explore the realities of what America truly has been, as opposed to what it aspired to be, I think we will unearth not only acts of violence and cruelty, but also a commonality of experience, a wealth of goodwill and honest folk who wanted, at the heart of the matter, the same things. To live in peace. To raise happy children. To find a job we enjoyed doing. To support our families and our neighbors.
Somehow or another, we have gotten off the rails. If we are to fix that disconnect, we need to look honestly at our past, to find the bones lost in shallow, unmarked graves, and see where our feet have trod. In these stories of the past of all Americans lies our future.
Find out about the Southhampton Project, the Virginia Playwrights Forum, and more stories from beleaguered yet sometimes joyful and redemptive path