Telling Everyone’s Stories

I have been visiting Williamsburg for 50 years. When I was a kid, most of the stories told were about the white men who struggled and took enormous risks in their effort to create an independent country. What our Founding Fathers did was amazing and important.

But there are other stories to tell, too. One of the pleasures of each return visit is seeing what new programs have been developed. A change I love? Having the opportunity to learn about all kinds of people who lived in or visited Williamsburg in the 1770s.

When I was researching Gunpowder and Tea Cakes:  My Journey With Felicity, I visited an exhibit that helped visitors understand the importance of religion and spirituality among black people living in Virginia, enslaved and free. Learning about the religious beliefs of enslaved people is challenging, because they left few artifacts or other records behind.

Sometimes sailors brought certain meaningful shells or other items from Africa, and sold them to black people in Virginia.

“Ritual Objects: When they adapted or crafted ritual objects from natural or found materials, slaves sought a direct connection to the natural world and its power.”

This gentleman talked with me about religion and faith among free blacks and enslaved people. Some became Christians. Others tried to keep in touch with African culture, or perhaps blended the two.

I also had the opportunity to attend a play that humanized the pain of an enslaved family torn apart. This black actress portrayed an enslaved woman who thought she had a close relationship with the woman who owned her…

…until she learned that she was going to be separated from her child.

A real highlight of my visit was attending a program where I learned about the importance of music within the black community—especially in slave quarters.  African music helped them feel connected to their homeland. For those who converted to Christianity, singing spirituals gave them hope.

African music is about rhythm. Large drums were sometimes prohibited by slave owners, who feared they might be used for communication (for example, to share information about an uprising.)

Some songs from the time period have lasted. Many songs were private, however, and have not been preserved.

It isn’t always easy to interpret difficult topics such as slavery.  The relationships among enslaved people, free blacks, and white residents in Colonial Williamsburg were complicated.  (Native Americans too! But that’s another story.) I’m grateful to all of the researchers, program planners, and interpreters who today provide a more complete glimpse of Colonial Williamsburg in all its complexity. Everyone’s story is important!

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Some of what I discovered became things that the main character discovered in Gunpowder and Tea Cakes:  My Journey With Felicity.  You can learn more on my website.

 

 

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3 Responses to “Telling Everyone’s Stories”

  1. Nancy Oswald Says:

    Kathleeen, I love the words to the traditional song. Great post. Hope you’re well.

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Thanks, Nancy. I hope you’re doing well also! I wish I could stay active with WWW, but I’m just not able to at this time.

      • nancyloswald Says:

        I think you have a full plate! Congrats on the audio editions for the Chloe Mysteries and all your other successes. The third Ruby and Maude Adventure received a Spur Award and also won the Colorado Author’s League first place in Juvenile division. My Dad passed away in December, so I’m on an uphill slog with estate stuff, but hope to get back to a writing schedule soon. Even though I don’t comment often, I try to read your blogs when possible. Best of luck, Nancy

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