So I spent the night inside an original slave dwelling at the Hermitage.
I admit that I was not planning on doing so at first. I have wanted to for quite some time now, and when I first heard about The Slave Dwelling Project from Jerome Bias, I knew I wanted to get involved however I could. The only issue was that Joseph McGill, the founder of The Slave Dwelling Project, and his team go to so many different sites that it would be difficult to chase them around.
Luckily for me and the people of Nashville, they came to the Hermitage.
My interaction with them started around 6:30 P.M. when my wife and I arrived and found our way to the Cabin by the Spring where the Hermitage hosts events. I first met Nicole Moore, one of the historic interpreters with the project who had been a part of the cooking demonstration earlier in the day. Her welcome and friendliness were immediately palpable and I knew that we were in for a stellar evening.
As a few minutes went by, we decided to not build a campfire for the group conversation we were to have beginning at 7:00. It was a gorgeous day with barely a cloud in the sky, and the recent rains had tempered the Tennessee heat. We circled up some benches and sat in the field by the Cabin and began a discussion on slavery and its lasting impact on us, both individually and as a larger collective.
The conversation began with introductions and a question of how white people can avoid being white saviors, and it continued to go to places such as reparations and unrequited labor to how it feels for Black people to visit plantations more generally and the trauma that can accompany that. The whole while, regardless of the particular topic, folx around the circle spoke honestly and we talked until it was too dark to see each other.
I thought the night was over. Then, much to my surprise, I discovered that I was able to spend the night.
I had come in thinking that this was only going to be a conversation as the event description on the Hermitage’s Facebook page made me think that the sleepover would only be for Joseph and the others who were with the SDP. Luckily for me, I was able to continue with a new part of this incredible experience. Luckier for me, I had a sleeping bag in my van already.
I chose to stay in one of the original dwellings instead of the newer building so that I could really get at least a tiny sliver of what it might have been like to call one of those buildings home, and I tell you what, I am glad that I made that decision.
All I had was my sleeping bag on top of a hardwood floor, and while the doors remained open for some air flow, the sound of nature (not something I’m used to on account of living in the heart of the city) and the new environment made it pretty difficult to actually fall and stay asleep. Thankfully, this restlessness gave way to new questions I had never before considered in the course of my research.
My focus is always on the humanity of the enslaved. I do not want to simply talk about their status or how they were acted upon by others, but I want to really interrogate what it means to truly look at the enslaved as human beings. As it turns out, one of the best ways to do that has been to do things they did, and sleeping in this dwelling (or not sleeping for most of the night, as it were) offered me an incredible if not slight glimpse into more ways to view their humanity, and I think they are mind-opening in their simplicity.
Do you ever think the enslaved laid in bed restless, unable to actually fall asleep? Do you think they tossed and turned over something they saw or felt, or perhaps over an argument they may have had with a loved one? Do you think they finally got the chance to rest their weary bones after working can’t see to can’t see and realized that they had not eaten in hours?
These questions rushed through my mind as I tried to fall asleep. I was learning so much from simply being still and letting the spirits in that place share with me their experience from when they were embodied. These gave rise to even more questions regarding how we talk about enslavement and the enslaved people more generally. Why do we not actually discuss what eating meals and drinking water would have been like on an average day for the enslaved farmers and others at the Hermitage? Are there notes in letters that we just haven’t looked through yet that describe these more intimate details of how the enslaved may have lost sleep for one reason or another?
I finally got some shut eye and woke up about an hour before sunrise. As is common regardless of my sleeping arrangements, my mind immediately began racing again, but just like a few hours before, it was flooded with new thoughts, new questions that were given to me by the spirits in that place.
Do you think the enslaved ever woke up before the alarm, in whatever form that alarm took? Do you think they intentionally did so to get in a quick bite or to say a prayer or to kiss their sleeping children on the forehead? Do you think they sat in bed before rising, thinking about the day to come and wondering if they even wanted to do this at all?
I know to some people these questions may seem preposterous. Many times in conversations about the enslaved, the focus is on the oppression they faced, and admittedly, that is worth discussing. However, we have to remember that they were human beings, and as such, they did things that human beings, like you and me, would do. We risk dehumanizing them further if we talk about them merely as passive characters instead of human actors.
As the sun arose, I walked around the property some and saw several deer, as well as some turkeys that had gathered close to my place of rest for the evening. I took more time to be still, to be quiet, and to thank the spirits for their guiding.
It is not often I get opportunities to truly commune with the spirits as I did that evening. I have been to my fair share of plantations, and I will continue to visit and revisit even more. This opportunity, though, to spend the night in an original dwelling is unlike any visit I have had before. The incredible work of the Slave Dwelling Project, this time led by Joseph, Nicole, Dontavius Williams, and Sara Daise, gave me insight that no book or conversation could ever offer: insight into the humanity of the enslaved people, garnered through one small instance of living like they did.
As the morning moved forward, we said our goodbyes to each other and I thanked them for their continued work and dedication to telling these stories. I went to the parking lot to wait on my wife to pick me up, and slowly life went back to normal, save the new set of never-ending questions that are still rattling around in my brain.
If you have the opportunity to spend time at any event the Slave Dwelling Project hosts, do yourself a favor and jump at the opportunity. Even just the conversation is worth the time, but spending the night in one of these buildings is truly life-changing. We need people who are ready to tell a new story, uncover a buried history, and shape a new narrative, and the SDP is doing just that.
If you believe in this work, then hop on board and come along for the ride. There might be some bitter moments, but history tastes better without the sugar, anyway.
EDIT: This article also appears in full, minus the hyperlinks, at the Slave Dwelling Project’s website here.