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Hear From the Residents

August 20, 2023

Summer Writer-In-Residence Victoria Newton Ford: Questioning Narrative

Victoria Newton Ford is a poet from Memphis, Tennessee. She is a MacDowell and Lambda Literary Fellow, and her work has been supported by TORCH Literary Arts, Tin House Summer Writers Workshop, the Vermont Studio Center, and The Hurston/Wright Writers Workshop. She earned her B.A. in English with a concentration in creative writing from the University of Pennsylvania. She is currently working on her first manuscript about Black mothers and their daughters, captivity, and haunting. She resides in Washington, D.C.

Victoria Newton Ford is our fourth writer of the Summer 2023 cohort to spend a week onsite participating in our local residency program at Northern Virginia’s Woodlawn & Pope-Leighey House and Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture. Our summer writers-in-residence focus their weeks on-site exploring ways to rediscover and re-purpose place and place histories, and use writing as a means to build community, to bring awareness to critical social and environmental issues, and as a creative force of empowerment.

Plantations are not places that can be escaped. I don’t mean this metaphorically. For example, a quick search of “Woodlawn plantation” results in at least four different plantations—including the National Historic Trust preservation here in Virgina—and also land in Louisiana and Tennessee and Georgia To search for one plantation results in a litany of others. The plantation is expansive, and even one name contains an echo of other histories. The plantation is here, there, and everywhere. One does not need a map.

I came to Woodlawn because I’m studying plantations deemed historical landmarks. I’m curious about the language used for these preservation projects and the narrative projects (my own included) that extract from written and unwritten histories of slavery.

It is a common and peculiar practice to use certain language to speak about plantations. Language such as “historical,” “remarkable,” “compelling,” “beautiful.” These are just some words I’ve seen associated with slavery and its architecture.

It’s peculiar but very common to find beauty in terror. If I was really surprised by this, though, I’d be ignoring the extreme violence that was necessary to make such places possible.

The truth is that most everyone wants to be comforted by slavery, even while many claim to abhor it. We may look at an image of what a slave was made to eat for the week, for instance. We may find the thought of the rationed cornmeal and fatback harrowing. But at the end of the day, we are imagining degradations that are not ours as if they are memories we can claim. Some of us eventually leave the plantation. Others can’t. If and when we feel moved to write about all this, we are faced with an impossible task.

Our desire to be comfortable inside a history this disturbing has produced countless narratives. Narratives of progress and narratives of freedom (whose definitions are irreconcilable and miss that this is an unending terror). We create narratives imagining violence that cannot be fathomed, least of all on behalf of or for the sake of the slave. Perhaps worst of all, we seek to make meaning out of the slave’s life on the plantation, which is to make meaning out of their suffering. None of this atones for slavery’s totalizing and unending violence. None of this narrative production provides an end or a reprieve for the slave.

In an Interview in November magazine, Frank B. Wilderson III asks Aria Dean, “Since there is no temporal progression for the slave, how does one, to paraphrase [Saidiya] Hartman, emplot the slave in a narrative?” He goes on to say, “This is the problem of writing. Narrative is, generically, anti-Black. It assumes a subject of loss. Narrative cannot accommodate an object of absence.”

This brings me back to the project of preservation.

In the parlor of the main house, near the west elevation, there is a display of bricks baked by Woodlawn slaves, circa 1800. These 200-year-old bricks made me think about the process of building the foundation of a place one cannot escape. How much pain was required, how exhausting and voluminous and arduous on the back and muscles and knees and fingernails was it to build this kind of deathbed? To ensure that these pieces of brick are strong enough to outlast even your children’s children’s children?

And see, here is the failure. I have imagined what cannot be imagined. Quite literally, the narrative arc of this post demands I abandon the slaves I can’t name to make a point.

What I am trying to attend to is the horrible fact that the past is not past. The bricks reveal this. As a poet and artist, I’m faced with a serious problem that demands my attention.

So what good is a story for those who have been sentenced to die? What good can come from researching these slaves—finding their names and then what? Slaves whose stories and lives were obliterated by the very same history being preserved? Narratives often fail the slave because most answer to the market. Perhaps some of these narratives generate funding. Maybe they entice groups to visit for a tour. Or the project of preservation provides cover for the many weddings and celebrations that occur on lands of unspeakable wickedness.

When will we stop subjecting slaves to terror? Which employee on the plantation has an answer? Why must the slave (and the promise of their untold narrative) be brought to market like this? Slaves are owed much more than any story can tell.
When I took a walk on the land, a large flock of crows soared above me—landing on the tallest tree in front of the house. Maybe they were ravens? At that distance, with the sun so bright, I couldn’t be sure. I stood there watching them watch me, sweating in the middle of the street. Shitting, I’m sure, from atop that tree. An unkindness of ravens. A murder of crows. Those birds, gathered together like that—nouns black as eyes against the sky—brought me something useful. Language I’ve been searching for.

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