I always feel my brightest, boldest, freest self when I’m on the road. I don’t know if it’s the calming solitude as I pass over empty highways after the sun slips away, or if it’s the thrill of meeting new people who don’t know just what a cow-obsessed bookaholic I am yet, but I love a good trip. Last month, I was lucky enough to snag a seat on the Reese|Brooks|Gilbert Learning Tour, and those 10 days with the The Lighthouse | Black Girl Projects staff and the beautiful cohort of 14 college students from across the country were some of the best of my lukewarm girl summer. Here’s a recap of some of the things we did while on the road:
We recited an opening liturgy on the first day of the tour at The Forks of The Road. Photo by Maya Miller.
Day One: Natchez, Miss.
We began our tour with a stop at the Forks of the Road in Natchez, Miss. The Forks of the Road was an integral hub of the Domestic Slave Trade, with thousands of slaves arriving by boat or ‘slave caravans’ to be sold to plantations all across the country. There were rusted shackles buried in concrete, a testament to the lasting legacy of the pain endured as families were separated and young girls and women were sold into sexual slavery.
Morning dew cooled my bare feet as we circled up in the grass and read our opening liturgy. “I am a mother, a sister, a daughter,” we said in unison.
“I am a lover and loved. I am here to flourish. I am committed to keeping my humor, compassion and style. I am a helper. I am a leader. I am worthy. I alone am enough. I have nothing to prove.”
The Antioch Church at Whitney Plantation. Photo by Joecephus Martin.
Day Two: New Orleans, La.
New Orleans is one of my most favorite cities to visit. My family remains in the Lower Ninth Ward, and I claim the city as my second home. When we first descended down upon the New Orleans, it was dreary and wet, but the cohort was thrilled to have the evening off to decompress from the long drive. I wandered with Reagan off to find food, and we met a few cool pups along the way. Morning came, and we left on the bus to Edgard, Louisiana. It’s about a 45-minute drive outside of New Orleans, and the wet, windy swamplands gave me plenty of time to quiet my mind before we stopped at our next location: The Whitney Plantation.
Inside of the Antioch Church at the Whitney Plantation are statues of children who were sold into slavery. Photo by Maya Miller.
Photo by Joecephus Martin.
The Whitney Plantation is the only historic plantation that is dedicated to retelling the experience of slavery from the enslaved persons’ perspective. It was overcast even in the early morning, but soon the clouds broke, and we were left sticky and damp as we traversed the fields slaves had toiled away generations before. The plantation itself is hauntingly beautiful, with tall, leafy banana trees that have drooping vines and sticky drips of sap.
There are areas for reflection, walls of names of those we should never forget, and a bell that cuts through the silence with the pull of a rope. Most interesting were the cane fields, with rusted out cauldrons that rival the size of compact cars which were once used to boil the sugar cane into one of the major exports of the time that turned Louisiana into a giant of the slave trade. The job was one of the most dangerous of all plantation duties, our tour guide told us as we stood in the sweltering mid-morning sun. “There’s brutality in cotton, death in cane,” she said.
The National Museum for Peace and Justice is dedicated to sharing the history of victims of the racial terror. Photo by Maya Miller.
Day Three: Montgomery, Ala.
I have been looking forward to visiting the National Memorial for Justice and Peace since the week they opened in 2018, but I could never bring myself to make the four-hour drive by myself. Looking back, I’m glad I went with such a large group of people, because in those moments when I was faced with images of incarcerated youth, then and now, and pure hatred across generations, it gave me comfort that I could reach over and hold someone’s hand to bring me to the present.
We weren’t allowed to take pictures inside of the museum, so I’ll describe one of the most unsettling parts of the exhibit that will probably stay with me for the rest of my life.
When you make your way through the stories of children torn from mothers and men strung up or dragged behind pickup trucks for sport, there’s a wall of jars, maybe 40 or more. They remind me of my grandmother’s cookie jar, big and crystal clear, hugging its contents with an ardent appreciation, inviting you to come closer, but once you do, you can’t look away. Inside these jars are samples of soil, red and brown and mustard in color– some moss in one, a stone in another. These jars have been to Illinois, Georgia, Mississippi, the Midwest. Inside are what remains of the men and women who have been named (a few were not) as victims of lynchings. Soil that nourished the tree they died under now rests atop these shelves, and even though they weren’t able to get justice in life, they can be remembered in death.
Day Four: Savannah, Ga.
We slept in this day, and I was grateful to be able to sit and breathe for a moment. I slept, I ate, I wrote and sat poolside. I called my mom. I cried to my grandmother, but above all, I was still.
Queen Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church is the second oldest church on Hilton Head Island. The church was founded in 1865. Photo by Maya Miller.
Day Five: Savannah, Ga.; Hilton Head, SC.
Savannah reminds me of New Orleans a little, although the air is a bit saltier and the trees, with their branches covered in molt and moss, arch over the streets that lead us to the water. Georgia is known for its brutally hot summers, and the exports that boosted the economy are known as the trinity: cotton, rice and indigo. We explored sites where Africans were sold and traded and the holding pens where they were squeezed in, shoulder to shoulder, while being served scraps that were tossed down a chute 15 feet above our heads.
Our kitschy tour guide, Jamal, brought laughs with him as he boarded our bus and led us to one of the cleanest and most secluded beaches I’ve ever seen. I don’t particularly enjoy sand, but there was something about standing in the dusky mud, ankles covered by the warm water, seashells under toe and sea critters crawling about while the cohort danced, sang, giggled and cried.
We closed our time at Hilton Head Island with a moment of prayer and reflection. Photo by Maya Miller.
It felt so pure and yet so fleeting. In a world where it’s hard to relax and to be vulnerable, I struggle constantly to feel like I belonged there, but when Jamal spoke in traditional Gullah language, I knew my roots would always find their way back to me, through the flourish of Spanish moss or in the honey-colored cattails in my grandmother’s backyard.
I plant myself in the water and look to the sky. “Mama (Africa), I miss you. I miss you,” Jamal says. I close my eyes. “And she cries, ‘Come, come back to me, come home.’”
Days Six – Ten: Jackson, Miss.
The last three days of the tour were a restorative experience that was purely Black and southern. Sure, the entire week had been spent exploring five different states, but once you add in fried gizzards, a few interesting sights and a trip to the Mississippi Museum of Civil Rights, it felt like being home, even to those of us who had traveled miles over.
We began our days here with a driving tour around Jackson during which we visited areas of cultural significance, such as The Medgar Evers House and Central United Methodist Church, which sits across the street from the civil rights field secretary’s former office. Standing on the corner of Farish street and imagining it merely half a century ago as a hub of Black culture and persistence, and to see it in ruin now along with some of the distinctly Black parts of the city felt disheartening, but we also found pockets of Blackness that lends to survival—artists who use the streets as canvases, restaurants packed wall-to-wall and sweet grandmothers who were quick to pass a blessing and a kiss.
The 2019 cohort of the Reese|Brooks|Gilbert Initiative Ambassadors hail from 8 universities across the Southeast. Photo by Joecephus Martin.
The RBG Learning Tour was one of the most important pieces of my summer because being at The Lighthouse has given me a chance to learn the history I was never taught without judgment or reservation. Questions are welcomed here, and if I need time to think, that’s alright too. Being together with the young women soothed my spirit, and as we waved goodbye to our last student at the airport terminal, a quietness fell over me. Despite the stories we learned and shared over the week, those of unrelenting hatred, ever-shifting goalposts and exclusion, we also found bright spots in each other.
We are here, together, and we remain strong.