Only White People Have Ghosts: Reflections on Visiting the Aiken-Rhett House Museum in Charleston

I do not know how to characterize what was felt and maybe unseen by the other visitors this day at what I thought would simply be another visit to the historic home of a former Governor from South Carolina. I did not know then, but know now that Gov. William Aiken, Jr. was one of the largest slave owners in the U.S. The Aiken-Rhett House is of course Aiken’s city house that may have had only 20 enslaved there at a time, but I have never felt that I understood so concretely the wages of slavery. In that house the spirit of the enslaved assailed me and still, a week later, won’t let me go.

There may have been roughly 20 enslaved people who served and cooked meals, cleaned, maintained the gardens, and drove the carriages and took care of the horses and white people at the house in town but I have never been so struck by the overwhelming presence of my enslaved ancestors or felt such desperation as I have standing in the quarters and the kitchen of the Aiken-Rhett House. The Jehossee Island Plantation, by contrast, was the largest plantation in the South and functioned off the backs of between 700-1200 enslaved Africans under Aiken’s ownership. I would expect to have such feelings of loss and sadness at Jehossee, where rice plantation forced labor camps meant that those working in those backbreaking conditions would have a short life expectancy. I know rice and know what it symbolized for black people who brought the technology of growing rice to this place. I thought that many of these thoughts were captured in poetry by Marjory Wentworth that was on display in the Aiken-Rhett House when I visited.

The poem “Requiem For Rice” by Marjory Wentworth was part of an “On Flight” exhibit at the Aiken-Rhett House

Everything about the history of William Aiken and his family must be put in the context of slavery. Many people would assume, as I wrongfully did, that the story that this house told about slavery would be less because it was not a plantation. However, I am struggling to explain what stepping into the “slave quarters” here made me feel. It was nothing but waves and waves of grief.

The Kitchens and the Upstairs Slave Quarters Behind the Main House

I remember at the beginning of Beloved that Morrison describes 124 Bluestone Rd as sad. The Aiken-Rhett House felt bereft and desolate. The house and those still in it seemed to want my life. Beyond walking in and through sadness, there was such a feeling there that the spirits there did not want me to leave and feared that they would be left there forgotten if I left. I was unclear when I reached the top step of the quarters if I would be able to leave this place alive. I thought of Sankofa and Kindred— afraid if I passed out I would wake up in the 18th century— becoming enslaved myself.

To be clear this is not a ghost story. This is the expression of the reality that the people who once lived here have no where to go with their pain and their stories. I am not sure how many Black visitors come here. I am from South Carolina and have been to so many historic sites and plantations but this is the first time that I have ever come here in my 50+ years of life. I am sorry because I do not know what to do with this experience. I am not sure that I would even encourage others to go. I am unsure of anything but I am reminded of Elizabeth Alexander’s poem “Invocation” and I know that I and we can never forget their names.


The wind brings your names.

We will never dissever your names

nor your shadows beneath each branch and tree.

The truth comes in on the wind, is carried by water.

There is such a thing as the truth. Tell us

how you got over. Say, Soul look back in wonder.

Your names were never lost,

each name a holy word.

The rocks cry out –

call out each name to sanctify this place.

Sounds in human voices, silver or soil,

a moan, a sorrow song,

a keen, a cackle, harmony,

a hymnal, handbook, chart,

a sacred text, a stomp, an exhortation.

Ancestors, you will find us still in cages,

despised and disciplined.

You will find us still mis-named.

Here you will find us despite.

You will not find us extinct.

You will find us here memoried and storied.

You will find us here mighty.

You will find us here divine.

You will find us where you left us, but not as you left us.

Here you endure and are luminous.

You are not lost to us.

The wind carries sorrows, sighs, and shouts.

The wind brings everything. Nothing is lost.

                                       —Elizabeth Alexander


Movement, Memory and Justice—Connecting the Story of the Gullah Geechee People, Land Loss, and Social Justice

It is so great to host our first Institute at Morehouse College related to our 3-year Mellon Humanities For All Times Grant. Much of our early grant activities have been focused on recovering memory, particularly how certain historical “sites of memory”—the plantation, the jail, and sites that are a combination of terror, beauty and resistance like Emanuel Church in Charleston—help illuminate our current social problems. The question is always how studying our past can help us craft justice in our future. I am excited to share the work as we embark on the rest of this initiative.

Some Recent Appearances and Public Lectures

I have been interviewed or given talks online in a few places over the past couple of months. Here are a few:

1. Black is King Discussion with Dr. Ifetayo Ojelade of A Healing Paradigm. One

2. My lecture on the Black Body mini course at Morehouse. “Black on Purpose: A Narrative about Sports, Integration and the ‘Beloved Community.’” My part starts at 10:18. Two

3. My appearance on The While Black Podcast discussing the N-word. It is available on all podcasts platforms. Here is the link to Apple Podcasts: Three

Senegal-South Carolina

There are so many reasons that I want to go to Senegal.  I feel a special connection to this place. I was excited about the play about Omar Ibn Said that hopefully will be performed at the 2021 Spoleto festival, after having been postponed this year.



I also say that I feel like it is in my destiny to visit the artist retreat, Black Rock  that the world renown artist Kehinde Wiley founded last year. It would also give me a chance to revel in the food and art of the African Continent.  I often say that I have three favorite world cuisines: my favorite is Ethiopian, the Second in Senegalese, and the third is Gullah food. However to me Gullah food and Senegalese food are close cousins.They are all African.  From Jollof Rice, which literally gets its name from Senegalese people,  to the different ways in which they infuse fish, vegetables, and rice together in many dishes.  It reminds me of home.  The following is a picture that I took at an Oyster Roast at the Penn Center High Heritage Days Festival.


What really sealed the food comparison between Gullah and Senegalese Food was the way that both prepare their oysters. I was really excited also to hear that Senegalese people from the Casamance Region cook oysters like we do in the Gullah Region ( or we have retained their practices!), over a bonfire and roasted in a shell and then they merely get a knife and eat it directly out of the shell.  Senegalese Oyster Fishing.

2021 is the year that I go from South Carolina to Senegal.  I know that Gil Scott Heron’s song is South Africa to South Carolina, but I am thinking about the reverse trip. Song here: Gil Scott Heron and Jackson, From South Africa to South Carolina


“The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nation’s Millennium General Assembly” and the Radical Sense of Place

fullsizeoutput_fc3Thinking about the boundary between art and real life, I am reminded of seeing James Hampton’s “artistic work” for the first time at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.  However the more I think about the aesthetics of Gullah Culture and what we learn about art from observing our surroundings, the more that it becomes clear that real life is art. James Hampton didn’t consider himself to be a visionary artist. He literally saw himself as an emissary from God who was building a home, this “throne,” for himself and Jesus in heaven.  I think of the song that the Morehouse College Glee Club has arguably made famous: “I am Building Me a Home.”  I like the idea of prayer and song as an active work and alchemy. I like the idea of art actually being able to build a home. Despite the fact that Hampton constructed his heaven within heaven for everyone to see, I think this work is more than art, it is visible prayer. Moreover, it is prayer which is practical at the same time. As the song says, “my soul’s gotta have somewhere to stay.”wHzR66pnQCq0DK3sFkbTkASBujB1XHQwa0%A%oPUqE8Qfullsizeoutput_1030fullsizeoutput_1031OGwx+AQNRhCpBpJg9mE0HQfullsizeoutput_1032

The Legacy of Liberation

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It was my honor to go to Duke University this past February and participate in a commemoration of the take over of the Allen Building on February 13, 1969 by concerned black students, two of whom were my parents. One of the great things about this weekend of programs, sponsored by the Duke University Department of African American Studies, was the ability to understand the impact on current thinking because of what these students decided to do 50 years ago. Most of what I learned about the takeover was through stories my mother used to tell as she listened to Archie Bell and the Drells or Aretha Franklin records. These stories were mostly apocryphal until I got to see the archival evidence compiled by undergraduates in Duke’s main library that let me know that my mother was even greater than she was in her own stories.

Most importantly students found a letter written by my mother, on Duke University stationary, in the archives (which they included in the exhibit). I can hear my mother’s voice here and imagine what my grandmother’s voice would have been in response:

Dear Mom,

This is to inform you that I am presently sitting in the basement of the Allen Building or at the present time known as the Malcolm X Liberation School.  I am doing fine, don (sic) not worry-incidentally if you have not heard we took over the building. As of yet, and I said yet there has been no violence, But if there is……well C.B. will protect me. We have lots of food, peanut butter, jelly, gum, life savers, candy, bread, coffee, sugar, coffee-mate, and water, all the essentials to or for surviving. Do not worry about my education, it is not being interrupted, we are playing cards, listening to the news, carrying-on semi-intellectual conversations, sleeping, play8ng ball, learning to work adding machines, telephones, and typewriters.


Your Liberation Loving Daughter


Of course my favorite part of the letter is the sign off, because I, too, am a “liberation loving daughter.” I am also aware of the importance of legacy.  Here is what those who took over the Allen Building look like now (without my mother, because she is no longer living):




There is also a great book about Malcolm X and student movements, including the liberation school at Duke, by my friend Richard Benson that a serious student of social justice should check out. Moreover, Dr. Howard Fuller, in commemorating this anniversary, reminds us of the importance to keep on fighting here: Dr. Howard Fuller

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Reimagining African Worlds One Basket at a Time

As much as the fictional Wakanda has been important in re-awakening many people’s connection to Africa in contemporary American culture, it is wonderful to think about how students are making this connection everyday through their own research. The following is an example of the work of a Morehouse student, Tareik Horne. His research on his own family history of sweetgrass basketmaking shows how important it is to think of the creative, imaginative possibilities of Africa.

New Avenues of Research on the Gullah/ Geechee

It is wonderful to be working with the Adept Project. There are so many exciting avenues opening up in Gullah Geechee Research. Look forward to further featured work from the folks at Coastal Carolina in conjunction with The National Park Service on Sandy Island. Also, I will be delving more deeply into the work of Alice Childress and her desire to keep her low country heritage evident in her work.

Between Jordan Peele’s Get Out and the Extraordinary Life of Artist William H. Johnson

Teaching our class on Gullah Geechee Culture for the second time at Morehouse College has me considering what ways that Gullah people see the world differently. The Gullah worldview is something that I know exists, in part, because it is something that I experienced growing up in South Carolina. It is a topic that I also recognize has also been written about in books.  I could go on about the ways in which Zora Neale Hurston has talked about this way of seeing in a variety of works or LeRhonda Manigault Bryant recognizes that seeing ghosts or Talking to the Dead –as the title of her book suggests-is a key process, as is seeking and interpreting dreams,  in the creative lives of lowcountry black women. However nothing has had me thinking more about having a different way of seeing, what W.E.B. Du Bois called having “second sight” or “double consciousness” than the recent movie Get Out. Although Jordan Peele is not Gullah, (I’m not sure what his father’s lineage is), his concept of the “sunken place” reminded me of this second sight or this Gullah way of seeing. The sunken place is both, of course, metaphorical and metaphysical. It is a place that people like the Gullah artist W.H. Johnson knew well.

It might be a difficult jump to make –from a blockbuster movie to a black artist, who died 50 years ago, not known nearly as well as he should have been.  However Johnson’s story as a man born in Florence, SC, who lived all over the world, married a Danish wife, and spent the last 20 years of his life in an asylum due to syphillis-related mental illness was the first thing I thought of after seeing the movie. What is so interesting is that his life repeatedly told him to “get out” when he was living overseas around all white people. More importantly, he had to return to his southern roots and African expression to even find inspiration for his art that felt real.  I cannot imagine what his last two decades were like, separated from his source of creation and his family with white doctors and nurses managing his “insanity”–under the care of someone like the Catherine Kenner character, who manipulates the inner selves of Chris and other black characters in Get Out. What did Johnson feel? Could he see but not see, trapped behind the facade of blankness? Was that his sunken place?

Most people do not study Johnson as a Gullah artist, but I don’t see how one cannot. The best book about him and his art is by Richard Powell, a Morehouse grad and Duke professor, called Homecoming: The Life of Art of William H. Johnson (see Here). I’m appreciative to this movie for being a” flash” that reminded me about Johnson and his paintings, which featured black people with color and strength. I hope that we continue to see what he saw, that we continue to insist on our way of seeing.  Maybe with clear sight,  Johnson might soon be the subject of his own movie.

“We’ll Understand It Better By and By”: Black People and Rituals of Mourning

I have been thinking and writing about grief in the African American Community this summer. Of course, over the past couple of months this grief is not only about the African American community, but also about how it has touched us as Americans–the Orlando Mass Shooting, a child facing a gorilla–the gorilla dead, a child snatched and killed by an alligator, a constant “red record” in Chicago of gun deaths, Muhammad Ali and Prince gone. Americans have had to process over and over death, calamity, destruction, and loss in a way that they don’t often allow themselves. However, this “weeping time” is a time when the rest of the country can learn from black people about how to move on from tragedy, because we know how to mourn. We are professionals. We are the only people who could have changed the noun funeral into a verb to funeralize. We funeralize instead of merely holding a funeral because our burial and mourning traditions need to do something, to move us forward and make us stronger. Karla FC Holloway’s wonderful book Passed on: African American Mourning Stories talks about how our burial traditions are integral to our culture. I remember that my grandmother’s daily ritual for 30 years was to make breakfast and then open the Florence Morning News immediately to the obituary section so that she could see who died, who had the body, and who would be going to what funeral to bear witness. It is like my grandmother literally had to plan her day around death. 

Because death was always planned for, it meant that she became very intentional about what she did in life. I have been thinking about the Charleston Shooting at this time that marks a year’s anniversary, and I have seen the way that Charleston has been, in some ways, able to get clear about what it is doing to move people forward.  Clementa Pinckney’s televised funeral, the blackest Spoleto Festival on record, the ongoing ritual of commemoration in Charleston (see the mural below of Rev. Pinckney), and the Confederate flag coming down have made sure that SC hasn’t only been stuck in that moment of tragedy.  

This is not to say that means that South Carolina has all the answers and doesn’t have any problems still remaining around race. However the people of South Carolina understand that even without the answers, you still need to go through the ritual. I am also reminded of a hymn that we sung growing up in my segregated United Methodist Church, particularly the end of the first verse, which goes

By and by, when the morning comes, 

when the Saints of God are gathered home,

we’ll tell the story how we’ve overcome,

 for we’ll understand it better by and by.

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