I was asked to do a presentation about Coming to the Table at this year’s Slave Dwelling Project conference, and with two years’ experience and 11 slave dwelling overnights behind me, I was happy to be involved. But this was the first time that I really studied the work of the Slave Dwelling Project, the people it attracts, and the dynamics of a Slave Dwelling Project event through the lens of Coming to the Table. How interesting that turned out to be! And how much the Slave Dwelling Project and Coming to the Table have to offer one another!
Coming to the Table (CTTT) is a racial reconciliation initiative founded by the Center for Justice and Peace building at Eastern Mennonite University. It has grown into a community dedicated to creating a just and truthful society that acknowledges and seeks to heal from the racial wounds of the past – from slavery and the many forms of racism it spawned. CTTT exists to provide leadership, resources, and a supportive environment for its members and others with whom it is involved in addressing racism. The individuals who belong to CTTT rely on four central practices: uncovering the truths of history; making connections and building relationships within and across racial lines; working toward healing; and taking action to change institutionalized racism and injustice and to promote reconciliation.
I knew since I first met Joe McGill in 2012 that the work of the Slave Dwelling Project was directly related to Coming to the Table’s commitment to uncovering history. Saving, maintaining, interpreting and sustaining slave dwellings connects historians, students, site visitors and slave dwelling overnighters to history very directly. Slave dwellings put the story of enslavement right before our faces, no looking away. The conference sessions about history, interpretation and discovering lost sites carried on this same work of uncovering history.
Staying overnight in slave dwellings, talking with the owners and managers of those sites, and meeting the people who come to learn about them forges connections and opens communication with many different people. At the conference, meeting managers of public sites, owners of private dwellings, scholars of history, curators, genealogists, archivists, doctoral students, and writers, among others, was yet more experience of connection and relationship.
For me, overnight stays on the floor of a slave dwelling have been a way of taking action, laying my body down on the ground in honor of the enslaved people in my family, in honor of all that the people who slept in those places did to build our country. The work of artists, actors and musicians presented at the conference was another form of taking action. Conference speakers told stories of taking action to find, preserve and interpret spaces related to the history of the enslaved people when no one else cared, when the powers that be were opposed, or when individuals or institutions acted against their projects.
What I had not seen clearly before was how healing and reconciliation played their part in the work of the Slave Dwelling Project. At the conference, we experienced moments when conference participants’ passions and emotions were stirred up by the remembrances of slavery and its current-day legacies. I saw how the conference format was not always ideal for the depth of dialogue and listening that passion and emotion may have needed. But I also heard conference participants extend empathy and compassion to one another. I watched people listen fully and at length to each other’s stories. I noticed how quickly small groups jumped at the chances to talk about what was close to their hearts when the circumstances gave space for that.
I look forward to all the possibilities that the shared future of the Slave Dwelling Project and Coming to the Table holds, of integrating the work of reconciliation with the work of finding, preserving and interpreting slave dwellings, the disclosure of the truth of their history, experiencing the depth of connections they inspire, and witnessing the acts of courage and integrity taken on behalf of these sacred spaces.
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