What does “home” mean for Black folks when white violence can so easily invade our dwellings?
Home becomes, easily, a shelter for survivor's guilt.
by Donnie Moreland
One of the most haunting images to come out of the Reconstruction Era, for me, is that of the 1872 Harper Weekly engraving entitled “Visit of the Ku Klux.” It’s a crude image, taken up mostly by the figures of a Black family—a mother, her daughter and an elderly man over a fireplace as a little boy blows away at his hot dinner and a toddler looks on at the domestic quiet of it all. The horror comes when you see the shotgun, peeking in from the door of their quarters, held by a masked man. His compatriots—other Klansman-sit in waiting of the inevitable.
“Visit of the Ku Klux” is a reminder of the origin point of state sanctioned domestic terrorism agaisnt Black folk, but it is also a blistering commentary on the concept of home— home ownership, defending one’s home, having one’s home be invaded, being forced from one’s home and meeting one’s demise at home. What we discover, here with this image and along the course of our ethnic history, is our homes as a mosaic of wounding memories, what they’ve constituted, but also an opportunity to determine what they (along with us) can become in our struggle for repair.
The Writing on The Wall
Consider the quarters of the enslaved and what they must have represented to persons unknowing of whether they’d return, in tact, to their cots after a day’s labor. At any moment, their quarters—of which they shared no ownership—could be invaded. Their loved ones (or themselves) stolen away to another place, repeating the cycle.
How could one manage sleep, think themselves safe or their body free from the tension of looming uncertainty? Freedom, in the rebellion of escape, could only extend as far as one understands their proximity of the plantation, but what of the body, and mind? Fear of being recognized must have been all consuming as one avoided capture and return to the plantation—a la Ona Judge, and enslaved woman who escaped George Washington’s plantation and fought back against those who for her. All the while wrestling with the presumed abandonment of others to the consequence of your leaving.
Home becomes, easily, a shelter for survivor’s guilt. So called lawful freedom via emancipation and Reconstruction offered an opportunity for negotiating what home could mean in light of the tragedy of bondage. And yet, convict leasing programs, state to state Black codes and the terror of former confederate soldiers organized beneath the name of the Ku Klux Klan were reminders of the conditionality of your “lawful” autonomy. The security of home ownership, and the possibility of safety in that home, still remain a tall tale.
History is very telling of bodies hung from trees and townships reduced to ash, but as Elliot Jaspin covers in Buried in the Bitter Waters: The Hidden History of Racial Cleansing in America, the most pervasive events of racial violence were unknowingly recorded in the processes of collecting census data. As Jespin reports, from the turn of the twentieth century, episodes of entire Black populations suddenly no longer existing as part of the census indicated a literal erasure of Black folk—an occurrence which would be noted an epidemic, had the names that disappeared not belonged to Black folk.
These instances can and should be classified as racial cleansings—white oriented expulsions of entire counties Black populations—with the specific purpose of claiming land. As Jaspin asserts,
“[T]he counties where racial cleansings occurred form a rough arc that begins in North Carolina, crosses the Appalachians, and extends into the Midwest….They were not small, discrete events. The racial cleansing that struck Forsyth County, Georgia in 1912, for example, engulfed at least a dozen surrounding counties in northern Georgia before it burned itself out in 1913……More than a thousand people-97 percent of the city’s black population-were driven out over a period of two months. They owned 1,900 acres of farmland, nearly all of which they were forced to sell or abandon.”
What is the sanctity of home, after you’ve awakened to a mob of amorphous white faces, told to leave your place of residence—possessionless—and made a living ghost, with nothing to ensure this event would not occur a second time?
The home (or meaning of) morphs relentlessly, throughout the mid-twentieth and into the twenty-first century, beginning as we went to war for visibility. Don Hogan Charles’s 1964 still of Malcolm X tells the story of paranoia, as X peers outside of his window—rifle in hand—in preparation for a type of combat. A battle for the right to human-ness, which made casualties of Medgar Evars in his parking lot and in sight of his children on June 12th, 1960 and of Fred Hampton as he lay near his 9-month pregnant fiancé on December 4th, 1969.
We dig deeper and discover the Black metropolitan home as ghettoized in the white imagination—making public and consumable the falsehoods of Black private life. Or the War on Drugs which left Black folks displaced, as militarized police vehicles bulldozed through walls, often televised, leaving the innocent as demoralized and the government’s public enemy number one.
There is the horrorism of the Hurricane Katrina aftermath, which saw the home as no more than a burial site for those the government used to endorse their neglect of Black bodies. And as of my writing this, the deaths of Atatiana Jefferson on October 12th, 2019 and Botham Jean on September 6th, 2019 remind us not just of police sanctioned violence, but its origin point. The same origin point as those three Klansman invading the domestic sovereignty of those Black folk illustrated in “Visit of the Ku Klux.”
In the forward for the published collection of reprints for Carrie Mae Weems’ The Kitchen Table Series, Sarah Lewis writes, “The Kitchen Table Series is a modest title for a body of work that probes the depths of our development: how it is we become. Yet it is the only appropriate one, signaling the domestic spaces that house the irreplaceable rituals that take us from one threshold to another-a shared conversation among women, romantic relationships and coming to terms with one’s relationship with one’s self.”
I refer to Lewis, more Weems, here as I feel The Kitchen Table Series reveals something about possibility and transmutation which is pertinent in seeking emotional and spiritual restitution for Post-Slavery subjects. I recognize the importance of responsible gun ownership—in reference to protecting the home—for Black folks, but I’m also responsible for acknowledging that gun ownership is predicated on a history of violence for which arms are needed. Violence which is often observed and of which a gun cannot protect when one is overtaken by the memory of violence.
For these moments, we must question how we entertain self-making in the home. How we ritualize, or can ritualize, care for ourselves. We must ask and answer questions about how we love in the home and what home means to that love. Because our houses only become homes when they become of us. When the sacredness of the walls is as the sacredness of our bodies. Our homes may store the memories of the brutalities of white supremacy, but they can also observe and take on our transformations in healing.
I’m not suggesting that practices of addressing the metaphysical subverts racial violence, but I am suggesting that it may determine, as Lewis suggests, how we become. How we become past the suffering. How we become at our kitchen tables and how the kitchen table becomes more than what was left over, as a witness, from the theater of white violence that is America.
Donnie Denkins Moreland Jr is a Minnesota based youth violence prevention educator and writer. Donnie holds a Master’s Degree, in Film Studies, from National University and a Bachelor’s Degree, in Sociology, from Prairie View A&M University. Donnie has contributed to Black Youth Project, A Gathering of the Tribes and Sage Group Publishing.