History is a funny thing. It’s behind us by definition, but it also never leaves us, even when we willfully shy away from it. And there are times you can feel the weight of centuries taking up space, intruding on the present, a physical force that quickens your heartbeat and cools the blood rushing beneath your skin.
A few years ago, I found myself in Washington DC for several months for work. I’d never spent much time in our nation’s capital, and I decided to make the most of it. That meant an aggressive schedule of museum visits and as many trips to historical monuments as I could muster in 90 days. My second weekend there, I booked a boat ride to Mount Vernon, the famous home of George Washington. I’m a history nerd going way back, so I was truly excited to finally visit the sprawling estate of a central founding father. I also possess the ability, fostered by 12 years of public K — 12 whitewashed education, to fawn over our country’s rich history with one breath and then criticize it with the next. You can’t grow up in this country without developing this ability, a kind of compartmentalizing that allows me to bask in the carefully crafted glory of our collective past while also acknowledging that I, as a Black woman, wouldn’t have lived very well outside of the last 50ish years. Even within those 50 years, it can be a crapshoot.
The morning was brisk, but the boat ride on the Potomac was lovely as experienced from my warm seat nestled safely below deck. Upon our arrival, I stepped out into the chill air and took stock of my surroundings. Besides the boat, everything was much the way it might have looked back in the 1700s when Washington was still alive and kicking. I felt transported hundreds of years into the past, which was thrilling, and then I felt something else as we disembarked. It was visceral, and it stayed with me for the rest of the trip, niggling at my insides, casting shadows in the far corners of my eyes, as though the very space I inhabited was crackling with all that had come before this moment.
I had to walk up a path through the trees to get to the mansion at the top of the hill. I went quickly, stepping around groups of people as I tried to identify that nagging feeling. It twisted in my gut and settled on my shoulders, a heavy sensation that followed me as I climbed higher. By the time I reached Washington’s tomb, I knew where the feeling was coming from, though I couldn’t name it. The heaviness trembled in the air around me. It was everywhere.
I wasn’t welcome here.
No one was yelling at me or telling me to leave. No one was even looking in my direction. And why would they, when the grand, brick-enclosed tomb of our nation’s first president was right in front of us? But the unsettling un-at-homeness of the place was filling my lungs as I inhaled, and it didn’t leave me when I exhaled. I wandered away from the tomb, craving a bit of separation from the cluster of tourists excitedly snapping pictures of Washington’s final resting place. In a shadier, much quieter spot, I found a more modest marker, dedicated in 1929, which read:
In memory of the many faithful colored servants of the Washington family buried at Mount Vernon from 1760 to 1860. Their unidentified graves surround this spot.
I glanced around where I stood, alone, my eyes tearing. In that space was no trace of the generations of men, women, and children that had toiled on this land. No marker naming them. No place for flowers or remembrance.
Faithful colored servants.
It struck me that the biggest difference between these Black folks and myself was the passage of time. There was another difference that weighed on me: I had come here willingly and would leave without obstacle as soon as my tour of the main house was completed.
I went on to the house at the top of the hill and my tour, that sense of being unwelcome, of sharing space with the nameless, faceless people that had come before me never lifting. It had been these people, bound in slavery, that made Washington’s life possible. Beneath his every success, the ones we read so much about in school, there were these folks, tending the land, cleaning the house, cooking the food, caring for the animals, making the place hospitable for a never ending stream of guests. Yet, the history I learned in the first 12 years of my education never made a single mention of these so-called faithful colored servants. They stayed in the background of history, and, upon their deaths, were buried in unmarked graves, taking their names and stories with them. But I could feel them in that space, on that land, where I wandered, a little stunned to be in a place where they had walked, and lived, and wept, and dreamed. A place that had not been their home, not really. A place that was never meant for me to visit, free as any white person.
On my way back to the boat, I stopped again by the hallowed ground where so many people had found their harsh freedom from a life of forced servitude. I stood near the marker, sharing space with them one final time, letting the air vibrate with that feeling of unwelcomeness. These men and women had built this place, had turned it into a thriving estate, a destination for millions to come and stand in reverence of the great George Washington. But I would never know their names. History would never tell their stories. Still, I could feel them as that heaviness pressed into my shoulders, a sense of the past bleeding into the present, of hands reaching across the void of time.
I went back to the boat, and my life, that otherworldly feeling staying with me long after I returned to DC. In many ways, that visit mirrors the experience of being a Black American. People that looked like us toiled for centuries, building a country that was never meant to belong to us. And, yet, here we Black folks are today, left to reconcile the brute expanse of history with the realities of our daily lives. It catches us off guard, rising up and settling heavily onto our shoulders: millions of stories, of lives, of experiences and shared spaces that bind us together, but are unknowable. What else can we do, besides carry the weight of that shadowy past along with us into the future?