Personal Reparations 3: Heirs Property, “Safe” Words, and ‘Slave Play’

  • Spoiler alert: This essay details the last scene of “Slave Play.”
  • Part 1 and Part 2 of this story can be found by clicking these links.

“Understand…” seventy-four-year-old Andrew Quarterman Jr. said to me from across the table as I ate avocado toast at Le Pain Quotidien in Manhattan’s financial district. Our Living Cities board meeting would take place later in the WeWork offices upstairs, on the thirtieth floor. “People don’t want you to do this.”

“This” was telling our story of trying to save the Quartermans’ reparations land from condemnation and unfair market pricing. “This” was telling it far and wide, to the CEOs of some of America’s major foundations — Ford, Rockefeller, Bank of America, Bill & Melinda Gates — that sort of thing, in the next few hours. “This” included discovering a frequently shady land grab for warehousing involving the usual suspects — Amazon, Target, Walmart — that the national and local governments, and large “Georgia Ports Corporation A” would like to keep quiet in order to control increased financial interest in Port Wentworth. “This” included following a lot of dead leads from white attorneys who referred us to other white attorneys with reputations for railroading Black families right off their land (and the challenges we had with finding legal representation will consume a future essay). “This” included our personal experience with a Georgia legal system that is still structured to uphold racist policies that prevent folks, predominantly African American folks who own land as heirs property, from building wealth.

Heirs property refers to land that passes from generation to generation without a legally designated owner, resulting in ownership divided among all living descendants in a family and a whole host of complicated restrictions that prevent generational wealth building and the revitalization of neighborhoods. Zeike Quarterman, Randy Quarterman’s formerly enslaved great-great-great grandfather who was deeded the reparations land by my great-great-great grandfather, died intestate, or without a will, as was typical of formerly enslaved people and of others without education or legal representation. As a result his reparations land became heirs property.

Heirs property owners face increased risk of forced sale and eviction, cannot access credit loans for the land, cannot sell natural resources, cannot participate in government programs offered by the USDA, FEMA and other agencies, cannot sell or mortgage property without the agreement of all living heirs, cannot qualify for rehabilitation programs or secure financing for needed repairs, and cannot build generational wealth, but can lose a connection of family history and community, can lose family members in disagreement over the property, and most certainly do lose the sense of freedom of ownership regarding their own land. The USDA Forest Service research of 10 non-metro Georgia counties revealed nearly 40,000 acres of heirs property with a total tax appraised value of over two billion dollars ($2,148,951,362) equity that can’t be used per the above restrictions. The research shows that on average, 19 percent of all parcels in the Black Belt counties surveyed are heirs property. The term Black Belt is used to refer to this area because it is characterized by a history of cotton plantation agriculture based on enslaved African American labor. The descendants of enslaved people make up much of the African American population of the United States.

This was in November of 2019, mid-way through the first two weeks of the impeachment hearings, a public exposition of our divided nation, and the week before Thanksgiving, a holiday declared by Abraham Lincoln in 1863 to counter the trauma of the Civil War and direct our national gaze away from the exploitation of Native Americans and the enslavement of African Americans.

Andrew Jr.’s nephew, forty-something Randy Quarterman, an Army Sergeant First Class who’d lived and served as many years abroad as he had in the deep south, shook his head and smiled. Randy often played the role of patient listener to his uncle’s conflicted warnings, absorbing his nervous energy and returning it with vulnerability and grace. Andrew Jr. had lived most of his life, aside from serving our country in Vietnam, on land that was formerly part of a plantation run by my ancestors in Port Wentworth, Georgia; land his family bought from my relatives because they could not access or control the reparations land they already owned. His life experience was steeped in the south; its strictures baked into his bones. “My daddy always said keep you head down” he’d told me on numerous occasions. “And don’t ask questions.” People don’t want you to do this. Not here, not now.

“Which people?” I asked Andrew Jr., as I had when he’d half-heartedly warned against our efforts previously, to make certain he didn’t suddenly mean that he didn’t want us to do this.

“You know which people,” Andrew Jr. said. “You keep uncovering those things. You find things they don’t want. They going to let you get only so far. You see?” The question was rhetorical. We all knew we needed an attorney, STAT. This was the meeting we hoped would bring offers of legal help, ideally from outside of town.

“I know, I know,” I reassured Andrew Jr. “I’m ok. But what about you. Do you want me to stop?”

Andrew Jr. was nervous about speaking to the Living Cities board and secondarily about the repercussions he and his family might face in town if we stirred things up too much. He was also afraid to fly. He’d flown to New York City to speak anyway.

I was nervous too, but in different ways. How could I listen best? How could I articulate my piece of the story without taking up too much space? I wanted to tell my narrative, not control theirs. How could I be most persuasive to the board, to generate support and resources for the Quartermans’ case, and not let them down? And — my most ego driven fears — how could I protect against seeming stupid or savioristic or too this or too that? The truth is I was already projecting too. What shape would the story I told afterwards — this story — take?

“It’s too late now,” Andrew Jr. said and laughed. “And no, no, you doing the right thing. Only wrong thing you can do now is give up. Understand? You give up now then they win.”

“I won’t stop,” I said. “Unless you tell me to.”

“Okay,” he smiled. “Well that’s good.”

Our ears popped as we rode the elevator to the thirtieth floor. My friend Nadia, the Living Cities executive who’d set up and enabled our trip to the board meeting, came out to tell us they were running late and ushered us to a waiting room. From the window we could see the line below where the East River divided Manhattan and Brooklyn, once one of the world’s busiest waterways that became a cesspool of excessive pollution thanks to its heavily industrialized zones. Against the wall of the room, lunch was spread. Miniature salmon filets lay prone on an arugula tray, a vat of quinoa had been stabbed in the heart by a chipped black plastic spoon, and another platter filled with charred broccoli, grilled eggplant, and marinated golden beets shone in the slanted light. We were offered plates but respectfully declined.

Andrew Jr.’s nerves had increased. Nadia had prepped us with the questions she’d ask us, and he knew his was a vague one about his experience living in the Jim Crow South.

“Should I tell the truth?” he stated. “They don’t want me to do it.”

“Now Uncle Bugsy,” Randy most often called Andrew Jr. by this affectionate name. “You tell your story. Just stick to what we said.”

“They don’t want me to do it.”

“We want you to tell the truth,” I said. “Yes. What is it you want to say?”

“I understand now,” he said, “I know. I won’t do it.” I understood suddenly that he was being vulnerable in front of me. He was not asking questions, and I was not to answer. He was allowing me to be present as he worked his nerves and inner conflict out. It was not something I could know, only witness.

“You nervous,” Randy said.

“Well.”

“You fought in Vietnam right?” Randy said. “What can they do to you in that room?”

“You right, you right.” Andrew laughed, then got serious. “I’ll be dead soon,” he said, “you two opening up a lot of stuff and you got to stay around.” Then he said this: “But look. People don’t want to hear. I know you say I’m supposed to say it another way. But I am a slave.”

After I wrote the first part of this story from my perspective, Randy wrote his own. In it, he explained that having been born to an African American father and Japanese mother and raised in Japan had not prepared him in any way or form for the racism and white supremacy he was faced with when his father brought him to live in the rural American south at age twelve. Randy struggled with the confusion of his biracial identity and the juxtaposition between the pride he’d felt as a Japanese boy and the self-hatred he internalized as an African American teen. As a young man he was angry, desperately seeking self, seeking something. He briefly got involved in mild crime and then tried to outrun his confusion and bad behavior. After high school, he hooked up with a local church leader and fled to Atlanta to stay in religious halfway houses for addicts, though he wasn’t an addict, or using at all. From there he went to New York City where he found a temporary escape living and touring with the Nation of Islam for three months, selling counterfeit Janet Jackson concert tees on the Velvet Rope Tour. When they asked him to stay, convert, and change his name and social security number, he pulled out. Randy went home to enlist in the U.S. Army — a religion in which he could keep his true name and get a full ride around the world putting his own body in danger to fight for our Nation of Capitalism — instead.

Randy had reflected on how surreal it was to him to find himself in 2019, retiring from an illustrious career in the military after four tours in Iraq and most recently one in Korea, returning back to the rural south 400 years after slavery began, now in contact with me, the great-great-great granddaughter of his great-great-great grandfather’s owner. “It’s hard to even say slave owner,” he wrote.

I’d written him back to thank him profusely for sharing his story and also to say that I agreed it was hard to say “slave owner” and also, for me at least, “slave.” I referred Randy to this article that explained the current and fairly new theory of speaking about slavery: to use “enslaved person” and “person who enslaved” rather than “slave” and “slave owner.” These words are meant to humanize and name those that were enslaved specifically as people to whom something was done, not define and objectify them as “slaves,” and to represent those who enslaved others as having done something to others, not as having truly owned others so that we might better name the horror of the institution and hold enslavers accountable for their actions. Randy must have shared all this with Andrew Jr., who was not on the Internet, or email.

I am a slave.

We didn’t correct him. Randy gave his uncle a little smile and cocked his head as if to ask for further explanation.

“I know there’s a renaming,” Andrew Jr. said. “I know. I understand. Like when Negro went to Colored and now it’s Afro-American. Now a slave is a person that was enslaved. They different names. But still the same feeling.”

“I feel you,” Randy said. “But you ain’t a slave, Bugsy.”

“Let me ask you this,” Andrew said. “Who am I if I am not a slave?”

We sat in silence for a few seconds. “What I mean is, where am I from other than that? Ghana? Nigeria? Haiti? I don’t know. Neither do you. You can say it how you want but what I know is that in America I am a slave.”

I went to see “Slave Play” by myself, two days after Randy and Andrew flew home to Georgia, to the plot of land where my ancestor once enslaved theirs.

“Slave Play” is Jeremy O. Harris’ brilliant new play about race, sex, power relations and trauma. In the final scene, a twenty-eight year old African American woman named Kaneisha finally gets her white husband, Jim, to feel a fraction of her racialized trauma.

A day earlier Kaneisha and Jim had engaged in “Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy” with Jim playing a white antebellum overseer who objectifies and humiliates Kaneisha and threatens to whip her. Kaneisha had been angry when Jim pulled out in the middle of the performance therapy (by yelling “Starbucks!” the hilariously white safe word they’ve agreed to) and then went on to denounce the therapy as insane and disgusting, though Kaneisha had been the one to ask to participate in it. How could Kaneisha possibly desire being treated this way, he wondered. How could he be expected to dehumanize the woman he loved? Why, he asked aloud, did he feel like she’d come to see him as a virus? In a flurry of recognition Kaneisha had admitted that yes, she has come to see him as a virus: the virus, of white supremacy. She sees it in his eyes whenever she lays with him, even though he is kind.

In the final scene, Kaneisha explains to Jim again how betrayed and out of control she feels after this experience, in which he again insisted on maintaining control. My take on this was that his resistance to listening to what she needs and how she truly feels, regardless of how “wrong” or uncomfortable it makes him feel, is further complicity in the power dynamics of white supremacy, and the virus she sees in his eyes remains untreated. Her acts and experiences are not his to judge. They are only his to listen to, and witness. I understood her to mean that when she lies with someone who cannot empathize with or admit to her racialized trauma, it feels disingenuous and sick. But what I understood her to mean might not be what she meant. I could not know it.

In the midst of the discussion Jim leaps back into the character he’d been disgusted to play. He strips and grabs a whip. They enact a brutal and racially charged rape scene. But this time Kaneisha pulls out (with a scream and real tears rather than a “Starbucks!” safe word scream) just as Jim finally seems to let go of control and enjoy it. Kaneisha leaps out of bed in sobs but quickly calms and looks stunned but hopeful. Jim stays curled in the bed and vomits. My take on this is that Kaneisha has finally forced Jim to play the character she can’t help but see in his whiteness — in all whiteness — and so has forced him to see his complicity and her pain as well. I understood Jim’s sickness as a physical manifestation of the virus of whiteness, something he finally feels move through his body as part of his body. I understood his repulsion at his complicity. That was something I’d known.

Maybe Kaneisha needs Jim to hear and feel the way she often feels in America — dehumanized, enslaved — simply because this is how white supremacy in America has shaped her.

“Thank you for listening,” Kaneisha says from the corner of the set, her palms lifted toward the heavens, her gaze out to the predominantly white audience. She never looks back toward where Jim lays. These are the last lines of the play.

In the board meeting, Nadia sat with us at the front of the room with nametags and microphones in front of each of us and led us through the questions. Sarah, What led you to research reparations and contact Randy? Randy, how did it feel to hear from Sarah? Randy and Sarah, what’s the status of the land and what do you hope will occur? Randy and I alternated telling the story. The board members seemed engaged. I only noticed a few checking their phones.

Andrew Jr. remained quiet until the very end when Nadia asked him if there was anything he wanted to share about growing up in the Jim Crow South, what it was like, or how relations were in Port Wentworth. He was quiet for a long ten seconds or so.

“All I really got to say is that as a Black man I’ll never be treated equal,” he said. “That’s the way it is and the way I feel. And, well, that’s really all I got.”

I looked across the room, at the double half hexagons of work tables in rows with representatives from some of the largest financial powers-that-be in America sitting behind them, many of whom would offer us legal referrals and encouragement in the following days, though as of yet, we haven’t found representation. Everyone was listening. Andrew Jr. drew back from the microphone, his truth spoken.

“Thank you for sharing that Andrew,” Nadia said. She smiled at him. “I think we’ll end there.”

Part 4, and Part 5 of this story can be found by clicking these links