Summer Writing Resident Monica Romo: Thunder That Sounds Their Stories Out
Monica Romo is the second writer of the Summer 2021 cohort to spend her week onsite participating in our local residency program at Northern Virginia's Woodlawn & Pope-Leighey House and Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture. Our summer writers-in-residence focus their weeks on-site exploring ways to rediscover and re-purpose place and place histories, and use writing as a means to build community, to bring awareness to critical social and environmental issues, and as a creative force of empowerment.
Read more about Monica's experience below. You can read more about Monica and her fellow residents (past and current) here.
Many in my family are immigrants who keep a certain distance from U.S. history; this isn’t the case with me. I claim American as my identity, as much as it--through shaping my hungers, desires, and language by its culture, capitalism, and legacy of English colonization--claims me. My residency at the Woodlawn and Pope-Leighey Houses put these questions back before me: How much responsibility do I bear for my country’s history, and what is the best way to be a steward of that history--to excavate it, to honor the people whose humanity it has frequently dismissed, and to reconsider how we tell it to young Americans--its future stewards?
Most of the time, these questions overwhelmed me--the devotion I felt to telling the stories of the 90 enslaved people who worked, breathed, grieved, and loved on the Woodlawn plantation. Whose lives held complexity and joy in ways that a list of 90 names without full stories behind them will not allow history to articulate without great speculation, extrapolation--our best guesses, as I ventured to do this week. I felt inadequate wandering through the Woodlawn house; I found some, but not enough traces of their lives in the artifacts of Southern aristocracy.
Through reading a research report, I could trace a single thin line from Dolcey to her daughter Sukey--two enslaved women who worked alongside their mistress Nelly Custis Lewis, wife of Woodlawn’s first owner, Lawrence Lewis. But I could not piece together the fierce intimacy felt between mother and daughter as I could between Nelly and her daughter Parke in the hundreds of pages of Nelly’s preserved letters (as in: the anguish and powerlessness Nelly felt, confined to one body and one place at Woodlawn when she was not alongside her daughter Parke in New Orleans--Parke, who was trapped in a marriage to an overbearing man, a marriage in which she’d become “buried alive,” had become “a slave [sic] to him” in Nelly’s words--I apply “sic” in this situation because she must have been mistaken; certainly a “slave” in Nelly’s view was not defined as a beloved who suffers, and whose suffering keeps you up at night and moves you to tears, praying for her freedom).
A single, thin line between Dolcey and Sukey does no justice to the thickness--the tenacity--of their lineage. During my time at Woodlawn, the question of stewardship--and every other question--became a question of humanity.
I became lost in Nelly’s letters--paging through them frantically (in a room with a balcony and no AC--a room that held me--in the thinness of its humidity and the thickness of its history--I did not budge--I did not gaze out over the balcony--I read--furiously--so as to not lose connection--I was hanging on by a thread) through 30 years of history, hoping to glean any fleeting mention of the Black women who stood beside Nelly, indispensable to making the life she lived possible. I emerged from Nelly’s letters knowing next to nothing of the enslaved, tangled in a web of golden spools of thread and Philadelphia harp strings she so often requested in her correspondence to her friend Elizabeth--in rapture with her own beautiful strings (music vibrating to the tempo of her needlework)--disclosing little of the seamstresses who sewed alongside her, though never forgetting to enclose to Elizabeth a check for the yellow thread and instruments.
I know next to nothing of the enslaved, because I heard nothing from them--their literacy denied, and so few records beyond their first names kept. This is the history I steward--a deeply asymmetrical one in which the life of a slave-owning individual eclipses the nearly 100 lives who defined hers. At the end of a day’s work in the archives, I sought out sanctioned writing spaces in the house--in particular, the travel desk of the Marquis de Lafayette (who passed through Woodlawn to pay his respects to George Washington upon his death).
I sat adjacent to the desk, respecting its antiquity--and frequently--tracing their names on pad and paper--I held--in my arms--like a baby--while they held me--because what more could I really know of them? Dolcey-- Sukey-- Button-- Martha-- John-- It wasn’t fair, my writing their names in the air like this. I thought they should be pressed down from quill to paper directly on a desk like Lafayette’s 200 years earlier. Armed with a giveaway pen from an insurance company and a loose leaf white lined page, my work to write about their lives felt at times like it carried the consequence of an Etch A Sketch--so delicate to render, so easy to be erased. The need to keep beginning after loss--I felt urgently.
I became most interested in acts of defiance among the enslaved at Woodlawn, which, for the 90, might’ve borne little difference from the act of living--speaking, breathing, withstanding, continuing--all acts of resistance. I learned from scholarly research that Nelly tolerated challenges to her authority from her slave Sukey, because Sukey was an especially talented seamstress. I then spent Wednesday afternoon tempting a rainstorm, circling Hanson’s dairy (called, “the dairy,” apparently, but after estimating how much time Hanson the cook may have spent there fetching the handfuls of butter that would drench his breakfast biscuits’ dough, I took the liberty of renaming it in my head, since on this tract of land I rely on names to constellate stories; I count on little more than names to survive).
Hanson’s defiance is not exactly inscribed in Nelly’s housekeeping book, where she transcribed his recipe, step by step. It is a mostly pared down instructional blurb on how to make his biscuits, but outside Hanson’s dairy that day, I read what was not written--missed by the illiteracy of the Lewis family’s tongues--when they ate Hanson’s biscuits--they could not read--the way he rendered dough--into the shape of “an Egg,” says Nelly’s notes--the way he brought up biscuits like water to wine--raw to baked--with a creator’s power--taking each one through an ovule state--so that before he hatched his biscuits--onto the Lewis’s table--he molded them with hopeful hands--rounded them long--into the yet unbroken promise of new life--eggs--ready--
It must be said that the door to Hanson’s dairy was padlocked; it was an impenetrable brick box. I paced around it tirelessly, tracing names into the grass, until the thunderstorm got the better of me, and I sat under the nearest eve, studying it from a distance.
This is how I stand as a steward, just beside Woodlawn’s history, adjacent to the stories, even while on the land. In the erasure, there’s much to mourn, but out of that mourning: an egg. What I know of the enslaved is what I know of myself, and you--our humanity. That we breathed. A placard by Hanson’s dairy told me that the latticework around the roof’s perimeter served the purpose of ventilation--hot air rises up--as in an uprising--as in Nat Turner’s--whose rebellion Nelly did not like--air uprises--and is freed--and this is so the room itself could better breathe.
For the same purpose of ventilation, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Pope-Leighey House across the way from Woodlawn is outfitted with a similar ribbon of windows wrapping its roof’s rim; their glass is cut into illegible shapes (though not hopelessly indecipherable--the more we learn to read) that cast a dancing light show onto the floors when the sun rises. We all need to breathe.
And so at a loss for words and stories beyond names, I often sat silently in conversation with Hanson and the other 89 enslaved--through breathing. The air was our vocabulary. The thunder I mistook for threat that afternoon, I now understand as laughter--a laughter that came from within the dairy, that Hanson ventriloquized into the sky through the honeycomb holes that wrapped his domain, enveloping Virginia plantations far and wide with gods’ music--resistance in the sky--Hanson’s laughter--Hanson’s thunder--Hanson’s joy is a music that harp strings plucked from brotherly love could never mimic nor feign camaraderie with nor rival in sonority.
I have hope that in the 1830’s, thunderstorms also cleared suddenly as they do today, and that the small porous spaces that wrap a halo around Hanson’s dairy also let in the joy of sunrises; recalling the celebratory geometries that the Pope-Leighey home cast upon its families’ floors, I’d like to believe in diamonds--of light--dancing--on butter--
(or something--like that--perhaps less--fantastical--more--mundane--
thunder that sounds
their stories out