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How should descendants of slavery honor their ancestors' legacy?

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The co-host of NPR's Code Switch podcast, B.A. Parker, takes us on a journey to understand her own family's history. She has a question - how do I honor my ancestors? Her family traces its roots to Somerset plantation in Creswell, N.C. It's a place she didn't visit for many years, even though she'd pass it while visiting her family's farm every summer. But in her quest to understand her history, she goes with her mother back to the place where her ancestors were enslaved. That trip is featured in the second episode of a two-part series out today. Parker is with us now to discuss her story. Good morning.

B A PARKER, BYLINE: Good morning. How are you?

FADEL: Doing all right. How are you?

PARKER: I'm good.

FADEL: So you open your stories with the voice of your grandmother. But I'm going to play a little bit of what she said to you.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Somerset Place is an old slave plantation just out of Creswell. My great-grandmother and great-grandfather were slaves there. They had their children there - some of their children there.

FADEL: So losing her - first of all, I'm so sorry that you did.

PARKER: Thank you.

FADEL: Was she your bridge to your family's history?

PARKER: Oh, for sure. My grandmother - there's, like, a proverb that's like, the loss of an elder is like the burning down of a library. And so losing my grandmother was kind of like losing that library of knowledge. If I don't have that library, what can I do? And that's just been my kind of quest throughout this whole thing.

FADEL: You had avoided the plantation where your ancestors were enslaved, but you ended up going back with your mom. Can you talk about making the decision to do that and what you were looking for?

PARKER: I hadn't been there since I was in college, since I was, like, 19, 20. My grandmother's grandmother, Ma Bell, was born at this place. Ma Bell's parents, who were Dick and Patience Blount (ph), they died there and are buried there. No one knows where the graveyard is at the plantation. Going there as an adult was to pay homage, was to not avoid the traumas and the messiness of our history and just to embrace and honor and protect the legacies of those who were there.

FADEL: Is it hard, though, knowing this is where they were, but also what they were living through?

PARKER: Yeah. We went on this guided tour. And there's a story that the tour guide told us about these giant canals that surround the plantation to the children who belong to the plantation owner. And two enslaved children were on a boat, and there was an accident. And they drowned, unfortunately. And it wasn't until I got home that I read a letter and found out that my, I guess, great-great-great-grandfather, Dick Blount, was the enslaved person who had to take their bodies...

FADEL: Wow.

PARKER: ...Out of the canal.

FADEL: Wow.

PARKER: And, like, that was a story I'd never heard of before. And I never would have known. And it's such a heartbreaking story.

FADEL: Yeah.

PARKER: And that was just, like, a day in the life of one of my ancestors.

FADEL: There's this other moment where your mom is talking to you on this visit to the plantation that we're going to play.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Well, we were told that we are descendants of the original 13.

PARKER: The 13 enslaved...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Original slaves at Somerset.

PARKER: ...That came to Somerset. Yeah, OK.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Most white people know.

PARKER: They can trace all the way to the Mayflower.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Girl, they can go to the Mayflower, Daughters of the Revolution.

PARKER: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: But a lot of times, Black families can't do that.

FADEL: When you heard your mom saying that - I mean, you went back to find the stories that your grandmother would tell you. But there's a lot that you maybe will never know because your ancestors were forced here against their will from their homeland. What is it like to sit with that?

PARKER: It's difficult. I am fortunate that I can trace to this place, this town, but, like, that's it. I am, I think, eight generations removed from this place. But, like, that's the extent of the lineage that I can reach. There's an irony that comes from knowing that this place that wants to deny you your personhood is kind of now your origin story and your creation myth...

FADEL: Wow.

PARKER: ...On this land.

FADEL: You went on this journey that you led us into. We listen to your grandmother before she passes, your attempts to get her a tombstone for her grave. You go back to the plantation with your mom. Again, it was to search for that question. Do you know what kind of descendant you want to be?

PARKER: I know that I want to do right by my grandmother and her siblings. I have four living great-aunts who I want to honor. My mom tells the story of my grandmother and her nine siblings bought a tombstone in the '70s for her grandmother, who's in the same cemetery as my grams. Every August, her and her sisters would go to the cemetery and clean off the graves. And they'd put in fresh cloth flowers. My Great-Aunt Louise, I'm going to go with her in August to sweep off the headstones and make sure to take all the weeds out of the crevices and wipe them down and put the flowers in and do this thing that my grandmother did for decades to follow in her footsteps. That's, like, the bare minimum I can do.

FADEL: NPR's B.A. Parker. She's the co-host of the podcast Code Switch. And she's out with a two-part series on her own journey to figure out what kind of descendent she wants to be. Thank you so much.

PARKER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF JEFFERY LITTLEJOHN SONG, "SOMERSET THEME (THE CHILDREN)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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