I met Andi Cumbo-Floyd by joining the online writing community she leads. She has helped me with my work and has taught me a great deal about making time for getting it done. I am very excited for you to get the opportunity to read her first novel, which comes out February 9, so I invited her to talk about it here today. Enjoy! And order her book!
- Tell us about Steele Secrets.
Steele Secrets is my new YA novel, and it tells the story of Mary Steele, a 15-year-old girl who finds herself unexplainedly in an abandoned cemetery. While she’s there, she meets the ghost of a slave named Moses and has to fend-off a bulldozer sent to destroy the cemetery. In the course of her fight to save the cemetery, she learns a great deal about her small mountain town, about her neighbors, and about herself. And not all of what she learns is good, and all of it challenges her sense of history and self.
- What prompted you to write it?
Over and over again, I have read about – and personally witnessed – the destruction of historic African American places, particularly slave cemeteries. As a country, we do not value these places as they should be valued, and so we let them be destroyed because of our apathy. Sometimes, we destroy them with malicious intent or because of shame. None of those reasons is acceptable. So Steele Secrets comes, in part, from that experience and is my way of working through why we don’t care to save these houses, cemeteries, and other historic sites as much as we do, say, a presidential mansion.
I also wrote this book because I wanted to investigate my own heritage – note, small spoiler ahead – as a woman who identifies as white but is a direct descendant of African Americans. I wanted to study my own thoughts and feelings about that identity, of which I am very proud but still unsure of how to wrap into myself fully.
Finally, I wrote Steele Secrets because at our 200-year-old farmhouse, I often feel the presence of a woman who was enslaved here. I call her by the name Judith, but I do not know her real name; it’s not recorded anywhere. So in these pages, I wanted to explore this idea of slave hauntings as beneficent gifts to us in the 21st century.
- Describe the research process that went into writing this story.
I actually didn’t do any particular research for this book, BUT I did draw on the research about slavery that I did for my previous book, The Slaves Have Names. I also used a lot of the knowledge I’ve gained as a member of the Central Virginia History Researchers, a group of professional and independent historians who have worked to save a local African American cemetery and who strive tirelessly to recover the stories of African Americans and their communities in our part of the world. Plus, I was able to draw from the work I’ve been honored to do with local historical societies; in fact, one of my characters – Shamila – is based loosely on my friend Elaine, who directs the Louisa County Historical Society.
- From which character did you learn the most?
What a great question! Without a doubt, Moses taught me the most. . . about what it might feel like to be enslaved, about what it is to forgive but not forget, about what family means. I don’t want to say too much more because I don’t want to give away too much of the book, but Moses was my favorite character. I fashioned him after Primus, a man who was enslaved at the plantation I call home.
- Which character frustrated you the most?
Oh, Mary, the protagonist. In many ways, she and I are alike, so her foibles and failings are much like my own. . . and so when she messes up, I get frustrated because I do the same things.
- After reading Steele Secrets, I wanted to know more about how burial grounds and other sacred historical spaces of slaves are treated in our culture. What resources would you suggest?
Another great question. The first resource I’d suggest is Lynn Rainville’s book Hidden Histories: African American Cemeteries in Virginia. The book is chock full of advice about finding old cemeteries, tips on preserving them, wisdom about how to understand the gravestone carvings, and an array of insight about historic preservation.
I’d also suggest that if you live in a place where there are plantations – i.e. most of the East Coast and all of the South – check with your local historical society. Ask them what places of import to African Americans are in danger. Talk to property owners and see what they know about burial sites, slave quarters, etc., are on their land.
But honestly, we simply don’t have enough resources going into this work. Every day, historic cemeteries are destroyed. Every day, houses and other buildings that relate to enslaved people and their descendants are torn down. So our best resource is ourselves – we can learn about these places and gather people to save them. . . we can take Mary’s lead.
Andi Cumbo-Floyd is a writer, editor, and farmer who – with her husband – runs God’s Whisper farm at the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains, where they have 4 dogs, 4 cats, 6 goats, and 23 chickens. Her books include The Slaves Have Names, Writing Day In and Day Out, God’s Whisper Manifesto, and the forthcoming Steele Secrets. You can learn more about her at andilit.com.