Bridgett Town: Perceived Spaces
In 2015, a man who goes by the name BisFitty, stepped over the line that Trouillot describes as being “between what happened and what was said to have happened.”2 BisFitty explained, “I had to attend a ‘corporate retreat’ this weekend, that happened to take place on a southern plantation in Alabama. There was a ‘period appropriate’ costume ball scheduled for the end of the trip, but they apparently forgot about me, their lone black employee.”3 Recognizing that “There aren't many options for someone like me,”4 he arrived at the event dressed in the garb of an enslaved field worker, much to the chagrin of organizers, who had promoted the “fun” of the costumed affair.5 As Smith discussed in relation to his visit to the African burial ground discovered in New York City, there are many ways to forget, “streets were paved, buildings were erected, and the burial ground was largely erased from public memory.”6 BisFitty’s employer saw the opulence of the building and the beauty of the dresses, and that concealed the memory of the human bondage that was central to that world. The rough parts of memory are worn off as it is burnished into the more pleasant version of nostalgia, so polished that people can only see their own reflection in it and not the dark stone underneath.
The community of Bridgett Town has largely been omitted from the conceptual collective memory of Prince William County, with the exception of the remaining black residents of that area. Yet, the demand by the dominant culture that the history of the area be preserved is regularly evoked in political deliberations regarding the future of land use in that portion of the county, which speaks to Gainesville as a Perceived Space. As Lafabvre notes, “[Space] persists in being through its own strength. What disappears is history, which is transformed from action to memory, from production to contemplation.”7 This transformation is the breeding ground for Hostile Nostalgia as the self-interest of the now majority white community for maintaining the status quo becomes a systematic barrier between the conception of the past and the interrogation of that same past. The view that western Prince William County has a shared history of safety, peace, and community acts as a buttress for the status quo and belies the history that included the belittling of African American communities as “Our Colored Friends,”8 the exclusion of black narratives from the archive, and the demographic shift in Gainesville during the urban exodus to the suburbs.
A 2013-2014 study of the Rural Crescent commissioned by the Prince William County Board of Supervisors found that preserving the county’s history was one of residents’ top priorities. The collected survey comments contained phrases about how they “appreciate the history and tranquility of the area”9 and “love the beauty and the history.”10 A citizen who had only lived in the area for six years insisted, “[T]here's no doubt the people here feel a great deal of pride in their community, a deep connection to the area from their families' history, and a profound fear that might result in everything being taken away - a fear they vocalize but not always articulately.”11 The race of the commenters was not noted, but with the extreme white majority in the area, it is statistically likely that many of these comments were written by white residents. The fact that the history was not fully represented was not brought up as one commenter wrote, “[I]t is quiet, away from the hullabaloo…LEAVE HISTORY ALONE.”12 There are two things remarkable about the commenters: there is no encouragement to interrogate the history of the area beyond their understanding, and the history is universally connected to the peace of the environment.
One commenter to the study wrote, “It is history and it has served generations of people who do not think of taking someone else’s property for the sake of trying to make it better for others who don’t even live there.”13 However, as was previously presented, Howard Lansdowne explained that black landowners regularly lost their property as it languished in probate court if the owner died without a will. Another example of selective memory is a comment that states, “Prince William is steeped in history - The Battle of Manassas and the Civil War need to be Protected.”14 There were several messages that discussed the important landmarks of the Civil War located in the western part of the county, but those comments were not elaborated upon to clarify if their desire for this type of preservation was in regard to the freedom in solidified for enslaved people or the mythology of the Lost Cause.
Both of these examples exemplify the end result of Hostile Nostalgia. The commenters are confident in their belief that their understanding of history should be preserved by maintaining the status quo, thereby ending the interrogation of that same history. The belief is there is one history; it has been discovered, and it should be preserved. The fact that this argument maintains the current power dynamic in the area generally goes without comment. Their belief system is the constructed barrier placed between public memory and idealized nostalgia. A comment like, “The people who live in the Rural Crescent chose that lifestyle when they invested in our community and I think we should try to preserve it for as long as possible,”15 does not question who “the people” are, how they came to own their land, or why their “lifestyle” deserves to be preserved because it does not acknowledge the hidden history of the people who built communities such as Bridgett Town, how they lost their land, or why their legacy is at tremendous risk of being erased.
The barriers between the Perceived Space surrounding Bridgett Town and the Lived Space that existed in the past can be seen in comments made against changes to the area: “[I]t it will end up like the 2 crappy cities Manassas & Woodbridge. Riddled with illegals, crime & trash. Can't trust anyone in either of those places. Not a great environment for kids in my opinion.”16 and “It [the eastern part of the county] is slowly creeping toward us. Crimes are not a problem - our neighbors and I police our road.”17 The connection between the racial divergences of the two types of places listed appears to be absent from this type of residential analysis. The conception of the majority white space of Gainesville as clean, safe, and virtuous in comparison to the undesirable aspects of the eastern portion of the county, which is much more racially diverse, was echoed five years later when the county conducted a similar study, and several commenters equated changes that would open up the Rural Crescent to additional land owners to a loss of public safety.18 These comparisons speak to the conception of who belongs and who deserves the quiet and safety of the Rural Crescent. As McKitterick points out, “The complexity of these geographies is found in the ways they reveal how ideas—black and nonblack— get turned into lived and imaginary spaces that are tied to geographic organization.”19
The descendants of Bridgett Town share the concerns of their neighbors regarding the loss of character should the area be developed, but their concerns are for the loss of their family’s connection to a place that stretches back generations. However, the Perceived Space of memory does not contain a monolithic African American recollection. Esther Washington, Dorothy Beale and Howard Lansdowne, all at one point residents of the community once known as Bridgett Town, are of different opinions about the past.
Perceived Space is the foundation of Hostile Nostalgia. It is the imaginary version of a place that all too often is represented as the accepted version of history by the dominant culture. The device for overcoming the conceptual barriers constructed by Hostile Nostalgia is the examination of the genesis of those barriers. This type of scrutiny will often trigger defensiveness without acknowledging the reaction as a barrier protecting the nostalgic view. Groups like the Coalition to Protect Prince William County, which advocates for the maintenance of the Rural Crescent, maintain there are “no racial undertones” in the current policy because there are less expensive homes available on smaller lots.20 The claim that race is not an issue because there are less expensive options relies on the trope that economic hardship and race are synonymous, a point Dr. Farmer is quick to dispute.
Just because residents are black does not mean that they are poor.
The belief that the land use policies of the Rural Crescent should be maintained is not inherently racially based. Dorothy Beale expressed her desire for the county to continue to preserve the open spaces of western Prince William County. However, the white majority’s’ failure to address the racial implications of invoking the past or the demographic realities of the present strengthens an intellectual barrier between honest debate and fallacious beliefs that undergird Hostile Nostalgia.
by Kristina Nohe
3 BisFitty, “I Am BisFitty, the ‘Period Appropriate’ Corporate Costume Party Slave... AMAA,” Reddit, November 2, 2015, https://www.reddit.com/r/AMA/comments/3r7oeh/i_am_bisfitty_the_period_appropriate_corporate/.
4 BisFitty, “As Requested: The Complete Saga of BisFitty, the ‘Period Appropriate’ Corporate Halloween Party Slave.,” Reddit, November 1, 2015, https://www.reddit.com/r/funny/comments/3r4h8d/as_requested_the_complete_saga_of_bisfitty_the/?onetap_auto=true.bis
5 Yolanda Baruch, “Black Employee Attends Company Plantation Party Dressed As Enslaved Person,” Black Enterprise, August 4, 2022, https://www.blackenterprise.com/black-employee-attends-company-plantation-party-dressed-as-enslaved-person/.
8 “News of Our Colored Friends (Waterfall),” Manassas Journal, August 10, 1939, https://virginiachronicle.com/?a=d&d=MO19390810.1.2&srpos=23&e=-12-1913---1940--en-20-MO-21-byDA-txt-txIN-%22Waterfall+colored%22~20-------.
9 Environmental Resources Management, “Prince William County Rural Preservation Study Report” (Prince William County Planning Office, May 2014), 15, https://eservice.pwcgov.org/planning/documents/PWC%20Rural%20Study%20Final%20Report%20-%20July%202014.pdf.20 Daniel Berti, “In the ‘Rural Crescent’ Debate, Some See Conservation, Others See Exclusion,” Prince William Times, February 18, 2021, https://www.princewilliamtimes.com/news/in-the-rural-crescent-debate-some-see-conservation-others-see-exclusion/article_e203729a-7217-11eb-b00b-bb600d8796bf.html.