Book Review: Sleeping with the Ancestors

Sleeping with the Ancestors: How I followed the Footprints of Slavery. By Joseph McGill Jr. and Herb Frazier. New York: Hachette Books, 2023. Hardcover, 337 pp. $29.00.

Reviewed by Sarah Kay Bierle

There are some books to read slowly and thoughtfully, and this volume is one of them. A blending of historical accounts, personal experience, and evolving thought, Sleeping with the Ancestors chronicles Joseph McGill Jr.’s dedicated journey to remember the lives of enslaved individuals. His mission to raise awareness for preservation and accurate interpretation of slave dwellings has led to over-night experiences all across the nation and meaningful connections with support curators, caretakers, and historians, curious audiences, reflective descendants, and hostile people who were challeged to pause and think.

McGill’s idea of experiential research and remembrance started in 1999 and, by 2010, led to the founding of the Slave Dwelling Project, a non-profit focused on the preservation and interpretation of the cabins, rooms, and other locations where enslaved people lived or rested. His background as a USCT re-enactor, NPS ranger, and National Trust for Historic Preservation program officer uniquely equipped McGill for his meaningful sleep-overs. 

The book covers the highlights and key moments of McGill’s nearly-25 years of experiences. From plantations to urban centers, presidential mansions, colleges and universities, private property, state or national parks, north and south, his overnight stays have ranged from solitary moments to descendant reunions. His visits and stays have been to historic sites that have welcomed his mission, though at times tension swirled in the local communities—sometimes leading to transformative discussions. 

Throughout this narrative, McGill’s stories and Frazier’s writing make it clear that this is a personal, though far-reaching and influential, journey. McGill states several times in the text that he makes these nocturnal stays to honor the memory of enslaved people. He is not hunting for ghosts or seeking to hear from those long gone, but he feels a responsibility to draw awareness to these often forgotten stories and places from the past. 

Readers will find the text easy to read, but the subject is thought-provokingly deep and may lead some to read, pause, and read again. The narrative flows mostly sequentially through McGill’s experiences for the first half of the book, then may shift toward thematic chapter organization. Sometimes, it was not always clear what year a stay had taken place, but in these cases, similar stays were group together into a theme for stronger written interpretation. The style is reminiscent of Tony Horwitz with a blending of historical facts and personal narrative, but also brings a fresh depth to this style of writing with sober, reflective sentences capturing the darkness of the nights and the dark griefs of slavery. Readers who want to be challenged in their thinking about interpretation of slavery or enjoy a reflective travelogue will find this book particularly valuable. Similar, to other experiential history books, this will likely be a narrative that will enter the historiographical record for how the interpretation of slavery has been challenged and changed over the years.

Remembering his first stay, alone, in a slave cabin at Boone Hall Plantation, McGill related: “Being there alone with my thoughts, I began to understand how enslaved families felt when they were forced to live in these cabins. . . . I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to sleep, but I quickly drifted off. When the sun rose to burn away a misty morning, it also relieved me of a desire to again sleep alone in a slave cabin. I left that experience with the satisfaction that I stood up the challenge and braved the unknown as my tribute to the ancestors.” (20) He did sleep and stay in other cabins alone as the project evolved over the years, but this paragraph offers a framework for the rest of the book. Following the history and modern experiences. Pausing to be alone with thoughts, feelings, or emotions while reading this narrative. Hoping for a continuing sunrise in honest and reflective interpretation on the history of slavery and the stories of enslaved people.

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