PRAIRIE – Losing her mother when she was 7 and being raised by her grandmother, DiAnne Malone felt an early disconnect with family. Later in life, though, the Morehouse Parish, Louisiana native began researching her family history and has since been enamored with tracing it as far back as she can.
A vital part of that lineage took place in Monroe County at the Lenoir Plantation.
“I always felt this sense of non-belonging even though I had family. I just never felt connected to family, so my writing took on that theme. When I started doing the research with my family history, I realized that’s a direct connection,” said Malone, clarifying her father left her with her grandmother because he didn’t feel comfortable enough to raise two daughters on his own.
Malone’s fourth great-grandfather, Robbert, and his wife, Rebecca, worked at the Lenoir Plantation, and he’s believed to be one of the workers who helped build the antebellum home.
Last summer, Malone and her sister, Hope White, spent time touring the property and digging deeper into their roots through Mississippi State University’s special collections.
She has written one essay about her journey thus far, which was published online through the literary magazine, Atlas and Alice, and she is working on expanding it further.
“When I first moved to Memphis, my sister was going through some old projects she did in high school. She found some stuff and sent it to me in 2006. I got ahold of it and started going back as far as I could go,” she said.
She was working on completing her masters of fine arts at the University of Memphis at the time, so the research project was paused until more recently when she did research on Ancestery.com. She traced census records to find Robbert and discovered he lived near Aberdeen.
“Naturally, when slaves were freed, a lot of times they remained in the community where they worked and slaved. That’s when I began to take an interest in the Lenoir Plantation. That’s the only plantation really named Lenoir Plantation in that area,” she said, later adding her and her sister’s middle names are Lenoir.
Her writing and research
Malone teaches African-American studies at the University of Memphis part-time and is the full-time associate dean of student services and associate professor of English at Union University in Memphis.
When she first expanded on her writing as a student, she was coping with the loss of a child she adopted, and the emotion she put into it centered on that time in her life.
Rebecca Skloot, who wrote “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” was her thesis chair and was one of the influences who helped her develop her writing skills.
Ultimately, Malone hopes to compile a collection of essays about the Lenoir Plantation experience for publishing.
“Honestly, it wasn’t an emotional journey. People were asking if I cried or if I felt angry, and I never honestly ever felt that. I was amazed about these connections. Black people in America that are descendants of slaves rarely get to make these connections because there’s nothing there; everything is gone,” she said.
Through her writing, she is elaborating on gaps to make meaning of them and expanding on information she found in letters from the time. Additionally, she is interested in writing a novel.
“My DNA gives me possibly the area from which my family came on the continent of Africa. I have the highest percent in Benin/Togo, which for a little while was a slave trading nation, but then they decided they didn’t want to trade slaves anymore. The Dahomey people were the ones trading with them, so there was a lot of unrest in Benin between the Dahomey tribe and the Benin/Togo people because they wouldn’t trade anymore,” she said.
She wants the novel to follow the group of slaves from Africa to ultimately Prairie and detail the lives they lived.
Malone also wants to expand on some of the stories passed down through descendants of slaves from the Lenoir Plantation. Her writing has focused on the connection to her family alone directly rather than families who can trace their backgrounds back to the plantation.
“For Monroe County local history, I think it’s something really nice about seeing how an outsider views your history,” she said. “I go in with no expectations. I go in with no judgments. I go in with the data and I have the liberty to put the narrative behind the data any way I please. I know it’s not to offend; it’s just an observation as to how things come together.
“It’s not because I have a debt to pay or for revenge. As a Louisianian, my history belongs to you too, and your history belongs to me. I have no reason to be super angry or super regretful. I am not ashamed to be a descendant of slaves, and I think that freshness gives prospective to the story. This is an American story; it’s not just an African-American story.”