Andi Cumbo-Floyd addresses racism through YA historical fiction

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Andi Cumbo-Floyd will read from her book, Charlotte and the Twelve, at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center on December 16. Courtesy of the artist Andi Cumbo-Floyd will read from her book, Charlotte and the Twelve, at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center on December 16. Courtesy of the artist

Local author and historian Andi Cumbo-Floyd came of age on the Bremo Plantations in Fluvanna County. In central Virginia, “there are plantations everywhere, but we don’t call them that,” says Cumbo-Floyd. “We call them farms or estates.” While she knew “people had been enslaved there,” she says she “didn’t really have an awareness of what that meant.” A college course on Native American cultures opened her eyes. “Suddenly I was aware I had not learned a lot about American history,” she says.

Eager to know more, Cumbo-Floyd took a summer job as an assistant for an anthropologist researching the medical conditions of enslaved people, which allowed her access to UVA’s vast collection of the Cocke family papers—the same Cocke family that established Bremo Plantations in 1808. “It started me on the road,” Cumbo-Floyd says.

Andi Cumbo-Floyd book reading
December 16
Jefferson School African American  Heritage Center

On this path, her curiosity intertwined with her love of the written word. She went on to study writing and to teach composition, but when her mother’s health declined, Cumbo-Floyd returned to Bremo Plantations to care for her.

After her mother passed away, Cumbo-Floyd’s father made her a generous offer. She could live with him, all expenses paid, for one year and write a book. “I was able to live at a place where people were enslaved, research at UVA and walk the land where they had been,” Cumbo-Floyd says.

Her father had been the manager of the land for more than 20 years by that point, and he was able to point out its history, such as where the slave quarters had been. Cumbo-Floyd spent her year there getting reacquainted with the physical space, learning the history and healing from the loss of her mother.

The result was a work of creative nonfiction, The Slaves Have Names: Ancestors of My Home, published in 2013. But Cumbo-Floyd learned in the process of writing it, “There are real limits to [creative nonfiction] in writing the history of enslaved people. There’s not a lot of data.”

For this reason, she turned next to historical fiction, and also to a young adult readership. The exploration of Bremo Plantations as a teenager manifested as a (thus far) two-part young adult fiction series called The Steele Secrets, which centers on protagonist Mary Steele, who has the supernatural ability to materialize in unexpected places and to see ghosts.

In the first book, which was published in 2015 and shares the series title, Mary finds herself in a cemetery where she uncovers the hidden history of her town. In the second book, Charlotte and the Twelve, published last year, Mary materializes at a Rosenwald School—historically significant schools constructed for African-American children in the South from 1917 to 1932 as part of a collaboration between Booker T. Washington and Julius Rosenwald, president of Sears, Roebuck and Company. In the story, Mary meets the ghost of a teacher named Charlotte, as well as her 12 deceased students, and learns they were murdered. “It turns out it was a racially related crime that has present-day ramifications in 2017, when the book is set,” Cumbo-Floyd says.

Her book’s relevance to current discussions about history and racism in Charlottesville isn’t lost on Cumbo-Floyd. She still hasn’t processed the white supremacist rallies and violence of the summer, but, she says, “In relation to my work it just reminds me that…as hard as it is to write these stories, it’s really important.” Further, says Cumbo-Floyd, “I’m privileged to be able to write these stories through my education and my white skin. I want to be sure I honor that and do it justice.”

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