GUEST POST by Diana Roman – President, Our Black Ancestry Foundation

Roman Diana - Gravestone

“There, but for the grace of God, go I.” ~ John Bradford

My mother used to say that phrase all the time. In fact it’s engraved on her headstone. As an adult, I now realize she was trying to teach me about empathy.

Few people can empathize more with Ben Affleck than me. Why? Because I am descended from a family that is said to have owned the most slaves in American history. Over a 200 year period, my ancestors enslaved more than 10,000 people on 43 plantations in three states. I first discovered this family history about 10 years ago and remain in horrified awe of the size and scope of the family “business.” Am I responsible for their behavior? Not at all. But I am accountable to the legacy of what they did. I inherit their story and can either choose to ignore it or to use it to create something positive.

“Shame derives its power from being unspeakable.” ~ Brené Brown

Everyone is focused on shaming Ben Affleck for causing his story to be edited for PBS and later rationalizing his request by saying he was embarrassed for that part of his family history to be told. Even though it’s 2015, slavery is still “the big ugly” that most white folks don’t want to deal with. The bigger issue is: Why is the mere mention of slavery still so taboo and inflammatory? Is it really about slavery or is it about the current state of affairs for African Americans in our society today? Is it about the discussion we know we should have but don’t want to?

History lesson: Twelve million Africans were kidnapped from their home countries and sold into slavery via the transatlantic slave trade. Seven million were dispersed throughout the Caribbean; four million were sold to Brazil. Half a million were transported to America and two hundred thousand went to Europe. One begs the question, why does the country with the smaller statistic for culpability possess the worst state of race relations in the world more than 200 years after the slave trade was abolished and more than 150 years after its slaves were emancipated? It’s our national dysfunction to cast blame everywhere except on our own doorstep. Casting blame on others is so much easier than looking in the mirror and confronting the racial issues that exist in our nation today. My interpretation is that this is the dialogue we are all trying to avoid. Let’s not talk about fixing the legacy from slavery. It’s much easier to condemn the past and do nothing about today.

“If you numb the darkness, you numb the light.” ~ Brené Brown

When we avoid the dialogue we need to be having about race, we rob ourselves of the power of the cure we so desperately need. People, it’s time to talk about race in this country. In fact, it’s way past time. I get why Ben Affleck didn’t want to open that dark chamber. That’s why you typically don’t see people run towards a burning building — it’s logical to run away from danger. It’s a spontaneous act of self-preservation. But the fact is that there is still so much darkness about slavery and the racism it engendered in our society. In my mind, that conundrum beckons the thought that we should be about turning on the light.

“Vulnerability is essential to create something that never existed before.” ~ Brené Brown

The Chinese symbol for crisis is made up of two characters: “danger” and “opportunity.” Ben, you may think this episode is the worst PR event of your career, but I challenge you to see it as opportunity. You have the eyes and ears of the nation tuned in your direction. Use that spotlight to promote dialogue that addresses the state of affairs in the country we all so dearly love and help jump start the healing.

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles. The credit belongs to the man in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; Who at his worst if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly…” ~ Theodore Roosevelt

Ben Affleck, you are the man in the arena. I empathize with your fear, your shame, and your embarrassment. I get that, when you look at the potentially damaging PR nightmare, you see fear of all it could destroy that you’ve worked so hard to build. But I challenge you: Don’t let the fear of this dialogue rob you of the power to utilize this opportunity for healing and change. Dump your demons. Get past your embarrassment.

I’ll meet you in the middle… Let’s make a difference!

ROMAN Diana

Diana Roman is president of Our Black Ancestry Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to providing resources for African American genealogical research, preserving historic materials and properties, and promoting the healing of racial wounds. She has amassed a huge collection of materials related to the Hairston slaveholdings and can be contacted at DJRoman@OurBlackAncestry.com.

Pull Back the Covers

26 February 2015

Black History Month

Black History Month 2015 is almost over. As I do every year, I spent the past few weeks gorging myself on the glut of special programming on TV – feature films, documentaries, and other programs with African American themes. I glued myself to the television to watch a marathon of  “Many Rivers to Cross,” the Dr. Henry Louis Gates special on PBS that examined the history of African Americans from slavery through the election of President Barack Obama. I also watched the NAACP Image Awards, which recognizes films and programs that are largely ignored by institutions like the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

As a genealogist, I am steeped in history ALL the time…. every day… all year long. It is clear to me that history is a continuum; a confluence of historical events that inform the contemporary society in which we live. American history is indelibly marked by the experiences of African Americans, who were essential to building “the greatest country in the world.” I am appalled that that FACT continues to be ignored in every month BUT February. As my Uncle Louie used to say: “History is HIS-story” because the victor writes the books. The winners in the historic tableau rarely give voice to the victims of their inglorious achievements.

We are living in times when the wealth gap between black and white Americans is at incredible levels. Poverty rates for African Americans are 169 percent higher. Unemployment rates for black people between the ages of 16-24 exceeds 21 percent. African Americans are incarcerated at 10 times the rate for whites. Seventy-six unarmed black people were killed by police from 1999-2014.

How did this that happen? Aside from many other reasons — HISTORY stands out as #1. Why? Because America is built on a foundation of genocide and slavery that made certain people less than human, not entitled to respect, and certainly not deserving of more than 28 days of recognition.

Although black people have been in America since the 16th century, “it was not until the 20th century that they gained a respectable presence in the history books.” When Dr. Carter G. Woodson, the son of slaves who earned a doctorate at Harvard University, first promoted the creation of “Black History Week” in 1926, he was “disturbed to find in his studies that history books largely ignored the black American population — and when blacks did figure into the picture, it was generally in ways that reflected the inferior social position they were assigned at the time.”

At that time, there was SO MUCH we – African Americans — did not know (forget about the white people, who I think KNEW but didn’t want to TELL). The things we DID know were that black people were being segregated, terrorized and lynched. We were in the midst of a Great Migration that moved more than five million black people from the South of our enslavement to the “promised land” of the North.

As a black person, Black History Month holds meaning for me because it gives us (black people) a segregated period of time in which to FOCUS on the bridges that brought us over – the past that made us who we are. If I were a conscious white person, it would be even more important. I would WANT to know what my ancestors did that brought us to a place where the first African American president could so viciously maligned in spite of his historic successes as Americans (white) jumped from Selma to post racial… with no steps in between… a time when black people (especially children) could be shot down in the streets without censure of law.

This clip from 2014 by one of my favorite psychologists, Dr. Joy DeGruy, says it all. She wrote the foreword to my book (Gather at the Table) and has written/presented extensively about the legacy of slavery that inflicted us with “post traumatic slave syndrome.” As she says, the goal SHOULD BE to infuse the TRUE history of America into school curricula. Of course, we know the Texas State School Board (which de facto controls the content of school books for American children) will squash that idea. After all, they question Darwin’s theory of evolution, preach abstinence as the only acceptable form of birth control, and want slavery written out of text books

WATCH VIDEO

Dr. Joy DeGruy Speaks About Black History

Slave Cabin 2

 

Imagine an online community where we can search our ancestors…download, print and share historic documents… and collaborate in real-time with other researchers. That is the place Our Black Ancestry wants to build — a POWERHOUSE of genealogical discovery for African Americans.

Ever since we first went online in 2007 – we have hoped and prayed OBA would grow. Today, there are more than 20,000 people on our Facebook page and 8000 visitors a month to our website. It is clear that SO MANY of us are interested in discovering our roots, yet there is NOBODY serving that need in the way we hope to do.

It takes MONEY to make the OBA dream a reality and we ask that you contribute to that dream TODAY. Funds raised in this campaign will be used to pay hosting fees for our existing site and to retain a developer to build a more robust technology platform. Just imagine what a fabulous OBA home place we could build if EVERYONE in our network made a contribution!

Our fundraising campaign will be promoted through the month of February. If you have lots, give lots. If you don’t — give $25…. or $10…. even $5…. whatever your budget can afford.

Click to contribute — this link will take you to the OBA website where you will see a DONATE button in the lefthand navigation column: Our Black Ancestry

If you want to know more, we would be happy to answer any questions you might have. Email smorgan@ourblackancestry.com

Who’s in charge?

Sharon Morgan is a genealogist, writer and marketing communications professional whose ancestors were enslaved in Mississippi and Alabama. Her 30 years of research led her to create Our Black Ancestry to help others trace their family histories. It also led her to co-author a book: Gather at the Table: The Healing Journey of a Daughter of Slavery and a Son of the Slave Trade, which was published in 2012 by Beacon Press.

Diana Roman is a marketing and international business development professional. She is descended from the Hairston family, one of the largest slave owning families in American history. Their story is told in the book The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White. Historical family documents are presented on the website HairstonGenealogy.com, which is sponsored by Our Black Ancestry.

BACK ROADS

2 September 2014

Bettie WARFE/GAVIN

Every year, finances permitting, I head South for genealogical research. I pack up my Jeep with clothes, food, and emergency supplies. My handy GPS leads the way. It knows the back roads far better than I.

In the cache stored in the boot, I have a battery charger, folding shovel, collapsible bucket, and knee-high fireman’s boots. In the glove box, I store a hunter’s knife and ID that shows I own my vehicle and the contents therein. You never know what exigencies might exist on the road less traveled!

Rather than driving interstate highways, I stick to two-lane roads so I can take in the scenery and get a picture of what life might have been like in the communities in which my ancestors lived more than a hundred years before I was born.

This year, I was able to spend two weeks exploring the back roads of ancestral home places in rural Mississippi and Alabama. I hit courthouses and communities in Macon, Mississippi and Lowndes County, Alabama, with many detours along the way. It’s not like I haven’t been to these places before, but I am forever aware that there is always more to see… and feel…. and appreciate. This time, I registered more than 3,000 miles in my quest.

Along the way, there are few stop lights or petrol stations. The landscape is dominated by expansive fields of cotton and corn, interspersed with grazing cows. If my Jeep were to break down, who knows what the consequences might be? An out-of-the-blue summer storm rocked my car to the hinges. I wasn’t sure whether to abandon ship or keep on truckin’.

The entire scene is redolent of a life that an urban woman like me finds hard to comprehend. There are countless churches and, every now and then, I pass a sign reminding me that Jesus is love and hell is a just reward.

I returned from my adventure this year with a box of copies… documents that prove my heritage as a “daughter of slavery” – part of the subtitle of the book I wrote about healing from the egregious legacy from which 90 percent of African Americans descend.

As I culled documents in the Macon courthouse and at the archives in Jackson, my heart was rended by the visceral realization of the exigencies of the lives my ancestors lived.

I found a MS Supreme Court case where my ancestress, Bettie WARFE/GAVIN, was accused of operating a “bawdy house” and sentenced to jail. There was another case that disputed the land of Seborn GAVIN, who bought, after Emancipation, the plantation upon which he was enslaved by his very own father.

In one testimony (before the Mississippi Supreme Court), Bettie WARFE/GAVIN admitted that she didn’t even know how old she was:

Q         About how old are you Aunt Bettie?

A         I don’t know sir, how old I am. I was raised up by a white lady and was sold over here from Virginia. I don’t know how old I am, too old to be here.

She also explained:

Q         You were convicted of getting children by Bob Gavin?

A         Yes sir; he was my master. He bought me from his uncle and I couldn’t help it.

Q         Have you ever been convicted of any unlawful cohabitation?

A         I was convicted by getting children by my master.

My takeaway from  this  testimony, and many other documents I found, is that slavery was such an incredibly abominable institution, embraced by an entire nation, it astounds my mind. I am afraid of the possibility that we may never succeed in healing from its effects.

With these observations in mind, is it any wonder that young black boys like Trayvon Martin and  Michael Brown lay dead, victims of a “system” that views “children” like me as less than human?

Lifting the Veil

1 April 2014

Doing research to identify our enslaved ancestors is difficult and frustrating beyond belief. One reason is that many of the records we need to document their names are hidden inside the records of the families who enslaved them. I hope the blog reprinted below will inspire other who hold the keys to our past to lift the veil of secrecy.


 

Family Tree

The Importance of Sharing the Slave History from your Family Trees

About a month ago I joined a black ancestry group on Facebook. You may think this is an odd thing to do considering I am not black. I did it for a specific reason, to ask a question that had been plaguing me for a long time.  The following is the question that I finally asked about five days days ago.

“I have had this question rolling around in my head for several years but didn’t know who I could ask about it. I have been afraid it may offend people but I have read some posts on here so I feel comfortable asking. Let me preference it with this: Unfortunately, I have several slave owners in my family tree, some dating back into the late 1600s. I have some wills that give names and locations. Would it help others if we were able to list those names and locations on our trees so their family could find them? If this were possible what would be the correct way of doing this? Thank you in advance for your answers.”

I was hoping for a little direction or maybe a few ideas as to how to share this information in a way that would benefit those who would need it. I was overwhelmed with the numerous responses I received! Here are a few of them:

“Valerie Hughes, bless you for wanting to do this….and for overcoming your fear History IS what it IS, and we’re all in it, no matter how we got here. It’s highly refreshing to have come across you, and your willingness to share your information with those that can benefit. Hey, Black folks just wanna KNOW some stuff, and for those of us who do, MUCH THANKS to you.”

” I haven’t begun to find a slave master for my ancestors so I say list the information and thank you, Valerie Hughes for your forward thinking. “

“You are a blessing to so many looking for slave families. I wish ALL descendants of slaves would make the wills available. Thank you Valerie Hughes!!”

I was so incredibly humbled by the excitement and encouragement I received. I started thinking how can I help to pass this along so that others can also share what ‘slave owner/slave’ information that they may have?

A couple of the group members gave me websites so I could add the information I found on the wills, Estate Records and the 1850 U.S. Federal Census Slave Schedules that I had to them. I have submitted three family records so far and I will be adding more as I am able. Then I started thinking, what else could be done? Surely I am not the only one with this vital information. I know how I feel when I come upon a brick wall in my family and I also know how I feel when I am able to break through that wall and find the information I desperately needed. It is the best feeling in the world and I think everyone should have a chance at experiencing it. So here is what I can up with:

#1) As you go through your family trees or your documents take the time to copy any ‘slave owner/slave’ information that you find. This can include any oral histories you may have.

#2) Submit them to the appropriate websites.

#3) Tell others about doing this. Paying it forward is always a good thing!

#4) Contact Ancestry and Family Search and encourage them to develop a way of adding this information to our trees in a way that can be searchable.

I want to encourage everyone who reads this to take the time to do these things because in doing so we can enrich the lives of others who are also searching for their Family History!

 

Valerie HughesValerie Hughes is a professional genealogist, writer, photographer, wife, mother and grandma. She has written two books: Your Family History: Doing It Right The First and Planning Your Genealogy Research Trip — both of which are available on Amazon.com

 

Here is a link to her original blog post: http://genealogywithvalerie.wordpress.com/

Mama Rhody

4 January 2014

Rhoda REEVES LESLIE (1850-1954)

Rhoda REEVES LESLIE (1850-1954)

This is my great grandmother, Rhoda Reeves Leslie. Tall, copper colored and handsome, she is a woman whose dreams I shall never know.

If I could have ONE DAY with someone who’s gone, it would be a day with THIS woman — who must have been SO STRONG that slavery could not diminish her, the bearing of nine children could not weaken her, and memory could not erase her.

After her husband died in 1938, Rhoda came to live in Chicago at the behest of her two sons — my grandfather Robert and his brother Tommie Joe. At age 88, she left behind the small house on Ripley Street in Montgomery that defied the Confederate capitol a few blocks away and ventured to the “promised land” of the north.

When I was born in 1951, Mama Rhody was 101 years old. She had already lived a full century and my thoughts can only beg to imagine what her eyes might have seen. At three years old, all I remember is her impressive stature. At six feet tall, her commanding presence exuded power even as her silent ways exuded mystery and love.

Because I was a mere child, I never had the opportunity to really talk to her. I don’t know what abominations her eyes were vision to, what thoughts swirled in her mind, what memories she held what dreams to which she aspired. ‘

Knowing her is something I would sooooo like to do — especially because my family who knew her always said that I was her mirror. If I could meet Mama Rhody today, there are SO MANY impertinent questions I would ask!

My father (her grandson) told me she left slavery with her husband and mother from Lowndes County, Alabama.

One story, reported by my father, is that the white wife of Rhoda’s father, enraged at her husband’s bastard/slave child, threw baby Rhoda against a wall when she was about two years old. The assault threw her into into convulsions.

Who was the father? Who was his vicious wife? Where did it happen? What transpired after? 

She said she was “Indian” but nobody knows for sure if that is true. If she was, she would likely have been Choctaw.  

Did her mother travel on the “Trail of Tears”?

All I have to substantiate the Indian claim comes from my first cousin/sister Francine (another bastard child in a different generation) who lived with Mama Rhody when she was a little girl. She is totally convinced that Rhody’s claim was true, but all she remembers is that she saw her smoke cigars – lighted with great ceremony — and spit tobacco into a cup.

Does that an “Indian” make?

In my continuing quest to know, I have culled every memory I could from Rhoda’s surviving descendants:

Her children’s death certificates variously state that she was born in Louisiana, North Carolina or Tennessee. Her surname was alternately reported as Reeves, Jones and Tolliver.

First cousin/uncle Lonnie recalls her consuming a shot of whiskey and an aspirin every day. As a small boy, he was dispatched on a daily daily run to the general store to fetch her supplies.

My grandmother Dora (second wife of Rhody’s son, Robert) said Mama Rhody, characteristically quiet, was a force to be reckoned with. She recounted Rhoda standing up to her son’s abuse by telling him not to hurt Dora in the throes of a drunken, angry diatribe. 

It was not until I was an adult and became a serious genealogist that I made my pilgrimage to Lowndes County and Montgomery.

In Lowndes I found the most impoverished community in America, built atop the rich black dirt that made cotton king when Rhoda was in her prime.  The Black Panthers conducted their first voter registration drive here. When impassioned people marched from Selma to Montgomery, Lowndes County was where they pitched their tents and defied the local order. 

In Montgomery, I walked Ripley Street where Rhody’s demolished house once stood. In Oakwood Cemetery, the graveyard a few blocks distant, I thumbed through burial cards and found many relatives I did not know. Tom Leslie (Rhody’s husband/my great grandfather) and my father’s mother Julia Williams are buried in “Scott’s free burying ground” — a place reserved for po’ folks.

Ahhhhhhh, Mama Rhody…

Where did you come from? Who were your mother and father? Did you have brothers and sisters? What was slavery like? Is that baby name I found in Scott’s free burying ground your child? Who am I? Where do I belong?

These questions weigh on my mind because whomever you were is a large part of who I am.

May God bless and keep you as I continue trying to unravel the mystery of your life.

Miss You Much

26 December 2013

1957 - Mother

This is the time of year…. beyond any other… that I soooooooooooooooooooo miss my departed loved ones. Most especially, I miss my mother = Delores Marie NICHOLSON (1929-2005).

It is a truism to say that we have only ONE mother…. who occupies a unique and precious place in our hearts that no other person… in the world, ever… can fill.

Here you see her, looking pensive as she languishes in the glow of the “merry” Christmas tree on the sun porch of our family homestead on the Southside of Chicago. The baby doll whose face she covers was undoubtedly mine. The gifts too… as my sister had not yet been born.

What was she thinking? Could it have been contemplation of her own Christmases past? The music on the stereo (which was, surely, “Merry Christmas Baby” by Charles Brown — a rendition he played relentlessly from the day after Thanksgiving to the day after New Year’s)? The huge mistake she made in marrying him?

I can only imagine. I shall never know.

THIS is the way I will remember my mama … on Christmas Eve the year before she passed on…. Knowing that FOR ME, her indominitable spirit will ALWAYS be alive!

Delores -2005

 

And Still I Rise

19 December 2013

GUEST BLOG by Patricia Moncure Thomas

Women - Historical Faces

African American women have left an indelible imprint on America through centuries of arduous struggles to achieve self-determination, equality, and freedom from racial, class, and sexual exploitation — making a way out of no way. They have taken a stand for human beings regardless of color, culture, religion or gender, exhibiting without doubt that black women are neither morally or intellectually inferior. Their struggle continues today.

The African American woman was subjected to some of the most inhumane conditions man has ever known; conditions designed to strip all remnants of her African heritage and to reduce her to a status of subhuman. She became chattel property, not allowed to speak her native language, practice her native religion, nor legally marry or rear her children without interruption. White slave masters sought to reduce her to a sexual object and the breeder of their illegitimate children; children not treated as the masters’ sons and daughters, but as pieces of property.

The strong maternal instinct of black women survived the painful and repeated ripping away of children from their bosoms; to which Sojourner Truth gave eloquent voice: “I have borne 13 children and seen most of them sold into slavery and when I cried out with my mother grief, none but Jesus helped me.”

Slavery pressed the African American woman into servitude, but did not press today’s beautiful African American sisters into giving up. Rather, their struggles laid the foundation for true liberation. Out of the circumstances that forced our foremothers to work long hours as field hands, nursemaids, cooks, seamstresses, washerwomen, gardeners, nannies; African American women emerged as roles model of strength and compassion. Despite cruel treatment designed to break their spirit, black women remained strong, versatile, tireless mothers and laborers who forged their own identity, set their own pace, and established a precedence of leadership for women all over the world.

While a majority of the information in our history books speaks only to the slave era, there is so much more to the history of black women. They were writers, poets, nurses, ministers, abolitionists, soldiers, pioneers, builders, farmers — and the list goes on. All were not slaves; many were free. Although still treated as less than human,  African American women continued their sojourn for equality after slavery ended knowing that the battle was not over. And, to date, it is still not over.

Today we gladly learn more and more about the historical contributions of black women — their creativeness, resourcefulness, and past struggles. We celebrate their endurance and achievements that blazed a pathway for future generations.

In that awareness, I urge all to listen to the voices of our strong African American sisters. Listen to their voices rising in celebration of all black women.  Hear them in the spirit of poet Maya Angelou’s words: And Still I Rise… And Still I Rise.

Patricia Moncure ThomasPatricia Moncure Thomas is an educator and family historian who lives in Washington state. She has spent many years delving into the history of the Moncure family, which is related to two of America’s founding fathers — George Washington and George Mason. The first ever meeting of her black and white family in Fredericksburg, Virginia was featured in an Associated Press article and she wrote Moncure Place: Connecting Family & Friends. Ms.Thomas is a member of Coming to the Table, a group that focuses on healing from the legacy of slavery. Her family website is http://www.moncure.mysite.com/  

The Fear of No Return

15 November 2013

GUEST BLOG by Harold Lee Rush

 
Slave - Chains

 

When I read Sharon’s blog on 12 Years a Slave, it brought forth a rush of emotion that forced me to consider where I stand as a Black man today… in 2013…. When America is supposed to be a more enlightened and just society. My thoughts led me to a place where I can easily comprehend the path we have traveled; one that perpetually puts me in my “place” as a “boy” instead of a “man” – as “chained” rather than “free.”

Given those parameters, I have a special take on the movie (a depiction of the past) that (in current reality) could easily be ME. Solomon Northup, a “free man” became enslaved and endured soul wrenching experiences that left him traumatized.

It strikes me to my soul that the very same experience could easily happen to me – TODAY.

As with Northup, I could be innocently walking down the street, be picked up and cast into a system where my name is taken, I am held in chains, shipped far from home, forced to work, and never know when I might again be free. This could  happen (and often does).

I hope you will recognize by now that I’m speaking of the American criminal “just-us” system – one which relentlessly inflicts the onus of involuntary servitude – meted out to many Black men (especially) who may be “pronounced guilty” — based upon a conviction that bears little (if any) proof.

Just as Black men (and some women) were kidnapped and sold into slavery during Solomon Northrup’s time, Black people continue to experience a frighteningly similar fate, under a process that is euphemistically “colored” with the rule of law.

Modern day law enforcement protocol has its roots in the slave catchers and bounty hunters of the past who would swoop into town and grab any Black man moving. If you could not prove you were a free man, you were doomed. How did one prove they were free? As we saw in the film, Solomon Northup was stripped of his clothing and personal belongings. How in the world could he, when demanded, produce “papers” to prove his status? Even if he did, I can easily see the jailer tearing them to shreds.

Today, police can stop any and every one and inquire about their status. Mostly, they demand “Do you have any wants or warrants.” (Yes, I KNOW the procedure and the de rigueur stance of submission.) They will then run your name through “the system.”  If something pops up on their screen, you WILL be taken into custody. And that easily becomes an unbelievable journey into hell. It has happened to me and far too many other Black people – EVERY DAY.

Having a driver’s license or state ID, a social security card or even a passport means nothing in a police stop. There are no “papers” immediately at hand to certify that you are not wanted. It is in the hands of the slave catcher/police to determine if you are “clean” (read “free”).

I am Solomon Northup every day of my life. Every time I walk out my door, there is the possibility of not coming home. Just the simple act of going to see this incredibly real movie summons my fear of no return.

HAROLD LEE RUSH started tracing his family tree roughly 15 years ago. He was able to trace his mother’s side back four generations, but his father’s side only two. “When I first became aware of Sharon’s work and site, I discovered that I needed to redo my approach and have found tremendous help as well as encouragement from Our Black Ancestry. I have now been able to enlist the assistance of family who weren’t interested before. I have also had a DNA analysis done – found that I’m 72% African…very pleased with that!”

400 Years a Slave

9 November 2013

Scene from the film "12 Years a Slave"

Scene from the film “12 Years a Slave”

After weeks of anticipation, I finally saw the movie 12 Years a Slave.

In trying to unpack my thoughts, the one thing I do not want to do is review the film. Others will do that far more adeptly than I. Suffice it to say, the film was STUNNING — in every sense of the word, at all possible levels.

As an African American genealogist, I am more informed than most about the history of African American people and our subjugation to slavery in the Americas. From my personal family tree, I can name 12 ancestors whose humanity was violated. (And that is just the “top note” as I know there are others whose names will never be found.)

For the past 30+ years, I have been on a mission to bring their stories to light — not just for my own edification, but for public exposure. It was thus that I created Our Black Ancestry for the purpose of “empowering our future by honoring our past.”

Every name I learn, every document I uncover, every story I reveal … all of it constitutes a mere fragment in the worldwide complicity of economic aspiration that resulted in a heinous crime against  humanity. It is a crime that has never been fully addressed, punished or resolved. White Americans relegate this past to the fond digression of films like Gone with the Wind. African Americans often refuse to look back, perhaps in an attempt to control the antipathy that surely must reside within our wounded souls.

The powerful essence of the movie was that it encapsulated a visual depiction of the words I read in books and documents.

As I witnessed the unfolding story of Solomon Northup, I was mentally transported into a cotton field where my great grandparents toiled without relief in  Lowndes County, Alabama.

I lay in the bed of my great grandmother in Noxubee County, Mississippi as she succumbed to sexual objectification by the man who fathered her 17 children — thus being elevated over a 10 year span from “farmhand” to “housekeeper.”

I experienced the anguish of an inconsolable mother whose cries for her stolen children were so overwhelmingly rife with anguish, her fellow slave retorted that she “stop wailing.” She then endured further punishment by being sold away by an owner who refused to entertain the unconscionable pain he had caused.

As Northup was hung by the neck and left dangling in desperation, I envisioned my uncle who was lynched.

I shared the pathos of generations of people — my people — kidnapped, chained, whipped, crippled, violated and traumatized in every possible way. Slave masters reduced themselves and their prey to a level of barbarity that defies imagination, unleashing a vicious cycle of violence that informs our society unto this very day.  

I cannot fathom the cognitive dissonance of these men (and their consort wives) who did what they did and justified it with the word of a God I do not know.

In the end, as Northup climbed into the wagon of his rescuers, all he could do was gaze with sadness and longing at the ones he left behind. In the final analysis, it was they who were the most tragic of victims because their subjugation was never to be relieved. 

Sixty years removed from the only relative I knew in person who was enslaved — my father’s grandmother — I am limited to a vicarious awareness of what she and my other family members endured. There is no doubt in my mind… I would NOT have survived. Yet, I am grateful they did because, if not for them, I would not BE.

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