"Almost as color defined vision itself, race shapes the cultural eye -- what we do and do not notice, the reach of empathy and the alignment of response. This subliminal force recommends care in choosing a point of view for a history grounded race."
Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954 - 63
Taylor Branch, 1988
Last week I had the opportunity to watch Faces of America, with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. on the local PBS television station. It is a fascinating program where Gates uses the latest tools of genealogy and genetics to explore the family histories of 12 renowned Americans. If you have the opportunity to check it out please do so. It is “off the hook.”
Inspired by Faces of America, and given the fact that February is African-American History Month, I thought that I would take this opportunity to reframe the typical African-American History Month conversation for just a moment. When we think about African-American history most often we focus on and celebrate the accomplishments of well-known African-American leaders in our history. Those individuals through their heroic efforts have had a significant impact on all our lives. While these individuals certainly deserve acclaim and accolades, so often we fail to recognize and pay homage to the everyday and ordinary people who sacrificed much for each of us to be here.
As I pondered how my ancestors have made a difference for me, I found it somewhat difficult to think about the lives of those that come before me, knowing the struggles that they endured were so much more difficult than the life that I lead today. I also had to think about the enduring legacies that African-Americans live with day-to-day. In so many ways, the legacy of slavery is still with us today.
As background, slavery for life was legal within the United States from 1654 until 1865. Twelve million Africans were shipped to the Americas
from the 16th to the 19th centuries. Of these, an estimated 645,000 were brought to the United States. The slave population in the United States had grown to four million by the 1860 Census.
Slavery was a brutal system throughout the United States, and it was particularly brutal in Mississippi where my people are from on my father's side of the family. According to David J. Libby in his book Slavery and Frontier Mississippi, 1720 – 1835, “Some Mississippi slaves resisted this grim oppression and rebelled by flight, work slowdowns, arson, and conspiracies. In 1835 a slave conspiracy in Madison County provoked such draconian response among local slave holders that planters throughout the state redoubled the iron locks on the system. Race relations in the state remained radicalized for many generations to follow.”
A few years ago, my son and I had the opportunity to travel to my family reunion in Jackson, Mississippi. This was a special family reunion for me and my son because it was the first time we had met many of the relatives on my father's side of the family. You see, I never knew my father, or anything about him growing up. It was not until I was 47 years old that I found my father and his family. This reunion was not only powerful because I met my father’s family for the first time; it was also transformational. It was there, for the first time, I really understood what it meant to be a descendent of slaves.
Being raised in Minnesota, I would hear my grandparents talk about slavery. I had read a quite a few books and taken courses on the "Peculiar Institution" of slavery, I had also watched Roots on TV with millions of other Americans in the 1980s, but I really only had an abstract view of slavery. It was somehow remote and distant from me. Slavery was part of my history, surely, but not a part of who I was in my day to day existence.
That was all about to change as we gathered on the bus that hot summer day in Jackson to be transported back in space and time to the small town of Bolton. As we drove the short way down the highway towards Bolton, the cotton fields stretched on as far as the eye could see. I thought of the struggles and the back breaking toil of human beings picking cotton. I thought about the generations of African-Americans who were owned as property by other human beings and had no rights or ability to make choices about their lives.
Bolton, like many other southern small-towns, was a sleepy little village of mostly African Americans who were friendly and polite and made you feel welcome. We stopped at a little church called Chapel Hill and we all piled out of the bus - over 100 of us of, all ages and generations. Once we were settled in the pews, my father walked up to the front of the altar and led us in prayer and then began to recite a few great stories from the Bible. My father is known for being a great storyteller and is invited to local churches throughout Mississippi to do so. It was certainly a real treat.
After he finished storytelling, he provided a historical reference about what this place of Bolton and the church we were sitting in represented to our family. He said that while this is a relatively new church, it on the foundation of the church that was here when he was a child and a sharecropper on this land. He talked about his father Daniel who was a local minister, sharecropper, community leader and street lawyer for many of the African American residents of Bolton and surrounding communities. He talked about my great-grandfather, who was a slave on the same land in Mississippi and his name was Papa (pronounced Pa-pay). He was known throughout the community as a good man. Sometime later, I asked my father what he meant by Papa been a good man. He said, “Papa was somebody that was known to help out the community in times of need, someone who would go out of his way for others and someone who would fight against injustice in the face of overwhelming odds.” My heart swelled with pride and emotion.
After we finished in the church we walked around the back of the church to a small cemetery where my ancestors are buried. Only a few had tombstones; most were marked by a tree or a rock. My dad or another relative would point to a spot and let us know who was buried there. My son and I wept along with all of my new relatives. Standing with the sun beating down on the cotton fields, in the cemetery where my people were slaves, I finally was able to connect the dots and understand the power and the sacrifice my ancestors made for me to be here today. I also understood on that day the significant debt that I owed to be worthy of this legacy.
I am the fourth generation of my family out of slavery. That history and that suffering is a part of who I am. It is not something that I want or need to forget and just move on, as some would suggest. It is something that drives me to ensure that all people, regardless of their race, culture, sexual orientation or religion, have equal access and opportunity in this country. It motivates me to ensure that the next generations of African-American children are better off than the present generation. It is a motivation that justice and equality matter as fundamental principle of human rights and dignity.
This African-American History Month let us honor those ordinary ancestors who did extraordinary things to ensure that each of us can make a difference for others. This is the great burden we carry regardless of our racial heritage for the next generation. Let each of us recognize that our ordinary acts can become extraordinary deeds.