While searching the Library of Congress’ archives for documents that might connect “Negroes” to other Eastern people, I ran across several audios of former slaves, some of which I’d heard before. But it was the infinite number of images that made me feel like I’d missed out…
I thought of how, even, some black families maintain remnants of their history… Black and white photos of family members, records of Negro soldiers or activists who fought for our freedom, histories of women in their families who voted for the first time or of slaves who had overcome the seemingly intolerable conditions of slavery, then of “freedom”. But stories of triumph through education is not a part of my known history. Indeed, I and many like me have no access to such things that are privileges in our eyes.
There are no stories of triumph through education in my known history. No heritage or legacy that I can be proud of and guided by… No oral traditions about where we came from or what life was like immediately before we were slaves. I and most blacks lack these seemingly inconsequential things that tend to give those who have them a sense of identity and connection to our triumphant heritage.
In fact, my generation (I was born in the 1980s) is the first on both sides of my families to attend universities, earn degrees, and to have the opportunity to value education and
pass those values on to our descendants.
My history begins with my sharecropping grandparents only two generations ago as if we magically appeared within the last 100 years or so, and far less time on my mom’s side. For some, there is even less of a connection…
So, as I looked into the faces of slaves and newly freed people in the archived photos, I couldn’t help but wonder if we were related. Could these girls be my distant cousins or great-great aunts? Did this man know one of my grandfathers? Is this woman my relative? Perhaps this beautiful baby girl is my great-grandmother…
The voice of would-be strangers singing old Negro spirituals they heard in the cotton fields may as well be that of my own blood because my heart cries each time I hear it. The prayers of a slave asking for deliverance from his toils and slave driver brings me chills.
Source: U.S. Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/lomaxbib000023/
In all this, I am equally saddened and utterly proud. Saddened by our pain, proud of our perseverance. Yet, as the one black soldier discusses racism and a false American democracy in 1942, I realize he may as well be speaking of the present when he says, “I cite as examples of this the lynching in Sykestown, Missouri, the other day. The brutal shooting of several Negro soldiers in Alexandria, Louisiana, a couple weeks ago.” (Alexamder Green, 1942)
Why, after all that prior generations of Negroes endured, accomplished and fought for, are we still here… Perhaps in many ways, we are worse off as a people, having grown so far from our identity that we are handicapped by the mere question of rehabilitation and restoration. How do we regain our identity, recapture our courage, and take back control our good character?
It’s not that I want to dwell on the past or condemn blacks for our condition. Rather, I believe if we do not take responsibility for where we are, accepting once and for all that change is not the equivalent of advancement, real progress will continue to evade us.
I long for those generations of great courage and faith who stood for something meaningful and for whom a sense of identity and self-worth had not become so obscure that it sometimes seems to have been abolished with our own use of the words Negro and Negress. Negress, by the way, is what my French-speaking mulatto grandmother called her dark-skinned daughters and granddaughters as a term of endearment.
Can we manage to overcome adversity as did those before us or will we become even further removed from our true identity?
Perhaps we must be more specific and deliberate about what kind of change will change our condition for the better. Seeking “equality” seems not to work in our favor… That is we seek to change from being who we are at our core to be more like a people and culture that’s not our own. We deny our differences which when valued and nurtured makes us superior not inferior. Just think of all the areas in which we excel and are trendsetters, leaders, and innovators, despite being the minority.
We fought to get in public schools now we fight because their methods of educating us is often more disadvantageous to our kids than other ethnic groups… This was change but not necessarily progress. So, as we move forward into a new era of ‘wokeness’, consider this – change is not inherently good and being different or set-apart isn’t necessarily bad.
Until now, we have portrayed change as though it is inherently better, just, and good. Desegregation was change but so was not having strong educated black men and women as positive role models educating and mentoring our children. This, of course, placed us all at an even greater disadvantage – an all-out identity crisis. Suddenly we envied those who did lead us as teachers and believed those who devalued us, some by only being our authorities. Roland A. Barton’s request to abolish the use of the term Negro was fulfilled but as Dubois theorized our heritage was abolished with it… This too is change, not progress!
The only right we must absolutely obtain is the right to exist peaceably, freely deciding for ourselves who and what we are without fear of retaliation, condemnation, and oppression simply because we exist as we are. Call this equality of you’d like, but I call it true freedom. It is a freedom that others enjoy and that we also deserve. It is the ultimate human right!
In this, maybe just maybe, we find us and in doing so we find healing and restoration for our people and the for nations that suffer a similar fate and also for those nations that forsook us all even while forfeiting their own humanity.
Green, Alexander (1942) “Dear Mr. President”, New York, New York, January or February 1942. https://www.loc.gov/item/afc1942003_sr13