You never know when it’s going to happen, that moment when a memory or random event lines up the compartments of your life just enough to make you review them all from an entirely different angle.
I was putting postage on a long-promised letter when the date on the stamp set me off. It went like this: my commemorative emancipation stamp said FREE in big red letters (maybe you’ve seen them?); the date on it was 1863; my father turned 80 last year; my father is named after the great abolitionist, Frederick Douglass (2-s spelling and everything); dad’s dad was a senior, so they shared the same name; my paternal grandfather lived in the era of Frederick Douglass himself, all of which led me to this: Had my paternal grandfather been born into slavery?
I did the math for a quick minute and emailed my family, realizing later that my grandfather, while I’m sure he was an extraordinary man, he would have been past sixty at the time of my father’s conception. I never said numbers was my strong suit; the point is my paternal grandfather was very probably raised by people who had at some point been enslaved.
I’m the first one to tout the importance of diving into the messiness of living because that’s where the gold is. I’ve tried all the shortcuts, and this path is the last one left as far as I’m concerned. Even so, that doesn’t mean it’s always fun or comfortable. Feeling the mark of slavery so tangible in my family line, it seemed to explain some of the difficulty that marked our relationship—my dad’s and mine—throughout my life.
I wondered about great-grandparents I never knew—people who infused their progeny with the spirit of freedom fighters from birth. They knew the toll life in an unkind world would take and prepared them with the best they had. If I got nothing else from my dad, I’m sure I come by my fire and conviction—often disguised as hardheadedness—through his side. My brother Terry even takes to calling me Sojourner Truth when I give him unsolicited shit for things I think he should or shouldn’t be doing. Simmer down, Sojourner Truth, he’d say. Get off my back. We laugh because he’s right: when I’m on the hunt for results, I go in with tools.
Lots of American families like mine—black, white, and otherwise—don’t like to rifle through their histories, afraid of what they may or may not find. Who wants to be overwhelmed by the shame and anger of a violent, damming past you’re powerless to do anything about? How do you confront the fact of ancestors scattered and stolen from a world away? For my part, the short answers were, Not me and Damn if I know.
A few years out of college I began to inquire, timidly, about my family’s past, asking where our people come from, who was who, and how did we wind up here. The common response was to pass me off to another relative who would do the same until I ran low on passion for the cause and people to ask.
In the same way I inherited the color of my skin, eyes, and hair, and the shape of my body, I also carry the energy imprint of my family line. When the reality of my great grand ancestors hit home, I ran the gamut of rage, pain, pride, and bewilderment. At the same time I was typing out the email to my siblings, I witnessed the leader of the free world, who is both black and white, resting his hand on bibles of freedom fighters and ancestors Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. as he took the oath of office.
It’s moments like those that undo me. They’re messy, profound, everything at once. I’ve always been told we never do anything alone; that we stand on the shoulders of giants—those who have gone on before us. I used to cringe at the thought of teetering atop a quivering human pyramid of them, all waiting for me to do something big with my life, to make them proud, to honor their collective sacrifice by being somebody for the people.
The story of my father’s and grandfather’s name kept playing in my head as I imagined what their parents felt, gazing into those baby faces so open, full of life and promise. How must it have been for them, I wondered, to pass their freedom dreams on to their children, handing to them a transcendent, unbroken legacy of faith, resilience, strength and pride. I know in that moment they called in their ancestors to gather around them all, and they asked them to lend whatever energy was needed for every step they’d take toward freedom.
I never doubted those shoulders, though I often felt unworthy of them. I told myself I’d stand on what looked like my own two feet, grounded and happy to go it alone. Only, you can’t be fundamentally alone when you know you never really are.
I can almost make out that first mother whispering her dreams of life into the shining face of her sweet brown child. And that child would grow to one day whisper her dreams to hers and hers to hers and so on. And now here we are, each of us, the dream of our ancestors.
I think this legacy is what we each inherit: an omnipresent circle of love that great teachers say unites us through it all, bearing us up in good times and bad, lending strength that helps us shoulder the burdens we carry. It stands outside of time, race, gender and religious tradition. I think it’s the same love, no matter what name it takes, that keeps us fighting for the right reasons, whispering freedom to us still.
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