Fight Racism in Charlottesville: Support the Vinegar Hill Monument

Fight Racism in Charlottesville: Support the Vinegar Hill Monument

The Community of Vinegar Hill before it was razed.

As you may have heard, white nationalists took to the streets of Charlottesville again on Saturday night.  They chanted their racist, anti-Semitic words. They vowed to be back.

I have no doubt they will.  They have chosen our city as their place to take a stand, and now, we must all do all we can to fight their hate.

If you’d like to do something measurable and long-lasting, if you’d like to challenge the privilege rhetoric that seems to speak of Charlottesville as a bastion of tolerance and inclusion, if you’d like to be a part of the way art makes change, gives hope, and teaches, please consider making a donation to the Vinegar Hill Monument fund.

This monument will commemorate Vinegar Hill,

a neighborhood that no longer exists. It was an African American neighborhood full of African American owned homes and businesses just west of the Downtown Mall in Charlottesville, VA that was razed to the ground by the City of Charlottesville in 1964.

The sculpture will stand outside the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, a place that has been historically black and continues to be so.  When I talked with Jefferson School director Andrea Douglass, she told me that the monument would not be something to revere but something to experience.  “People can walk inside it and be a part of it. They can live within it.”

In this time when so many people are protecting monuments to our nation’s racist past, here’s a powerful, meaningful way to remember a community that was a victim of that racism. Your donations will help make this monument a reality, and they are much needed since public funding has been voted down by the city.  Every dollar helps.

Thanks for considering a donation.

To learn more and donate, please visit this page – https://www.gofundme.com/vinegar-hill-monument.  

A Word to White Plantation Owners

A Word to White Plantation Owners

Photo by Vanessa von Wieding on Unsplash

Over the years, I have done research on the enslaved communities at a number of plantations here in Central Virginia.  Sometimes, I am hired by the people who own the plantation to do the research; sometimes, I do it on my own.

In every case, my hope is the same – that the owners of the plantations, who are almost always white because of historically-based inequities – will make the information I find available to the public so that the people descended from these communities can find their ancestors.

Sometimes, It’s Great; Sometimes, It’s Heart-Breaking

Most of the time, the owners are quite happy to oblige, eager to know the descendants, aware of the way these relationships to the community of African American people who built their homes come with responsibility.  Often, the descendant communities become involved in the way their ancestors are remembered in that place. Often, they become as connected to that place as they want to be.

Often, but not always.  Sometimes, the white owners become too focused on their own desires, on their own gains for being “the good white person” who does the ancestors and the descendants the favor of remembering them.  Sometimes, white owners become overcome by their own shame or the fear that they will be asked for financial reparation that they shut down the access to the places that African American people created for them.  Sometimes, white owners act as if these people – the ones who literally built the place, who lived on it for generations, who also view it as home, hard as that may be – have no right to the place.  It breaks my heart.

My Strong but Kind Word for White Plantation Owners

You will only be enriched by connecting with the black people who built the places you love. You will find people who love these places, too – differently than you do but just as strongly. You will find stories about your home places that help you understand and appreciate them more. You will make friends. You will understand history. You will know – first-hand and real – the way history has been unfair and unkind to people of color, and you will be better people for that.

I’m not saying this is easy – not suggesting that at all. It will take a humility that has not yet been required of you in this life. It will require that you take ownership of the privilege you inhabit because of your skin color and because of this place you own. It will require that you acknowledge racism as real and systemic and meritocracy as a myth perpetuated by elite, white people. It will not be easy, but it will be so worth it. 

A Few First Steps if You Own a Place where People Were Enslaved

So if you own a historic home where people were enslaved, do research about the people who were enslaved there. Here a few first steps:

  • Contact your local historical society and see what they know about enslaved communities in your area.
  • Visit sites like Our Black Ancestry to see if anyone is looking for the owners who enslaved their ancestors.
  • Share anything you know about the history of your place and the people who owned it before 1865 as publicly as you can. (You are welcome to use this space for that work if you’d like)
  • Invite the descendants of the enslaved community to your place and let them walk the land of their ancestors. You’ll find them – as I always have – to be gracious and respectful of your privacy.

Imagine what it would mean to ALL of us if we had these stories, these lineages, these places in common. Imagine if we weren’t afraid. Imagine we shared our history truthfully and fearlessly.  Oh, imagine, friends, the road we could walk together.

If you’ve worked with plantations owners to learn more about your ancestors, what has your experience been like? Or if you are a white plantation owners, what are your experiences or fears or hesitations about connecting with the descendants of enslaved people?  

Can We Listen? A Challenge and a Book Giveaway

Can We Listen? A Challenge and a Book Giveaway

Photo by Farrel Nobel on Unsplash

The other night, I watched Oprah lead a discussion with Trump supporters and Trump detractors. I sat with hope, wanting – truly – to understand how people could have voted for and then still support the current president.  I didn’t hear anything that helped me understand because, well, because everyone there was so angry, so settled into the seats of their opinions (much as I am in mine) that it was just a shouting match.  I couldn’t finish watching – it was just too agitating for me. Maybe they came to some place of understanding by the end? I pray.

I’m seeing that same dynamic play out all over social media these days – as people, again me included – are steeped in arguments about Colin Kaepernick’s protest about police violence about black and brown bodies. Somehow, here, the flag and the national anthem have become the focus, as has patriotism and respect, and I’m seeing a whole lot of vitriol about honoring our nation . . . and very little about honoring all our nation’s citizens.  (There, see, there’s my perspective.) But more, I’m just seeing fighting.  So much fighting . . .

And we need to fight. We need to disagree. We need to discuss.  I just wish we would speak more on the discussion end of things.

But more and more, I think we’re settling into enclaves of belief, unfriending people who disagree with us, publicly shaming those who don’t take action the way we think they should, dismissing other human beings because of their perspectives and, yes, still because of their skin color.  My heart breaks over this because I know that the more we segregate ourselves, the more our divides will grow.

You’d think we’d learned this from our entire national history, but, alas, we haven’t. We have forgotten – perhaps deliberately – that healing and unity come from knowing one another in a real, daily kind of way. When we see our neighbor hanging his laundry on the line or watch the woman down the street walk her children home, when we are more focused on helping the family whose house has just burned down than we are about who voted for whom . . . that’s how we become allies and then friends.

One of my goals for the rest of this year and into the next is to really listen, at least once a day, to someone whose perspective on the world is different than mine – either through nationality, through ethnicity, through political affiliation, through gender, through sexual orientation, through the ability of their bodies.  I want to listen, to try to understand, and to let their perspective change mine.

I’d like to invite you to do that with me, not because we are wrong – I certainly think I’m right; if I didn’t, I’d change my mine – but because healing only comes through knowing one another. I truly believe that.  (And also, we may be wrong.)

To encourage us in this small journey of healing, I’m giving away two copies of a wonderful book called Gather at the Table: The Healing Journey of a Daughter of Slavery and a Son of the Slave Trade by my dear friends Sharon Leslie Morgan and Thomas Norman DeWolf. The book tells the story of their literal and figurative journey to find out about their families and to look honestly at the history that harmed both of them.  Sharon and Tom are each giving away one copy, so if you’d to be entered to win, please leave a comment below and tell me how you will attempt to listen to someone who is different than you in the coming two weeks.  I will select the winners using a random number generator on Friday, October 6th.

Or if you’d like to buy a copy of Sharon and Tom’s book from their publisher, Beacon Press, the Press will give 10% of the proceeds to the powerful anti-racism organization, Coming to the Table.

This isn’t easy work, friends, but surely none of us want us to divide so strongly into factions that we never hear one another and never heal ourselves.

Relentless in Love: The Amazing Women who do African American Genealogy

Relentless in Love: The Women of African American Genealogy

Photo by Olayinka Babalola on Unsplash

The further I go into the world of African American genealogy, the more I realize how much we owe to the women who have kept our families alive and strong and to the women who have searched tirelessly to tell those stories.

Today, I want to pay tribute to these relentless genealogists who dig and miss sleep and share information, all without account for themselves.  These women have taught me much about research but also about perseverance and fortitude.  They are, in every way, walking in the steps of our foremothers.

Shelley Murphy Shelley was the first person I met who did genealogy as the heartbeat of her life. I attended a session she taught at our local library about using unusual record types to find information, and her insights helped me find a great deal of information about the people enslaved at the Bremo Plantations. She is kind, tireless, and dedicated.

Angela Walton-Raji – Through Shelley, I had the honor of meeting Angela Walton-Raji, a genealogist who specializes in African American and Native American genealogy and who has a VAST knowledge of the Freedmen’s Bureau.  I attended a session that Angela taught about using Freedmen’s Bureau records and felt like a whole new avenue of research was now available to me.

Toni Carrier – Toni Carrier is a specialist in the Lowcountry of the U.S., and she is part of the brand-new Center for Family History at the International African American Museum.  Toni’s continuous posting of new resources, relevant articles, and important research about African American history and genealogy on social media make her one of my most-often-cited sources of information about our folks.

Bernice Bennett – Bernice has an amazing podcast about African American history and genealogy called Research at the National Archives and Beyond. I have had the honor of being on Bernice’s show twice, and she is an insightful interviewer, a thoughtful researcher, and a truly kind person.  Her podcast is one I never want to miss.

Stacey Adger – Stacey and I met because our genealogical research intersected. She thought that, perhaps, one of her ancestors was enslaved at Bremo, and so she came from Ohio to Virginia to visit. We haven’t found that connection to be there – yet – but we have remained dear friends. Stacey is a trustee of the Ohio Genealogical Society, and she co-coordinates the Ohio Genealogical Society conference, which is a stellar event.

Cinder Stanton – Cinder is the most humble, most generous historian I know. She helped form the Getting Word Project at Monticello, and that project has successfully located the identities, family lines, and descendants of many of the people enslaved at that presidential plantation. She leads the Central Virginia History Researchers and continues to tirelessly research and share what she finds about African American people in the Central Virginia area.

Hannah Scruggs – I have known Hannah for all of her life, literally, and she always impresses me with her passion, her fervor, and her willingness to stay in struggle when necessary to find the truth. She is coordinating the descendants’ project at Montpelier, and she is, by far, my favorite person to talk with about the intersections of justice/injustice and history.

Niya Bates – Niya is the public historian of slavery and African American life at Monticello, and she is a fierce fighter for historic and current-day justice.  She has a background in historic preservation, and so her knowledge of how landscapes and people interacted is rich and deep. Plus, she’s just a generous, vibrant person.

True Lewis – True is one of those women who always has a kind word or a tip to help, and she never seems pushy or aggressive in her advice. She is a wise researcher and a good ally in this work.  She and I share stories of our ties to Harrisburg, PA quite often.

Jane Smith – Jane is my best resource for all things Charlottesville, Virginia history, and since we know all genealogy roads lead through Virginia, she is just a superb resource in general. She’s kind and generous with her work, which she does out of love and commitment to her city and the African American people who were foundational to it.

 

These women carry on the long, heavy tradition of our foremothers with grace, with resolve, and with ingenuity, and it is because of them that we know so much about our ancestors.  If you don’t know their work, please get to know it. You won’t be sorry.

I know I missed important women who do African American genealogy in this list, so please inform me by sharing their names and links to their work in the comments below.  

 

A Brand New Resource for African American Genealogy

https://cfh.iaamuseum.org/santee-cooper-relocation-project/

If you work around the African American genealogy world, you are going to want to know about the International African American Museum Center for Family Research. Really, bookmark that link now.

As they say on their website, they are a “one of a kind research center with a focus on African American genealogy.” As part of the International African American Museum that is slated to open in 2020, they provide stellar resources on African American genealogy including online versions of everything from marriage records to death certificates to collections of photographs that are related to African American individuals and communities.

Since I was just in Santee, SC this weekend, one of my favorite resources is the Santee-Cooper Relocation Collection gallery of photographs. The pictures are haunting, and the information about that moment in history is rich and very readable, even online. I continue to be amazed and appalled at the way African American people’s lives have been forcably uprooted or literally buried and drowned for the sake of “progress.”

The site also contains an incredible Learning Library that includes tutorials on everything from getting started in genealogy to understanding the basics of DNA and genealogy.  They also have a blog where they feature certain types of resources, talk about common mistakes genealogists make, and highlight their research collections.

It’s worth just taking a look to see the amazing photos they feature as the headings of each site – powerful images!

So if you are looking for a fresh space to find new rabbit trails for your genealogical escapades or if you feel like you’ve exhausted all the avenues available to you for this work, here’s a new path to follow as far as you can. And goodness knows, we need as many paths as possible to get back to the history so many of us have lost.

Happy Researching!

Food Is Love by Sharon Leslie Morgan

Food Is Love

(Originally published on Michael Twitty’s Cooking Gene Memories (22 November 2016) http://thecookinggene.com/memories-page/)

When I was growing up in Chicago, the kitchen of our Southside apartment was the center of my universe. Not only was food cooked there, it was a place of existential meaning. It was where corn was shucked, drinks were poured, peas were shelled, homework was done, tears were shed and laughter peeled. It was the source of Thanksgiving dinner, issuing forth its bounty in innumerable serving dishes, hot from the stove, onto the table in the dining room – the next room over.

The kitchen table could just as easily be used to hold and serve food as to host a card game. It provided a roof under which I and my cousins would play around the feet of ever present guests. On hot summer nights, it was the room we passed through to get to the back porch, where my grandfather, Paw Paw, would sleep on a cot under a navy-blue velvet sky. On cold winter nights, it was a place entered through a heavy curtain that kept the cold air in the rest of the apartment out while we sat around the open oven door, rubbing our hands to keep warm. When we were sick, it was the location of my grandmother’s (Maw Maw) rocking chair, in which she rocked us well after rubbing us down with Vick’s vapo rub, eucalyptus oil, or turpentine, depending on the ailment.

Food Is Love by Sharon Leslie Morgan

No one person taught me to cook and a veritable army of people have added to my repertoire over the years. Like a sponge, I sucked up lessons as a child from both of my parents, three grandparents, aunts, uncles and older cousins. My grandfather taught me how to fry red snapper a la Mississippian. My grandmother contributed chicken and dumplins’, informed by her roots as a farm girl in Illinois. My other grandmother taught me the Italian spaghetti of her parent’s home country. My father taught me to make gravy. My mother taught me Louisiana Creole gumbo, which she learned as a 15-year-old bride in New Orleans. My aunt June taught me to make some mean barbecued pig feet. Through the years, I have trekked all over the world, enjoying the comraderie of friends’ kitchens in the Caribbean, Africa and Europe. I learned to fry escovitch fish in Jamaica; create shark and bake sandwiches in Tobago; sacrifice, skin, and cook every inch of a sheep in South Africa, and prepare bitter leaf greens with bush meat in Cameroun.

There is no one recipe I can point to as definitive. My overall food concept is one of “pan-African cuisine.” I believe from experience that all people of African descent eat pretty much the same things, cooked in very similar ways. No matter where we are in Africa or the Diaspora, we eat and enjoy corn bread, corn meal porridge (grits, pap, and ugali), beans (of all colors), greens (of all kinds), chicken (fried or fricasseed), lots of fish and mountains of rice. Our love of spices, including hot peppers, is universal.

The greatest thing I learned from absolutely everyone that contributed to my culinary education is that “food is love.” I therefore do not hesitate to pass it around! I once owned and cooked at a restaurant in Paris (Bojangles) that offered pan-African culinary delights, seasoned with live music. Years after the fact, diehard fans still remember me and my food.

I can only surmise that people like me and Michael Twitty inherited “the cooking gene” — and I could not imagine life without it. Michael writes extensively on the subject in his new book: The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South (Amistad, 2017).

 

Sharon Leslie Morgan is the co-author with Thomas DeWolf of Gather at the Table: The Healing Journey of a Daughter of Slavery and a Son of the Slave Trade (Beacon Press, 2012) and the author of Paris in a Pot: Living a Dream in the City of Light (Morgan Publishing, 2016). She is the founder of OurBlackAncestry.com, a genealogy community devoted to African American family history.

Slave-Breeding, Truth-Telling, and Fiction – Margaret Wrinkle’s Wash

Slave-Breeding, Truth-Telling, and Fiction - Margaret Wrinkle's WashI met Margaret Wrinkle a few years ago when she was speaking at the Festival of the Book in Charlottesville.  (Even for me, who knows the city, it’s name carries more weight now.)  I introduced myself after her talk, telling her about a mutual friend and that I was so excited to read her book because it is fact told in fiction.

Wrinkle wrote her novel Wash after hearing a rumor that an ancestor of hers might have been involvedin the practice of slave-breeding.  The novel explores that horrific but all too common practice, where men and women were used to build the “people wealth” of their owners.  Men were sent out to “stud,” women to “be bred.”  The practice was not at all unlike the way livestock was bred, and it was abominable.

Wrinkle’s novel explores the story of Wash, a man who is used as a stud for his master.  She does so with great respect for Wash and the other people whose lives his path crosses, and her prose is beautiful.

Today, Margaret has given me two copies of her novel to share with you, so if you’d like to enter to win one, please just leave a comment below about why you’d like to read this book, and I’ll randomly choose two winners on Friday, August 25 and contact them by email for shipping information.

This isn’t an easy book to read, but then, it shouldn’t be. It’s well-worth your time.

 

You can learn more about Margaret Wrinkle’s work as an author and a filmmaker at her website.

What I Will Say to My White Friends after Charlottesville

What I Will Say to My White Brothers and Sisters After Charlottesville

The intersection where Heather Heyer was killed and 19 people injured . . . the morning after. Photo Courtesy of Jodi Lefebvre Jackson

I live just a few miles from Charlottesville. It is the city where I do my grocery shopping, where I see the dentist, where my father, step-mom, and in-laws live.  It is the place where I meet people for coffee. It is the town where I got my ears pierced and went to my prom.  It is home.

So when white nationalists, Nazis, racists marched into my city on Friday night, torches blaring, the hate rang like a bell in my heart. It’s been a long time since I was naïve or willfully ignorant enough to be surprised by actions like this, but this time, in my home, it felt bigger, sharper, more real. Racism marched in my streets, and it broke my heart anew.

Let me say, though, that this racism is not new to Charlottesville, not at all.  This powerful piece by Sarajanee Davis articulates well the history of racial heartbreak in our beautiful city.

But most of you know of this heartbreak. As women and men of color, you live it every day. It is part of your hometowns, part you experience regularly. I know you know, so today, I want you to say that – to the best of my ability – I’ve got you today.  As a woman who identifies as white and who is always identified as white, despite my African ancestors, I know that my work is to speak to other white people, so here, now, is what I will share on all my social media accounts.

My Dear, Beloved, White Brothers and Sisters,

I am seeing a lot of distancing, a lot of us stiff arming the white nationalists, the Nazis and racists who marched in Charlottesville on Friday and Saturday.  We are doing a lot of “them”ing about those folks, acting out our horror at their hatefulness. I get it.  I want to do it, too, push those white people, those young white men especially, far away from myself. I want “them” to be “them,” too.

But they are us.

I say that with no hyperbolic force. I am speaking truth.

I am a racist. As a white woman who was raised in America, this is something I must own. It is part of what is taught to me as a white person in the United States – this belief that, somehow, white people are superior.  I never got a lecture. No one ever told me that belief in so many words, but I was taught it nonetheless.

I know that I was taught this belief because sometimes I think and say things, racist things, that I didn’t know I believed. I won’t recount the list of those things for you here because I do not want to retraumatize our brothers and sisters of color who hear those things every day, but if you’d like examples, email me at [email protected], and I’ll share a few with you, as illustrations of my own brokenness.

So you, my beautiful, beloved, broken white brothers and sisters, you are racist, too.  I know that’s hard to hear – I KNOW.  But it’s true. You have been taught things about people of color, things that say they are inferior to you as a white person.  If you consider carefully, you’ll find those things. I find more every day, and it breaks my heart.

We need to have our hearts broken.

But let me be clear – we don’t need to sit around feeling guilty, making this about us yet again. As Nadia Bolz-Weber said, “let’s be honest – white guilt does nothing. White guilt makes us look for exoneration. White guilt leads to changes of only optics in which people of color are the object and not the subject. Once again. White guilt leads to me trying to figure out how to relieve my white guilt and once again it’s all about me. So let’s let White Guilt go. It doesn’t work.”  So no guilt here – it’s useless. Work is better. Honesty is better. Truth is better.

And for the love of Pete, don’t go around apologizing to all the people of color that you know – that, too, is asking them to do the work of exonerating you of your beliefs. Instead, do what my wise friend Nicole Morgan suggested – talk to other white people. Take your questions, your struggles outside the circle of people of color who have so long had to carry the burden of racism in every way. Write to me if you want.  I”ll answer. We’ll talk it out.

But please, don’t make this about other people. Because it’s not. As you look at the people who marched on Friday and Saturday in Charlottesvile, in my city, don’t push them away with a stiff arm of safe distance. Pull them close. Look them in the eye. See them as your brothers, aunties, cousins, next-door neighbors, yes. But most importantly, see them as yourself.

Until we, the white people of America, can own the quiet racism in our own hearts AND the virulent armored racism that marches in our streets, we cannot change.

And we must change.  WE, the white people of America, must change.

With all my love for all of us,

Andi

I share this not because I want kudos – I don’t need them. I share because, I hope, this tiny thing gives you, my brothers and sisters of color – some small light in these dark days.

Meanwhile, if you are looking for ways to help in Charlottesville, there are myriad options for helping to pay medical bills, and if you comment below, I’ll gladly share those links. But you can also support African American people doing all kinds of good in the city.  If I may, let me suggest two options:

  • Maupintown Media – Maupintown is a film company run by the talented Lorenzo Dickerson, and he makes these amazing films about African American history and community in Charlottesville.  Buy his films. Support his work.
  • Jefferson School Foundation – The Jefferson School was the historic African American high school in the city. It is now a community space that is vibrant with art exhibitions, lectures, performances, meeting rooms, and a genealogy center. You can donate here. 

My friends, these are hard days. I’m still not sure how to get my feet under me to do more, but more I will do. You have my word.

Love to you all.

The Color of Love – A Guest Post by Sharon Leslie Morgan

The Color of Love - By Sharon Leslie Morgan

Photo by JORGE LOPEZ on Unsplash

I’ve known Sharon for several years now after we were introduced by a mutual friend. Sharon and I both love history and genealogy, and she teaches me all the time about how to speaking the truth with love does not need to be either unkind or timid.  She is the creator of Our Black Ancestry, an AMAZING community of people looking for the stories of their black ancestors. It’s just $25 to become a member, so I hope you’ll consider doing that today. Now, enjoy Sharon’s powerful story. 

Just like everyone else, my family tree includes an assortment of characters from the unsavory to the sublime. The two I want to talk about are my grandmothers. Both were white women who married black men in the 1920s.

My father’s parents, Dora Federico and Bob Leslie, tied the knot in 1922. My mother’s parents, Jennie Waymoth and Louie Nicholson, followed suit in 1926. When they did so, miscegenation was illegal in 38 states. A “Racial Integrity Act” was on the books, which made it illegal for white people to marry anyone with “a single drop of Negro blood.” The Ku Klux Klan was on a rampage to protect white women from the “savage” lust of black men. The Red Summer of 1919 (a wave of race riots in dozens of cities throughout the North and South) was a recent memory and black people were being lynched in record numbers. It was not until 1967 that interracial marriages were allowed in all states.

Dora’s parents were Italian immigrants. Her father arrived in America in 1878. The proudest moment of his life was when he was granted citizenship in Mount Vernon, New York in 1897. The family moved to Chicago sometime before 1910 and he was dead when his daughter married my grandfather, a widower with three children. The Federico family thought Bob was a “dark Dago” because of his light brown skin and straight hair. When they found out differently, it didn’t stop them from helping the newlyweds get established in the bootlegging business, under the stewardship of Al Capone.

Dora, with whom I spent most of my summers, spent her later years working as a domestic for rich white people in Rockford, Illinois. Although she loved her employers (and I resented them for taking her away from me every day), she was not fond of white people in general. Later, when I read the history of Italians in America, it was easy to see why. Italians suffered extreme prejudice and violence at the hands of white, Anglo Saxon Protestants. They were restricted to low-income, low-class jobs and attacked for their Catholicism by the Ku Klux Klan. In 1891, eleven Italians were killed in New Orleans in one of the largest mass lynchings in American history.  During World War II, Italians thought to be loyal to their homeland were incarcerated in internment camps, just like the Japanese.

When Dora died in 1983, I was so distraught I spent three days locked in her bedroom, crying inconsolably. I met her Italian family for the first time at her funeral, when I was thirty-two years old.

Jennie Waymoth, on the other hand, was born into a family of Scots-Irish who came to America at an unknown date. She grew up in the small farming community of Sidell, Illinois and met Louie Nicholson in the Illinois Central train station in Chicago. He worked on a train. She waited tables in the station restaurant. After their marriage, her family pleaded with her to come home — for four years, through the births of her first two children, who looked white. When her third child emerged with a skin that matched his father’s , they declared her dead. In 1932, she went to visit her sister Sylvia (who also lived in Chicago) with all three of her young children in tow. Inseparable growing up, Jennie was stunned when her favored sibling derided her with “You better get away from my door. You know (my husband) doesn’t want any niggers in his house.”

When I found Jennie’s relatives online, we had many pleasant conversations as I shared the details of my grandmother’s life. My correspondent was happy to know she hadn’t died and agreed that I should visit. There was, however, a catch. I was informed: “My mother lives with us and still keeps the old ways. She would not want a black person sleeping in our house.” I felt what my grandmother must have felt that day on her sister’s stoop.

It takes a long time and a lot of lessons to learn what it means to be black and how one should relate to people who despise you. I am still on the learning curve. I once had a friend who described seeing a “colored” water fountain as a child. He really wanted to drink the water because he thought the spigot would spew a rainbow. Then there was my time in South Africa, a country that had recently been emancipated from the chains of apartheid. Many newly enfranchised people derided the dream of a “Rainbow Nation,” noting that rainbows do not have a band of black.

I was twelve years old in May 1963 when my grandmother Jennie dropped dead in front of me. I remember standing in the kitchen doorway watching her drink a glass of water. Gazing out of the window over the sink, she quenched her thirst, remarked “What a beautiful day,” and collapsed onto the floor – dead from massive heart attack. I was too stunned to even cry over the loss of one of my primary care givers.

That was the same year (six months later) when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated for reasons black people surmised had much to do with his championing of civil rights. In 1968, riots erupted after Rev. Martin Luther King was murdered by a white supremacist. I was a college student, trapped in the student administration building at the University of Illinois. When I heard the mayor announce a “shoot to kill” order, there was no doubt who it applied to: Me. A year later, I was an unwed mother, wondering how to raise a child in a world embittered by rancor and fear. There was a period in the 1970s when I could barely have a relationship with my surviving Mama Dora, having become profoundly and painfully aware of her whiteness. I am now ashamed of my reaction, but when all was said and done, I was totally turned off by white people – all of them. I did not want to acknowledge them as part of my family. I did not want to be friends with them. And I certainly would not have crossed the color bar to marry one. I could not comprehend how my grandfathers made that leap, coming as they did from birthplaces in Alabama and Mississippi.

Until recently, the story of my grandmothers was not part of my conversation; at least not within the context of race relations. As a child, I didn’t consciously think about what race they were; they were just my grandmothers. The segregated black community in which I grew up and into which my grandmothers were seamlessly adopted wrapped its arms around everyone. I eventually came to terms with the fact that I loved them both – dearly and unconditionally.

These days, my grandmothers are top of mind — maybe because I am now a grandmother myself, one with a burning desire to leave the world a better place. Resolution of the racial conundrum lies at the heart of that aspiration. That is why I embarked on a journey with a white man whose ancestors were the largest slave traders in US history and co-authored a book with him* to document an approach to racial healing.

My grandmothers left me with two cherished mementos. On my ring finger, I wear Dora’s diamonds. Some years after Dora’s death, Aunt Lottie climbed onto a step stool, dug into the deep recesses of a closet shelf, and handed me a wadded up ball of Kleenex. Inside were seven loose diamonds belonging to Mama Dora that I had set into a ring. Around my neck, I wear Jennie’s ivory cameo; one that has passed through many generations over 150 years. Both pieces of jewelry are reminders of a past I must deal with in order to embrace a future in which the paradox of love and acrimony has been resolved.

In an ideal world, race would be a mere descriptive, not a pejorative. As it stands, it informs a global construct that keeps one group of people (white) in power and another group (people of color) in submission. It is disproportionately destructive because it lies at the core of many other isms; influencing how people deal with gender, religious belief, and ability.

In thinking of my grandmothers, the classic Bill Withers song “Grandma’s Hands” comes to mind. I love this song that describes through metaphor the essence of one of the most dearly beloved in every family. Neither of my grandmothers “clapped in church on Sunday morning,” although both were believers in God. They didn’t play tambourines, though one cut a mean step on the dance floor. If their hands “use to ache sometime and swell,” I didn’t notice as they worked tirelessly, without complaint.

When I get to heaven, it will be those hands I seek, fully expecting Dora and Jennie to greet me in their loving arms for what will surely be a grand reunion.

 

 

Sharon Leslie Morgan is the founder, webmaster, and historian for OurBlackAncestry.com, a website devoted to African American genealogy. She is an expert in African American consumer marketing as well as a writer. A native of Chicago, she lived abroad for many years in the Caribbean, Europe, and Africa. She is the co-author, with Thomas DeWolf of Gather at the Table: The Healing Journey of a Daughter of Slavery and a Son of the Slave Trade*. Her first book, My Daddy Is A Cool Dude, was published in 1975 by The Dial Press and nominated for a Caldecott Medal. She is also the co-author of Real Women Cook: Building Healthy Communities with Recipes that Stir the Soul and of Paris in a Pot: Living a Dream in the City of Light*.

 

*These links are affiliate links, which means if you buy something after clicking on them, I get a small commission, which helps me pay the bills for hosting this site. So thank you.

3 Experiences that Have Taught Me about Us

3 Experiences that Have Taught Me about Us

I’ve been much quieter here than I had intended when I began this journey several months ago, and I apologize for that. My husband and I have been fighting a battle with infertility, and that battle took most of my energy.  Now, I’m still pretty low energy, but it’s for a glorious reason – I am pregnant.

So for now, my activities are a bit curtailed and involve a lot more things close to home and close to my couch.  I miss research trips and speaking, but I’m trying to take advantage of this quiet time to learn more, to educate myself, to let myself be broken open over the history and legacy of slavery.

How I’ve Been Learning

Today, then, I want to share three experiences that have taught me a great deal in these quiet days.

  1. First, I attended the opening of the new exhibit at Montpelier Plantation, “The Mere Distinction of Colour.” This exhibit focuses on the stories and experiences of people who were enslaved at President James Madison’s family plantation, and it is truly beautiful.  The exhibit includes stories of descendants, artifacts from where enslaved people lived and worked, and a great deal of research about the individuals and families that were enslaved.  It’s WELL WORTH a visit to Virginia to see it.
  2. Secondly, I watched the powerful documentary Traces of the Trade, which tells the story of 10 members of the DeWolfe family, the largest slave trading family in U.S. history, as they trace the route of their family’s business in buying and selling human beings.  The film is powerfully-honest, and not everyone in the film is “enlightened” all the time – but I particularly appreciated seeing each individual’s journey. Plus, Tom DeWolf, the executive director of Coming to the Table, is one of the travelers, and I take great joy in knowing that this experience was a great part of his important work of healing the legacy of slavery.
  3. Finally, I am absolutely committed to W. Kamau Bell’s AMAZING CNN series United Shades of America. In the series, Bell visits places in the U.S. that he doesn’t understand or wants to know more about – from the KKK (a BRAVE act for an African American man) to gentrifying Portland to, most recently, Puerto Rico.  He asks hard questions and listens so well to everyone he speaks with, and since he’s a stand-up comedian, he brings truth to light with humor.

Sometimes, our days of activism and direct action have to be limited, and sometimes, that’s a very good thing because it means we do our own work in ourselves, which – of course – has to be the first work anyway.

Have you seen any of these? If so, what are your thoughts about the work that they do? 

 

I’m finishing up a book with two other authors about racism in the Christian church, and I’m very excited about the possibility that a publisher will pick that up. I’ll share more as soon as I can.