Black Girl Gone to Her Roots

I’ve been going a little nuts recently with worry and sadness. Between waiting to hear from Amsterdam and becoming more and more checked out from my job, my daily routine mostly consists of being down in the dumps. I was already feeling unhappy, which is why I started on this unpredictable journey. But it’s definitely getting harder as each day/month passes and my uncertainty gains momentum.

But I found something that has served as a nice distraction from my thoughts. My ancestors! It all started when I watched Sarah Jessica Parker on that show “Who Do You Think You Are?” From the title, I expected the show to be stupid and frivolous entertainment. Instead, it was incredibly interesting. I found myself wrapped up in Sarah’s ancestry, out to California during the gold rush, and then even further back to the Salem witch trials. By the end of the show, while I was fully entertained, I also felt a mix between envy and annoyance. How lucky she is to be able to trace her history so far back, looking at original documents from the 17th century that tell the story of her family. And how criminal it is that black folks in the Diaspora coming up from slavery are not afforded such a privilege. And how inconsiderate of Sarah to rub her past in our faces when she knows the American history she has discovered has been erased for so many of us (that’s irrational , I know. And for the record, I don’t blame Sarah Jessica Parker for slavery).

I used my frustration with a lack of knowledge as inspiration to acquire some knowledge. My mother embarked on a project to learn more about our family about a year ago, enlisting a friend who had a passion and better understanding of genealogy. So I had a good starting point on her side of the family. But since my mother is the oldest living person in her immediate family (she’s not old…but sadly everyone has died), my father died five years ago, and we’re estranged from those who remain on his side, my mom’s prior research and existing knowledge were my only starting points.

Once I defined the scope of the project (learn anything and everything there is to know about my family’s history), my first step was to sign up for an account. Not so coincidentally, they’re sponsors of the show I watched – these people know what they’re doing. With this I received a 14-day free trial, allowing me to create a family tree, browse through census records dating back as far as I could go, and start filling in the puzzle pieces of the lives of ancestors I previously didn’t know existed.

In day 12 of the free trial, and working nonstop with my mom to put the pieces together, we have already discovered some fascinating tidbits. For example, for all of the time my mother’s father knew my grandmother, he was lying about his age. She met him when she was 23 and wouldn’t have dated an 18-year old. So of course the most logical thing would have been to lie (logical for an 18-year old boy, at least). His secret is discovered only some 60+ years later.

My maternal great-grandfather’s mother (Lora) was born into slavery in 1862. His father (George) was a white man. Lora and George had a consensual relationship that lasted many years and resulted in several children. That wasn’t new information. But we discovered that Lora’s mother was enslaved by George’s father and Lora must have been born on that plantation. George’s father (my 3rd great-grandfather) enslaved at least 5 black people and served as a sargeant in the confederate army. Fifteen years later, in 1880, Lora was 14 and living with her mother. She was living next door to 18-year old George and his family. They had their first child that year, who died 5 months later from cholera. Lora and George never got married – of course they couldn’t. But, in spite of family scandal (vague stories of the sort reached my mom as a child), all of Lora’s kids took George’s last name. And in spite of being only a quarter black (Lora was listed as mulatto) at a time when blackness could have been viewed as a curse, all of Lora’s kids identified as black (rather than mulatto) and went on to marry the blackest people they could find. Unfortunately, their son (who we affectionately now refer to as “black George”) died when his daughter (my grandmother) was only a young child. So stories of his life are few. But learning these details about him make me feel like I’ve had at least an opportunity to shake his hand.

So far, the furthest back I have gone is 1820, when a woman named Murray was born into slavery, where she spent 45 years of her life. Murray’s son was my father’s great-grandfather, which makes Murray my third great-grandmother. The side of the tree that has me stuck is my dad’s family on his father’s side. My grandfather died before I was born. And his mother and father, Essie and Cicero, died when he was only a teenager. He barely knew them – and my dad never knew them or spoke of them. I didn’t know their names until I started this project. Today I learned that Cicero received a degree in Theology from Howard University in 1893. I even found a letter he sent to Frederick Douglass, requesting assistance as he tried to figure out how to support himself while making his way through school. But now I just want to know more. More and more.

And here we are less than two weeks later. A nice little distraction has turned into a full blown, life-changing project. I only hope I make them half as proud with who I am and who I strive to be as how proud I am to say they have made me.


From the Perspective of a Race-ist

First I should mention that this post has nothing to do with Amsterdam. It does stem from something that recently happened at work. But I’m going to try my best to leave the specific circumstances out of it. I’ve just decided to use this space to get some things off my mind – not to say they won’t still be on my mind – but perhaps now they’ll also be on your mind. And that makes me feel a bit better.

Matters of race have been of critical importance to me ever since I realized my race mattered to everyone else. Perhaps I was more in tune to questions of race as a child because I always lived and grew up around black people, but attended predominately white schools. That combination led to much self reflection early on. I have a pretty vivid memory of the racial dynamics of my 3rd grade class – at least one particular day. It must have been black history month. All of the students sat on the floor for a special lecture about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his dream. I was the only black student in the class (in the interest of full disclosure, there couldn’t have been more than 18 students total). As Ms. Porter vaguely described the troubles of black people in the U.S., all eyes were on me. Because discretion is perhaps a lesson taught in 4th grade, my classmates did not try to hide their fascination with my difference and association with these people whose lives suck so badly. Their stares seemed to say, “wow, she’s black. I wonder if she’s poor and angry.” Present day self would have been proud, and happy to lead the class, and requesting the extension of history lessons related my people well beyond one designated month. But the 3rd grader was mortified. My objective was to blend in, which was not being accomplished. I would bet (a small amount of) money that none of my classmates would have memories of that day or that lesson. My perspective was certainly different from theirs. I guess that was the beginning of the “minority” experience.

I was a senior in high school during the hype of the O.J. Simpson trial. The opposite of where I was as a 3rd grader, in 1995 I was constantly fighting the black fight, schooling my white classmates on their privilege and making sure my blackness and black people didn’t go unnoticed. I even wore down my AP English teacher until she added one piece of black literature to the syllabus, Things Fall Apart. And on a random day during that year, my small Statistics class was starting late. So about 6 of us, including the teacher, began chatting about O.J. and the craziness of the trial. In the midst of the conversation I said something along the lines of “I hate the white system of power in this country.” Little did I know, I had started a battle.

Several days later (or perhaps it was the next day) I reported to an emergency senior class meeting that was scheduled for the beginning of our lunch period – everyone was required to attend. Although such a meeting had never been called before, it could have been about anything. And about 2 minutes into the Head of High School’s announcement/speech, I realized the meeting was about me. She was saying something to the effect of offensive comments being made in a classroom that were being looked into, as well as the need to resolve class conflicts, blah blah blah. I had no doubt it was about me – and it also tipped me off when all attention and eyes seemed to be focused on me. As my classmates shuffled out of the emergency meeting, one of my few white allies whispered to me that she knew at least 2 girls had reported me to the Headmistress, requesting that I be expelled from school for being racist.

Aside from the fact that I subscribe to the belief that black people can’t be racist (prejudiced, maybe), the absurdity of this claim enraged me. These rich, white, bitches were trying to ruin my life because I spoke against the structures of power in white-dominated America – as I was sitting in a classroom of all white girls an hour from my home because the public school in my black neighborhood may very well have allowed me to graduate functionally illiterate. They claimed I said, “I hate white people.” (And honestly, in that moment, I did.). And from my ally I learned they made the argument that if they had said something similar about nigge…uhhh, black people, they would be kicked out. So I should face the same consequence. Apparently they were advocates for equality.

I was a strong student and in good favor with my school’s faculty. So although I had a moment of worry about my fate, I never actually believed I would be expelled. But this was lucky. In a not so different scenario, I very easily could have been perceived by the school’s administration as a threat, intimidating my poor, defenseless classmates with my racist rants.

I may not have been expelled for my O.J.-related remarks, but I certainly did earn a lovely pair of glasses that force me to view the world through special lenses, magnifying the biases with which I (and all of us) are viewed. I still wear those glasses everyday, whether consciously or not. It’s through these lenses that I have watched 3 black people fired for matters not relating to their performance (though they might claim one was related to performance – it wasn’t). And as far as I can remember, no one else has been fired for matters not relating to performance (at least since I’ve been there). Now we all carry biases and sometimes perceive people negatively as a result. But when it affects my people more than most, I can’t help but wonder if I’m still fighting that same battle that started in 12th grade.

If I Do

In all fairness, I’d like to give equal time to optimism as I tend to give to worry. So allow me to think through what will happen if I do receive some good news from Amsterdam. Not the really serious, stressful things, like saving money, packing, or finding a place to live. Rather, the more immediate things that are more exciting than they are difficult.

  1. Spread the word. Those of you who know about my plans are beginning to ask more and more if I’ve heard anything yet. “When do you expect to hear from Amsterdam?” I get that question 2 or 3 times a week now. When I actually do hear from them, it will be a priority to let everyone know. And since this will be good news, I expect this communication roll-out plan to be far more expeditious than if it were bad news. Folks on facebook will probably know within the hour.
  2. Give my job a few months notice. As I think I’ve made it pretty clear, I’m pretty much over my job. At this point, I’m only waiting for the right reason to quit. If I’m able to tell them within the next couple of weeks, I’ll be giving them 4 or 5 months notice. That’s plenty of time for them to come up with a replacement for me to train (in an ideal world). So I could make a guiltless exit, hopefully even leaving on good terms – though that possibility remains to be seen as I begin what will likely be a rough week.
  3. Treat myself to something special. I always treat myself to something special when I think I deserve it (and sometimes even when I don’t). I’m not sure what it will be yet – but it will demonstrate a unique combination of special, gratifying, and affordable. Any suggestions here are welcome.
  4. Begin a countdown, making the most of my remaining days in NYC. I don’t think I have wasted the last 2.5 years in NYC. Rather, I think I’ve made the best of it when possible. But there’s still a lot I haven’t seen or done. If I am provided with a clear date for the end of my stay here, I will be much more motivated to get out and see more of it. I’ll approach it like a tourist with a “to do” list, crossing off tours, buildings, and museums on a weekly basis. I won’t have any more time for moping or wallowing. Good news will lead to nothing but action.

And just for the record, this list was much harder to write.

If I Don’t

If I don’t get accepted to the University of Amsterdam, there are a few things that will need to take place. First, let me back up for a minute.

So unfortunately, my Plan C is no longer. The other schools didn’t have programs that were a fit. While school is the perfect excuse to move to another country without having to get a job, I don’t want it to be only an excuse, leaving me with a useless degree – already have one of those from law school. So now I have all of my eggs (and ovaries and kidneys and gall bladder) in one friggin’ basket. Oopsie.

Okay, now if I don’t get in, certain things will need to happen:

  1. Choose a city that can serve as a back-up. There are other places I can go to be happy. I’ll need to investigate a bit further. But recently, returning to the Bay Area has become an option. I go back and forth on whether or not this is the best idea, fearing such a move will be going backwards, personally and professionally. But I enjoyed many things about living out there. I would just need to make a conscious effort to live a different life out there the second time around. But it’s not the only option. I just haven’t quite figured out what the others are.
  2. Find a job or fellowship that can pay the bills. The ultimate goal is to start my nonprofit organization. If I am not working toward a degree that will play a significant role in the development of the program, then I need to at least be working toward it on my own time – while paying the bills.
  3. Avoid the people who will give me the look of pity. If you’re reading this, and you know you will run into me during the 1-month period following the rejection, please start practicing in the mirror how you will look at me. The only thing that makes sadness or disappointment feel worse is when people demonstrate pity. You know the look – a cocked head, pouting mouth, raised eyebrows…don’t do that.
  4. Quit my job. It needs to happen, whether I’m moving to Amsterdam or not. I’ve already reached my boiling point, and in some ways, it’s gotten worse. Another year, or even several months beyond this (fiscal) year won’t be survived. Overly dramatic? Probably so.
  5. Move. Whether I get into school and move to Amsterdam or not, this black girl is definitely going somewhere.

So the bad news will not necessarily be sad news – at least not for long. I’m trying my best to see the opportunity in whatever outcome that may be. But in the meantime, until we know what that outcome will be, please send me some positive energy. I need all the help I can get.

Hey Stranger…

This past weekend I took a road trip to Philadelphia with a friend from work. This trip had a dual purpose: 1) eat tasty vegetarian sandwiches from a restaurant that opened up since I left the city (discovered and enthusiastically recommended by said friend); and 2) drive by my childhood home just because.

We lucked out because, in spite of consecutive weeks of miserable weather consisting of rain, sleet, and snow, we planned our trip for the first weekend the sun and warmer temperatures had emerged since the beginning of winter. Almost 60 degrees and sunny – certainly an occasion calling for rolled down windows and good moods. So we excitedly hit the road in my VW, driving nonstop from Brooklyn to Govinda‘s (the tasty veggie spot) at S. Broad & South – btw, check it out if you’re in the area.

I was born and raised in Philadelphia. And although I lived in a couple of apartments in different Philly neighborhoods as an adult during the law school years (including the one year of semi-unemployment following law school), I lived in the same house with my parents from the time I was a baby until I went to college. Same house, same neighbors, same park, same mailman (well, maybe not the mailman). In a sense, the stability of my childhood can be viewed in stark contrast to the adult life I’ve carved out for myself, which is somewhat less stable. But since I left Philadelphia in 2004, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been back. My mother was the only family member I still had ties with in the city. And when she moved and sold the house in 2006, there really wasn’t a reason to be there. Fast forwarding to last weekend, I was looking forward to taking a quick drive down memory lane – and dragging a friend along for the ride.

So after stuffing our faces with veggie chicken cheese steak sandwiches and buying more sandwiches to eat later (seriously, check out this place if you’re in the area), we drove out to Southwest Philadelphia for the memory lane drive-by. I used to drive that route on a regular basis, visiting my parents when I lived no more than 20 minutes away. But I haven’t made the drive since 2004.  In spite of the 6 years of distance, it felt like no time had passed as I made right turns and left turns, straddled the trolley tracks, and avoided the potholes.  As we approached my block, I said to my friend, “wouldn’t it be funny if we ran into someone I knew from back in the day?”  It all felt so familiar, it wasn’t such an unreasonable expectation.

So he said, “hey stranger.”  We hadn’t been pulled up in front of my house for more than 30 seconds before the two men standing across the street, attending to a disabled car, were bridging the gaps between present and past.  Peter and Gordon both remembered me.  I only remembered Gordon.  And strangely, I also remembered Peter’s dog, Sheba. Regardless of my failing memory, Peter is the one who acted like we were friends at one point (we weren’t), noting how long my hair had gotten since I first started growing it (1995) and asking about my older sister’s well-being.  Oh, and I remembered that Gordon and I used to ride the school bus together.

After learning that a new, quiet family has moved into my old home (described by Peter as being either Haitian or Jamaican…I bet they’re West African), chit chatting a bit about vague updates, and sharing a few anecdotes about my childhood with my friend, that was it.

The experience was strange in a way. So little had changed, with the exception of Gordon’s voice, of course. And running into two people who knew me as a child, and feeling so familiar with my surroundings, made me feel a sense of home and belonging. I didn’t realize I had that at all, much less in a city where I no longer have any ties. But I actually do!  And there I was, proving it to a real life witness.  Felt pretty good.

We drove back to Brooklyn with full bellies and happy moods. I enjoyed my second sandwich the next day.

Collapsing Governments and Other Disasters

Seems like 2010 has been the year of disaster.  Feels like bad news, big and small, has been popping up everywhere.  Earthquakes, suicides, brutal storms, deadly accidents, overdrawn bank accounts, the list goes on.  Shoot, Earth has literally shifted its axis by 3 inches.  Although it seems to have no noticeable impact, it’s insane!

Well, the Netherlands is not exempt.  Last week the government collapsed.  While the Queen was on vacation, she got a call from the Prime Minister notifying her of the government’s resignation.  And that leads to a collapsed government, for sure.  What led to the resignation is what makes me think a move to the Netherlands is right for me.  Dysfunction is great, especially when it results from people standing up for what’s right.

Turns out the dispute was over whether or not Dutch troops should be withdrawn from Afghanistan.  They currently have almost 2,000 troops over there, resulting from an already extended stay that was scheduled to end before the end of 2010.  But after NATO asked for its members to keep troops in Afghanistan for even longer, supporting Obama’s deployment of something like 30,000 more U.S. troops, the Prime Minister was ready to agree and the Labor Party said “hell no.”  Dutch people, along with almost everyone else, are tired of war and losing young soldiers (21 Dutch soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan). And when the Labor Party refused to compromise by even allowing a modified number of soldiers to stay, an agreement couldn’t be reached.  The consensus-requiring nature of the government resulted in the Labor Party completely pulling out.  Sounds incredibly dramatic and mostly sad.  But the bright side is all of the Dutch troops will be heading home before the end of this year, as promised.  No compromises.

I’ve been doing my homework on the Dutch government, originally to see with which of their political parties I would most likely align myself.  But learning that the government just happens to topple over every once in a while made me want to really understand it.  The basic story is that the government was set up to allow for equal representation and general consensus.  The cabinet is made up of a coalition of three of the larger parties, the Christian Democratic Appeal (more right wing and led by the Prime Minister), the Labor Party (more to the left), and the ChristianUnion (smaller and somewhere in the middle).  The Socialist Party and People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (way more conservative than it sounds) are the 3rd and 4th largest parties; but they’re not represented in this coalition – don’t quite understand that yet.  When these folk get together to decide on the tough issues, they’re supposed to discuss and debate until a decision is reached.  Since they’re all supposed to agree and speak publicly in favor of cabinet decisions, any member who doesn’t agree (and I guess is willing to stand up for it) is required to step down.  They are serious with it.  So when CDA and Labor couldn’t agree on the Afghanistan question, and Labor was willing to stand up for it, Labor Party members had to step down.  And since it’s a coalition of the 3 parties, it can’t continue with the numbers so dramatically in favor of the democratic christian guys.  So they all had to resign, consequently ruining the Queen’s vacation, I’m sure.

I’m getting the general sense that Dutch people are against the Prime Minister wanting to support NATO’s request, and in favor of the Labor Party’s stance.  But I plan to do more reading of the Dutch newspapers (thank goodness for Google Translate!) to get a better sense of what the people are actually saying.  I’m sure it’s quite messy and seems pretty worrisome.  People are probably more concerned about the lack of stable government than they are relieved that their troops are coming home.  But coming from a country that is willingly sending thousands more to Afghanistan this year, I’m thrilled at the prospect of moving to a country that prioritizes peace even when power is at stake.