There’s History…and then there’s My Story

We already know I was the angry black girl in high school. I was an Africana Studies major in college. In law school I focused primarily on public interest and civil rights law. I care and am quite passionate about all things related to black people. The ultimate goal of this whole journey is to provide young black Americans with an opportunity to learn about their ancestry and the struggles of our people in order to garner more self respect and esteem. But only now, as I have been digging into the stories of my ancestors, has the history that influences all of us begun to truly resonate and affect me so deeply.

Although I didn’t realize I was doing it, I had somehow placed the middle passage, hundreds of years of slavery, reconstruction, black codes, jim crow…all of it into some type of academic bubble. And now with names, and even some faces, to associate with the words in the history books, I feel the pains of our brutal past that much more intensely. My great great grandmother survived this. And my great grandfather accomplished that in spite of this.

No matter how much reading, how many papers, and how many opinions I may have established, the story develops an entirely new tone when there’s blood involved. Kind of like when you watch a tragic story on the news. You learn about a child who has lost both of her parents in a fire. Wow. That’s really sad. I can’t imagine what she must be going through. But then imagine finding out it’s a member of your family suffering. It’s no longer just a regretful shame that you wish wasn’t so. It’s now gut wrenching and worthy of tears – a much more personal pain.

Eventually I’m hoping to bridge the deepest gaps in my family history and identify which of my ancestors actually crossed the Atlantic to suffer enslavement in Florida, Georgia, and wherever else they may have landed. If Alex Haley could do it, there’s no reason I can’t (well, actually there are a ton of reasons – but I may as well try to beat the odds). I’ve gotten to the point of my family tree, from the beginning of the 19th century, where everyone was enslaved for the duration of their lives. Born and died during a time when they were valued less than an automobile, and in many cases viewed as disposable. They, needless to say, were human beings, although they were never treated as such. But there was a time – a person…people who were born free. Born free as Africans, forced from their homes and families, enslaved and subjected to inhumane treatment for the rest of their lives, with the knowledge that many descendant generations to come would suffer the same fate. I know more than I care to know about that fate. But I want to know their names. I want to know anything about them. I want to identify with them. I want to pay tribute to them by removing them from an academic bubble about slavery and truly knowing their stories. It may sound crazy, but I want to feel that pain.

As I head back to school to study the sociology of migrant people, I potentially will gain even more of a cold, academic perspective of what it means to be far removed from one’s homeland. I’m sure I’ll analyze how individuals tend to hold onto anything that’s familiar in order to maintain a clear identity and value what/who is truly their own. But I’m interested to know if others have a similar experience or reaction when learning about personal family history. Is it uncommon to reevaluate or relearn history after you locate your place in it? It means so much more to know who of your own was there – and all of us have people who lived through every stage of it – good and bad.

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