If I am to be completely candid, for most of my adult LIFE I have been apathetic towards Black History Month. How many times do I have to hear little known black history facts to prove that I’m just as intelligent, creative or innovative as other races? How many Paul Lawrence Dunbar poems did I have to recite in elementary school for the annual Black History Program? Or choreograph dance routines to mash-ups of Sam Cooke’s Change Is Gonna Come/MLK’s I Have a Dream Speech (or the 2009 Obama Inauguration Speech) for church and community programs before I grew sick of it all?
No disrespect to my people, but I
thought I knew know my history and I am proud of my heritage. I am…as my teachers would say…a “credit to my race”. Must I participate in dedicating a month to showing white folk that I’m extra special, too? As Sojourner Scrooge as I admit that I’ve been in the past, this year in particular feels different to me. Maybe it’s the fact that I am still floating on the high of finally being able to call several of my ancestors by name. Maybe it’s because I am reconnecting with distant family members all over the country who are doing similar ancestry searches and finding that we share the same common ancestor. *smiling at the thought of “OG” beaming down proudly at his lineage. We.are.the.ISH!!!* Maybe it’s that I just finished watching “Slavery By Any Other Name” on the PBS channel.
I feel completely ashamed that I just had this fluff piece ready to post about how proud I was at my original ancestor – I call him “OG” in my head – Cook Mitchell (whose parents were born in Africa), and his ability to keep his family intact. All of their census records from their slave records until now were easy to find because they stayed clustered together. I was set to talk about how the “roughneck” side of the family ended up being untraditionally traditional – with all of the siblings, grandchildren and cousins that were recorded as living together during those census times. But then I had the horrific realization during the last 10 minutes of watching the PBS special, that the family staying on that land for generations WASN’T necessarily by choice. They were sharecroppers – most likely tied to and indebted to living on that land and tending fields. All of them internalizing the fear that if they tried to leave they would be killed or taken to the chain gang. Slavery…by another name.
Of course, I’ve told you all the story of my great-grandmother, Novella – finally poisoning her landowner, after raping her, bearing his child and that man lynching and dismembering her husband for daring to confront him. It was sobering, seeing his name on one census record and his glaring absence on the next with “widowed” beside her description. She was the granddaughter of Cook Mitchell…my “OG” ancestor. And it was because of her, that my grandfather and his siblings finally made it to the “big city” of Jackson because of her fear that she would be punished for the arsenic that she fed the plantation owner which eventually killed him. That’s my black history.
It explains my grandfather’s addiction to alcohol (esophagus destroying moonshine) and hard tobacco – ties to his rural past. I saw a glimpse into why as skilled as he was in woodcraft – building almost all of the family furniture in my grandmother’s house by hand, the pews in the community church and even animals for my mom to play with as a child, my granddaddy never escaped the demons that followed him and drew him back to the shanty life in rural Mississippi. Being separated from his family was frightening for him and he always felt as if he “got too free”, he’d be pulled into something dangerous.
Sadly, the biggest danger to himself ended up being…himself. I never really got a chance to know him. All I remember is that his house was small and musty. He smelled like sweat and car oil and wore a patch over one eye. I do have a note that he sent my mom when I was born, along with a blanket. My mother always cherished the note even more than the blanket, because she knew just how long it must have taken him to copy the short words from someone else and even address the package correctly, since he could neither read nor write.
While it’s nice to learn all of the little known black history facts that hear on the radio and see in the tributes on television and in the movies, it isn’t until now – when I’m able to find connections in history to my biological family – that I’m able to truly appreciate this month.