400 Years a Slave | Our Black Ancestry

Scars of a whipped slave (April 2, 1863, Baton...
Scars of a whipped slave (April 2, 1863, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, USA. Original caption: “Overseer Artayou Carrier whipped me. I was two months in bed sore from the whipping. My master come after I was whipped; he discharged the overseer. The very words of poor Peter, taken as he sat for his picture.” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


400 Years a Slave   9 November 2013


After weeks of anticipation, I finally saw the movie 12 Years a Slave.In trying to unpack my thoughts, the one thing I do not want to do is review the film. Others will do that far more adeptly than I. Suffice it to say, the film was STUNNING — in every sense of the word, at all possible levels.As an African American genealogist, I am more informed than most about the history of African American people and our subjugation to slavery in the Americas. From my personal family tree, I can name 12 ancestors whose humanity was violated. And that is just the “top note” as I know there are others whose names will never be found.For the past 30+ years, I have been on a mission to bring their stories to light — not just for my own edification, but for public exposure. It was thus that I created Our Black Ancestry for the purpose of “empowering our future by honoring our past.”Every name I learn, every document I uncover, every story I reveal … all of it constitutes a mere fragment in the worldwide complicity of economic aspiration that resulted in a heinous crime against  humanity. It is a crime that has never been fully addressed, punished or resolved. White Americans relegate this past to the fond digression of films like Gone with the Wind. African Americans often refuse to look back, perhaps in an attempt to control the antipathy that surely must reside in our wounded souls.The powerful essence of the movie was that it encapsulated a visual depiction of the words I read in books and documents.As I witnessed the unfolding story of Solomon Northup, I was mentally transported into a cotton field where my great grandparents toiled without relief in  Lowndes County, Alabama.I lay in the bed of my great grandmother in Noxubee County, Mississippi as she succumbed to sexual objectification by the man who fathered her 17 children — thus being elevated over a 10 year span from “farmhand” to “housekeeper.”I experienced the anguish of an inconsolable mother whose cries for her stolen children were so overwhelmingly rife with anguish, her fellow slave retorted that she “stop wailing.” She then endured further punishment by being sold away by an owner who refused to entertain the unconscionable pain he had caused.As Northup was hung by the neck and left dangling in desperation, I envisioned my uncle who was lynched.I shared the pathos of generations of people — my people — kidnapped, chained, whipped, crippled, violated and traumatized in every possible way. Slave masters reduced themselves and their prey to a level of barbarity that defies imagination, unleashing a vicious cycle of violence that informs our society unto this very day.  I cannot fathom the cognitive dissonance of these men and their consort wives who did what they did and justified it with the word of a God I do not know.In the end, as Northup climbed into the wagon of his rescuers, all he could do was gaze with sadness and longing at the ones he left behind. In the final analysis, it was they who were the most tragic of victims because their subjugation was never to be relieved. Sixty years removed from the only relative I knew in person who was enslaved — my father’s grandmother — I am limited to a vicarious awareness of what she and my other family members endured. There is no doubt in my mind… I would NOT have survived. Yet, I am grateful they did because, if not for them, I would not BE.


via 400 Years a Slave | Our Black Ancestry.




When ‘I’ in First-Person Narrative Didn’t Apply to African-Americans

black rose 1
black rose 1 (Photo credit: Melinda Taber)

Once in a while, college teaching breaks out of the staid, authoritative lecturer/rapt audience model and assumes a raw ideal of rapid and spontaneous engagement between teacher and students. The engagement is live and open-ended and the information firing back and forth isn’t necessarily pleasant or encouraging or even obviously related to the topic of the class on that particular day. But it’s education for sure.

I recently presented a lecture at a local university that I thought straightforward and factual, though potentially controversial because it involved race. I’m teaching nonfiction writing and thought it would be useful to discuss the politics behind the first-person “I” narrator that frames so much nonfiction writing, especially memoir and personal essays.

We assume the use of “I” is a simple declaration of the self, the rock-solid point from which every story flows. “I” is also an affirmation of individualism that Americans hold so dear, and in that way a democratic institution in the literary world — I write, therefore I am equal to all other writers. But I wanted to show how the whole concept of “I” and the self-affirmation it’s meant to confer never applied to African-Americans.

For much of our history, the notion of an inviolate black self was not only absent in literature (and everywhere else), it was actually against the law. Law and custom prevented blacks from claiming authority over their own lives. The whole concept of an empowered, inherently worthy ‘I’ was therefore a joke at worst, fragmented at best. That legacy is still with us; for blacks, personal stories almost always have broader social meaning tied to a legacy of white supremacy that has told them in one way or another how they should see and interpret themselves. For nonfiction writing, getting out from under this “narrative oppression” is a rich and complicated subject.

While I hardly expected to resolve ancient racial problems, I assumed the conversation would be provocative and lively. It was that, but much more than that — it was hostile. This happened immediately. Ten minutes into the lecture white students chafed at the very notion of oppression and a vocal few wanted to shut down both the message, and the messenger. Several students took offense to this and subtly and not so subtly accused the doubters of racism.

via When ‘I’ in First-Person Narrative Didn’t Apply to African-Americans | Commentary | SoCal Focus | KCET.