Recently, I was having a discussion with a couple of my co-workers and a few of my interns about family memorabilia. They discussed old family recipes, jewelry and so on. Everyone who knows me knows that I love history. More than anything I love African-American and Caribbean history. (Hence my major in college). As we were talking about families and history, I mentioned that my fiance actually has a copy of the deed which shows the slave master who owned his family. I said I wished I could find a document like that. I talked about the little I did know of my maternal family’s history which includes clear evidence of sharecropping. When I finished my little spiel, I noticed that everyone was quiet and looked uncomfortable. We eventually moved on to another subject.
Later on, when I thought about the silence and how uncomfortable my White co-workers (and interns) were, I became angry. I felt like they didn’t want to be reminded of America’s “dirty past”. They wanted to have a light-hearted conversation about family legacy. They didn’t want to face the fact that while their families enjoyed the good life, my family legacy consisted of segregation, Jim Crow, sharecropping, and slavery. Many people today (including some Black people) want to forget. They say we need to “get over it” and “move on”. I’ve also heard the suggestion that Black people use slavery as a crutch. (See my eyes rolling).
The fact remains that slavery is a part of America’s history. Not only is it a part of national history it is a part of my family history. If I refuse to talk about slavery or to acknowledge the historical struggle of my people I am essentially cutting myself off from my cultural and familial background. I’d basically be erasing myself. And I have to ask myself why someone would ask me to do that. Why? Is it to make White people feel comfortable? To ease their sense of guilt? Is it so that some Black people can forget the past and the shame some of them carry about it? I don’t know. But, insha’allah I will not do it. Apart from a few quacks here and there, I’ve never heard any suggest that the Jews should simply “get over” the Holocaust. I don’t see people sighing and rolling their eyes at the mere mention of the Holocaust. Nor do I see, like I have recently, people actually becoming angry at the mention of the Holocaust. So, why is the reaction to the African-American Holocaust so strong? After all, historians estimate at least 1 million Africans died during the Middle Passage alone! I don’t think I need to delve any further into the history.
The fact remains that I can’t forget slavery even if I wanted to. Slavery (and all the that followed afterwards) is the reason why I can only trace back my familial history a few generations. It’s the reason my family is so fractured and devastated. It’s the reason why I speak Jamaican patois and African-American dialect. It’s the reason why I eat greens and “play mas.” More importantly, it’s the reason why I can’t sit around with my White co-workers and discuss beautiful jewelry and a rich family history. Is that my fault? Hmm…