What must September 30th have felt like?
On a season seven episode of historian Prof. Skip Gates’ public broadcast show, Finding Your Roots, Queen Latifah read aloud the document that freed her first recorded ancestor:
“Being conscious of the injustice and impropriety of holding my fellow creature in state of slavery, I do hereby emancipate and set free one Negro woman named Jug, who is about 28 years old, to be immediate free after this day, October 1st, 1792. -Mary Old” (slave-owner).
“No way,” Latifah sighs, and repeats this twice after she recites the words “set free.”
“OMG, I’m tingling right now,” she whispers.
‘The Queen L-A-T-I-F-A-H in command’ spent her entire rap career rapping about freedom.
Now she asks: “What must that have been like…to know that you are free?”
Indeed, what did it feel like to hold your own emancipation piece of paper for the first time?
Or, to receive this piece of paper in your (embondaged) hands?
Or, pen a document liberating another who you believe to be a fellow human being?
What must September 30th have felt like for this slave…
The day before one’s own manumission, the eve of one’s freedom?
What ever did Ms. Jug do?
How can I…
How can I claim any linkages to, or even feign knowing anything about –
Let alone understand – anyone who’s lived in bondage?
However, I can see that
We’re all disconnected from each other today, without seeking to know all our own pasts.
The 1870 Federal census was the first time Africans in America were identified by name, Meaning:
Most of us can never know our direct lineage …no paper trail back to Africa.
So, what must it feel like to find the first record of your ancestors – from the first census –
Only to discover a record of your earliest ancestor’s birthplace: Africa!?!
Though rare, it’s written before you that they’d survived capture and permanent separation,
The drudgery of trans-Atlantic transport, and
A life-till-death of cruel and brutal servitude, and
Somehow, miraculously, here you are.
“The dream and the hope of the slave.”
Slavery shattered Black families.
This was designed to cut us off at the roots, stunt our growth – explicit daily degradation:
You’z just a slave! No more no less.
For whites hearing this, it may evoke images of their ancestors who committed such acts. How exactly did they become capable of such every day cruelty…and live with it?
All must understand our roots in order to grow.
For slave descendants, we see survivors of a tremendously horrible system.
This includes both white and Black people.
Those who perpetrated, witnessed, resisted or fell victim to slavery’s atrocities.
We’re all descended from ‘slavery survivors’ too – our shared culture its remnants.
Of the myriad of emotions one feels in learning such facts, one is certainly pride.
Another is compassion.
We survived. And we now know better.
Suggesting that we forget about slavery,
Or saying “Oh, but slavery was so long ago,”
Demands that we ignore our own people’s resilience, and will to live.
It’s akin to encouraging mass suicide.
For, to forget is to sever your own roots.
“Blood on the leaves, and blood at the root.”
And like any tree without roots, we’d wither and die, be crushed under our own weight.
Or, get chopped up and made useful.
Or, just left “for the sun to rot, for the tree to drop.”
Erasing history, turning away because of its discomfort, is a cult of death.
It moralizes its interest in decay.
To remember is to live, and celebrate life.
We must reckon with how our lives got here, to this day, to this very point.
Therefore, to learn is to know and continue to grow, for
A tree that’s not busy growing is busy dying.
The quest for roots is incredibly, powerfully, life-giving.
Call their names.
Knowledge further fertilizes freedom.
Know better. Do better.
Rise, like a breath of fresh air.