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What must September 30th have felt like?
“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.
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.
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.
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.
In the second grade, I started in a new school that was designed as a progressive environment where students, teachers and administrators were all on a first-name basis. Radical, even in ’82, our school was forward about gender, race and class diversity. Despite this, I only had one Black teacher in my elementary school years – the amazing music teacher. As kids, we could see few other Black adults: the assistant librarian, a handful of the lunchroom ladies, as well as the Black middle- and high-school teachers we saw in the same building. This meant that the Black adult we most consistently interacted with was Miss Saundra, the janitor.
Miss Saundra appeared around corners, could surprise you out of a closet you hadn’t even noticed was there. She was always on hand should there be any major mess or spill. Best of all, our school gleamed from top to bottom, every classroom, every hallway, every bookshelf, every restroom – every desk! It felt lovely to go to school every day, the floors shined, the windows sparkled, and even the banisters were pristine. I am certain this level of hygiene must have taken a team, but I remember Miss Saundra, probably because she was friendly to me. I can still see her, unbending her back to look at us, and speak face to face.
If I ever had to come to school early to play in the gym or have breakfast, or stay late for an after-school activity, Miss Saundra would likely be there, tidying up. She always took time to greet us. She was even there for school dances, and asked nothing in return, and we knew nothing of her outside the labor she devoted to us in the background. She was our school’s magic negro.
Other than the school guard who was not armed with anything but charm, Miss Saundra, might have been the first at school, followed by the ladies making breakfast. These were our essential workers – like the air we breathed in the heart of our city. I like to think because of their personalities we felt at home in our environment and therefore enjoyed school more fully.
Kids carry on.
When I was in the third grade, our teacher – a tall, grey-haired white man of grand stature who taught me I could master math even though it wasn’t easy for me – sent all the girls ahead to music class. He held the boys back for a chat. Apparently, someone had urinated in the second-floor boys’ bathroom, and they’d worked out that only our class had taken a break between cleanings. Since teachers had separate restrooms, I thought it must have been Miss Saundra who’d discovered the mess, and so I wondered what that conversation was like with our teacher, who was now accusing us! Though he didn’t demand we rat out the culprit, he called it “nasty,” and said we could get electrocuted, because “electricity travels through water,” wagging his index finger like it was on fire. With that, he sent us off to music!
This was probably the first time that I’d been explicitly asked to identify as a gender, and it was over THIS! I knew that whoever had done it would have needed an audience. So not only did some fool piss on the wall, some other fool(s) stood around and watched! I thought, what bastard did this! Didn’t they know Miss Saundra would have to clean it? Didn’t she greet them, and ask them how they’re doing like she does me? Did they ‘see’ Miss Saundra everyday like she saw us? Why would they piss on her parade? Why give Miss Saundra the blues for your pissing contest!
I stopped by the bathroom on the way back from music class. Sure enough, Miss Saundra had been done had it squeaky, bleachy clean! I could never have imagined girls’ doing something like that.
I knew that like me, Miss Saundra was an outsider in a space where I belonged. I knew people like Miss Saundra, so she was not a stranger to me. I had no ambitions of becoming a janitor, but I certainly knew women, in my family and in my community, who did this sort of work. And those women I knew who did that sort of work encouraged people like me to do well in school, so I could take advantage of the kinds of choices they didn’t have. I had no reason to think Ms. Saundra less of me. What’s more, even though I felt strange in my own body, she treated me as human, especially. The gratitude I feel for her sounds like a tambourine in my own theme song.
This Spoken word piece was inspired by watching the TV news with my aunt Shirley. Shout-out to Evelyn from the Internets, because I’m calling in Black tomorrow.
Audience/Reader: Hum, snap, step, clap, sing ‘Another One Bites the Dust’
Newsflash at dawn:
After several overnight reports of disturbances,
Police are on the lookout this morning for a smart negro male,
Accused of bringing up racism and angering the masses.
The suspect is considered armed with intelligence,
and other deadly weapons such as pen and paper.
9 0’clock morning News:
Police are on the lookout for a smart negro male,
Accused of bringing up racism and angering the masses.
Suspect is considered armed with intelligence and other deadly weapons.
The public is advised NOT to approach the suspect,
And notify authorities immediately…
So he can be shot.
News at noon.
Police are on the lookout for a smart negro male,
Accused of bringing up racism and angering the masses.
This station has obtained exclusive video of today’s deadly police shooting captured by a member of the public.
This exclusive footage posted to social media shows the suspect reading a book on colonization, before advising authorities who responded immediately…
When authorities arrived,
Suspect was found holding a book,
Defacing it with pens and markers as officers approached.
This exclusive video captured by several members of the public shows suspect refusing the officers’ orders to release the book.
Suspect is seen raising the book,
At which point officers fired 32 shots,
Twelve of which landed in the suspect’s head.
After anti-terrorist units spent several hours clearing the area of any potential radical activity,
Emergency services were allowed on the scene at which point the suspect was pronounced dead.
Evening news flash:
This station has new, exclusive CCTV footage from the Central Library where the suspect loitered for several hours.
The suspect is captured on several different cameras,
And can even be seen interacting with several members of the public.
An anonymous informant who works for the library claims that the suspect left several notes in the suggestion box, demanding the library, quote:
“…rectify the deafening void of Black autobiographies in the library’s Great American biographies collection.”
The anonymous library informant said that the suspect always sat at the same table near the ‘African-American literature’ section,
And had been seen furiously taking notes while going through stacks of books.
The anonymous informant says that the library received
“Several complaints about these disturbances.”
None of the complainants ever went on record.
News at 5!
This station’s investigations have also uncovered the Central library’s exclusive files on the suspect.
The suspect joined the library on September 11th of 1984 under a student account and a different name. That’s right.
We’ve obtained an exclusive ‘News at 5’ interview with the suspect’s fourth-grade teacher who initially helped the suspect set-up the library account.
The teacher describes the suspect as quote disruptive and “radical to the core,”
The teacher claims that during a history lesson, the suspect once referred to this nation’s founding fathers as “Unpatriotic, patriarchal, racist oligarchs with a God complex.”
Indeed, this suspect has a pattern of radical, anti-American sentiments.
While these troubling incidents were well before the terrible radical Islamic attacks of 9-11,
The pattern suggests early radicalization!
Authorities are still trying to understand why the suspect checked out a Koran,
And other books on Islam,
Just days after those terrible, Islamic attacks.
The suspect visited the library regularly and checked out biographies of other known negro Muslim radicals such as Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali.
Experts believe that reading these texts lead to the suspect’s radicalization.
From 2006 to 2007,
The suspect checked out every collection of essays by James Baldwin.
This triggered the FBI’s terrorist watch protocols.
Nightly news flash:
New evidence has surfaced regarding today’s tragic case of domestic terrorism.
Authorities have found that the suspect was quote very active
In the known radical hate group Black-and-Proud.
Our investigative reporters have uncovered proof that
The suspect was a key member of this radical hate-group.
Apparently, authorities had infiltrated Black-and-Proud’s on-line forum as early as 2006.
An anonymous police informant closely tied to the case believes that the suspect may have worked within an organized cell within Black-and-Proud.
Authorities are not calling it a terrorist plot,
But are calling on the public for any leads.
This station has obtained exclusive footage of Black-and-proud operatives conducting an indoctrination program for kids as young as five.
In this newly obtained footage from Black-and-Proud’s own website,
The suspect can be seen reading portions of the autobiography of Malcolm X to what looks like a negro kindergarten class.
Authorities are calling it a justified homicide.
Washington Post, July 2016
“History is not just stuff that happens by accident, we are the products of the history that our ancestors chose, if we are White. If we are Black we are products of the history our ancestors most likely didn’t choose.”Kevin Gannon, 13th
And many of our cities in Britain are this melting pot due to the very same history our ancestors chose / didn’t choose; and the reason Britain has a variation of different faces is much to do (but not only) because of Britain’s colonial ambition.
Episode seven of the latest series of Who Do You Think You Are? was on TV entertainer Sharon Osbourne. Her family were victims of the Irish Potato Famine. Whilst the episode skirts over it, saying it occurred due to crop failures (with no real explanation), some would suggest that it was due to heavy-handed (British) colonial rule which assured those crop failures, leading to mass migration, starvation and death. For a show that is basically a series of history lectures, it does a good job of tiptoeing around uncomfortable (truths) bits of history.
As the late Jamaican philosopher and academic Stuart Hall said, “We are here because you were there” and we are now all here together, the products of our ancestors’ choices. I’ve been following this series of Who Do You Think You Are? with great interest and fascination. Almost every episode has had me hooked. And this latest episode with Sharon Osbourne was heartbreaking, with her great-grandmother Annie being the sole survivor of her six siblings, after disease and weakness took them.
The family emigrated to Massachusetts, USA in the mid-19th century and they worked in a cotton mill, the biggest in America and the second biggest in the world, only dwarfed by one in Manchester, Lancashire.
What irked me was the lack of contextual explanation around cotton during this time. Why wasn’t there any explanation regarding the history of cotton in the United States? Moreover, that relationship between American cotton and the mills of Lancashire and Cheshire (some 4500 mills in Lancashire and southern Scotland). What about the Industrial Revolution and how colonialism and the enslaved Black people that paid for it?
In a country still living in the aftermath of The Slave Trade, you cannot talk about cotton in America without talking about where the cotton came from. The same cotton made into cloth in Massachusetts would have came from cotton plantations, whether picked by African-Americans slaves (pre-1865) or “like-labour,” post-Civil War – since after abolition, the establishment entered into something called convict leasing. Prisoners loaned to plantation owners for a period, which (in itself) was legalised slavery. A loophole in the 13th Amendment stated that you could not be a slave, unless you were a criminal and imprisoned, thus America enters mass incarceration.
Black people in America were arrested for minor crimes like theft and vagrancy, and then imprisoned in mass. These prisoners were “rented” and put to work on plantations through the South – sugar, tobacco, cotton and more. The fact they didn’t feel the need to mention the context behind cotton in America is astounding, nor how the American cotton trade impacted Britain, for example the Lancashire Cotton Famine (1861 – 1865).
Yes, this episode is about Sharon Osbourne’s ancestors, but they were part of a longer story – a subtler history – the other half of cotton’s history that isn’t taught at school. And in places like Mississippi, where cotton was sailed down the Mississippi River by paddle steam, the local planters said:
“Cotton Is King.”
In Britain, we learn about spinning jennies. We learn about water frames and the Child Labour Act (1833), but not where cotton came from. This is American history and British history. It’s also working-class history. But in addition, it’s Black (British) history.
We are here because you were there; this is the history our ancestors chose, if you are White. But if you are Black, it’s the history your ancestors didn’t choose. And the least we can do is tell it right.
13th. Dir. Ava DuVernay. Netflix. 2016. Streaming platform.
Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow. New York: The New Press, 2010. Print.
Olusoga, David. Black and British: A Forgotten History. London: Macmillan, 2016. Print.