I'm watching African American Lives on PBS, a documentary featuring the ancestry of prominent African Americans. The show features famous entertainers like Chris Rock and Tina Turner and prominent business and community leaders. Usually, when people look up their ancestors it's a happy occasion to learn where you came from and who you're related too. This is not so if you were born black in America.
I found out just how hard it is to figure out who your ancestors are last year when I looked up my grandfather on my father's side. It was so exciting to see his name in the government records, stating who he was married to and listing all of his children including my dad. My excitement was short lived, however, because that one census entry was all I found.
There was nothing at all before that one entry; it was as if he came from nowhere and suddenly appeared as a grown man with children. Watching African American Lives, I discovered why. Until after the Civil War, blacks weren't listed in the census because they were were slaves -- property. To learn anything about slaves, you have to examine property records, and even then you won't find names -- you'll find descriptions. We were listed with the cows, mules, pigs, chickens and other livestock.
It's in these records that we discover the true horror of slavery. We see how black people were valued, how they were sold and bought, how families were either preserved or broken up depending on the whim of an owner or circumstances. If an owner needed money, selling a slave was a way of getting some ready cash. Slaves were passed down in wills. The documentary also reveals the history of race mixing and asks the question, was every incident of race mixing under slavery rape? It also asks, what effect has this history had on the African American community today?
Seeing such accomplished people reduced to tears by discovering the fragments of their past tells me that the impact is great, even today. I was both fascinated and saddened watching the unraveling of these ancient documents and listening to the fates of these people. It was not about how hard they had to work or how they might have suffered physical hardship; it was about the emotional toll exacted by being treated like chattel.
This is what should be talked about during Black History Month. It's of little importance that George Washington Carver discovered hundreds of ways to use the peanut. What's amazing is that he managed to get the opportunity to have any freedom of self expression at all. The resilience of the human spirit it took for him to become a scientist is astonishing, and that's what is truly to be celebrated. As Chris Rock says during the special, it's amazing that any of us has managed to do anything at all given our history.
Next time you're enjoying that discussion with friends about where you come from, just remember that most African Americans have no answer to that question. And even if you ask them, realize that you're generally asking which state their family comes from -- not which country.
It's this history that needs to be remembered each February because it's a testament to the human spirit that African Americans survived and even thrived in post Civil War America even in the face of incredible discrimination, threat of harm and denial of opportunity. This is the legacy that should be proclaimed, celebrated and honored. It's a heritage to take pride in, and one that every African American child should be proud to carry on into the bright future our ancestors struggled to create for us.