The Ideologue: "I conducted a series of interviews with relatives who made the trip from Mississippi to Chicago in the late '50s and am compiling a family history to be published at the Newberry Library in Chicago. I experienced an interesting dynamic during the interviews that I'd like to ask you about.
My relatives were genuinely surprised and pleased that I asked about their decision to leave the South. After expressing those initial positive feelings, they told me how disappointed they were with how their descendants (and younger, unrelated Black Chicagoans) operated in the North. In your opinion, does an ancestor's story ever become their beneficiaries'? Will we have to contend with our stories becoming "outdated" and someone else's? Could that be why many of my relatives were reluctant to share their Migration stories?
Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot: "Well, I think one of the things you do (in asking them the question and bearing witness to their story) shows that you are not only interested in their survival and story, but in their resilience and endurance. And I think that's part of what makes a good interviewer (and grandchild). They understand that the subject matter can still be raw, can still be very real (even decades later) and difficult to respond to. Ask the probing questions; they'll tell you "Feel where I'm coming from", "Stand in my shoes."
The Ideologue: Thank you very much, Professor.
Post-Q&A Reflections: I picked up the mantle my maternal grandmother left behind and became my family historian a few years ago. Moving to New England in 2009 played a major role in my desire to sift through documents and chronicle seemingly unimportant tidbits about ante- and postbellum life.
My inheritance was everything from the Southern colloquialisms I heard growing up to the accent I delivered them in. And just as I am a beneficiary of many amazing movements toward justice, I am an individual person with a lineage that needs unearthing. As a result of many hours (that quickly folded themselves into days and months of intensive searching), I had an historical trajectory for my family tree. I am fortunate in that I was able to crack the antebellum wall and find documented information about my southern and Western European relatives.
I remember sitting on the floor of my bedroom when President and First Lady Obama walked the stage with their children in 2008. I know where my family members lived after they made the journey North, where they were when Brown v. Board of Education occurred, the 19th amendment, the Reconstruction amendments, and the Emancipation Proclamation. History was no longer a detached, faceless thing; it was something to be interpreted and filtered for context. What is emancipation in a land of engineered unfreedom? What is court-mandated school desegregation in hypersegregated cities comprised of violently-unyielding neighborhoods? How do we define our full humanity, our citizenship, and our participation in this grand experiment in democracy by casting a ballot? Can we still honor our ancestors' legacies by operating in ways that they wouldn't?
Perhaps a failure to recognize the importance of your historical narrative is a youthful transgression; maybe ageism plays a role in many folks' refusal to engage the people that carry these stories inside them.
Conducting these interviews changed me. It was a nonverbal promise - with every question posed in earnest, every nod and smile, each hug of gratitude at the end, I was assuring my relatives that their stories would be honored and valued in my hands. These stories are not above critique (as many are shaped by the misogyny, homophobia, and class issues of the day), but they are mined for meaning and serve as a whetstone for my cultural critique. Just as I have a lineage, so do the systems of oppression (and related personal privileges) that we currently operate in.
Where we come from provides us with a wealth of knowledge. It's a pleasure to have it in my arsenal.