My maternal branch is my best documented one. I had the good fortune of growing up in a home with my maternal grandmother, Pearlie Mae Barnes-Gray (1942-1996). She (like her husband Charles) was born in Mound Bayou, Mississippi and was the linchpin of that family line - always on a phone, always tethered to someone, always taking photos. She was a great person to connect a family that had been jettisoned across the country as part of that mass exodus of six million southern Black folks. She carried the mantle - and I was just the fortunate kid to have been brought up in her home.
My grandmother's love of Mahalia Jackson gave me a childhood filled with memories of music wafting through the halls of the house. I use Delta Blues to flesh out hard political facts and to find resonant language for grief and leavetaking. Woe works its way into cultural memory...and so Black folks of old found themselves singing the same refrain that their descendants would sing years later.
As a Great Migration grandchild, I sit the with beauty of the emancipation and Migration stories. I sit with that terrible chiasmus - my mother's mother grew up picking cotton...and moved to Chicago and grew roses. I grew up in that home and would visit the place she was from to pick cotton. While our experiences weren't the same, "place" is a peculiar thing...as is the power of cultural memory when you step into a space and conjure it. Twenty years later, I'd pop down to Providence from Cambridge to interview a professor at Brown about the forced ambidexterity of slaves under capitalism...so owners could yield more profit. He would tell me about the virtue that was tapered fingers (most common in women and children) when picking so separating the bulb from the husk was easier - and I would think about my own fingers that I used growing up to turn encyclopedia pages, assemble science fair projects and practice piano chords for years.
No one told me that cotton, much like roses, also drew blood from unsuspecting fingers.
It's been said that Black Americans are wedded to narratives of ascent - "up from slavery", "up from the American South in the Great Migration", up from, up from, up from - the arduous task of unearthing H/history forces me to submerge myself - into archaic language too constrained to communicate the heft of my humanity, into the philosophies and theologies that undergirded terror written into law...and into the stories of how that became our collective cultural inheritance.
If Black Americans are wedded to narratives of ascent, I imagine we're also tied to and charged by a leaden past in a heavy-footed land. Delving into my history changed me - I suspect it will continue to change me.
I suspect it will continue to grant me the gift of grace and the terrible burden of context. It is 2015 and I'm a 29 year old Black woman born on the south side of Chicago. My mother Sharon was born 22 years earlier six years into her migrant parents' northern life. Her mother Pearlie Mae 22 years before that in rural Mississippi in a Delta enclave founded by emancipated slaves buffered by rich land. Her mother Wyona born 33 years before her would be 11 when Miss Anne got the vote, 45 when de jure segregation fell (for what reason, she'd ask), and 59 when a King would be shot. Her mother Trudia was born in 1887 just up the road from that Delta enclave in another town where WC Handy first heard the Blues. Her mother Luncinda was born in 1862, one year into a war that would color the conscience and collective memory of a nation. Her mother Martha was born in 1820 as part of the generation that begged for that war to be some slouch toward justice and would be 41 when it began.
I have ballast. I am the end of a long line of people (but more important in this context, Black women - Black women) in bodies during times that never had sufficient language for them or the full life dammed up behind their eyes.
God bless the people that came before. God bless the land they worked on. Bless their Black bodies, their hair, their hands, their hopes (dashed and not). Bless the humanity they were able to wring out of a land that gave them no country and the temerity needed to do it.
...and bless the work we still have left to do.