Sesquicentennial of the Emancipation Proclamation

I'm my family historian.

On December 31st, 1862, my paternal great-great-great grandparents Lydia and Oscar Higdon awaited freedom in Mississippi. They were in their twenties when freedom came.

A couple counties over in rural Mississippi, my maternal great-great-great grandmother Nancy was an eight year old girl. The man that would become her husband, E. McWilliams, was thirteen.

Other maternal great-great-great grandparents, Hannah and 'X', were in their late thirties. They were in Alabama when freedom came.

Another great-great-great-grandmother, Ash [Ishy] Battle was a thirteen year old girl in Alabama when freedom came - she had a son named Colvin [born in 1879 and was listed in the census as the youngest and only literate person in his household] who married a woman named Trudy [born in 1887], who had a daughter named Wyona [born in 1909], who married a man named Willie Clarence President Barnes [born in 1904], who had a daughter named Pearlie Mae [born in 1942 in Mound Bayou, MS] who married a man named Charles [born in Mound Bayou, MS in 1940], who moved north in the Great Migration in 1958 and had six children, one of which was my mother Sharon [born in Chicago in 1964], who had me.

May I never forget that I come from somewhere. May I never forget that in a time of cultural amnesia and the erasure of histories, knowing and telling one's story is a necessary and revolutionary act.

Peace and gratitude to those who did the heavy lifting.

#Emancipation1863 #150Years

Thoughts on the Process: Critiquing Personal Privilege

"I’d like to leave y’all with somebody else’s words. W.H. Auden said ‘All I have is a voice to undo the folded lie’.

Here I am, a thousand miles from home, a thousand miles from any family member and I keep bumping into all these folded lies – these intricately [designed and maintained] lies that require a certain fortitude to undo and get to the bottom of.

I soon realized that in order to be fully human I have to be brave. I know that fear seems easier because you can scamper off into a corner and avoid the fight, but that comfort is temporary and it requires a cost far too high: reality, authenticity, the ability to speak truth to power.

So, I charge you, I encourage you, I dare you to be brave.
I dare you to be brave along the broken parts – those places where your cultural privilege bumps up against your personal hurt. When you’re challenging your privilege, I want you to do something for me:

When you start to do the negotiating dance that sounds a lot like ‘Oh man, I don’t think this person is lying, but I just don’t see how it’s possible’ or ‘Sure, I don’t see why someone would go out of their way to lie but…’

In those moments when you’re wrestling with Cultural Privilege, Despair, and Cognitive Dissonance, I encourage you to ask your self these questions:

‘Is it possible that this person whose knees buckle under the weight of a systemic oppression on a daily basis – is it possible that they know what they’re talking about?’

‘Is it possible that they have a monopoly on their experience and that they have the inclination and wherewithal to undo the folded lie that most intimately applies to them?’

‘Is it possible that I have traded Truth for my comfort?’

…and I dare you answer truthfully."

- The Ideologue's closing statement at 'What Does Feminist Anti-Racism Look Like?', a joint event put on by Community Change Inc and New Wave - Young Boston Feminists on 10/11/2012

Mayflowers and Mississippi: A Massmouth Spoken Word Performance

My interest in genealogy began my sophomore year in college. A close friend was very proud of her Irish roots and Nebraska upbringing and we'd connected over a number of things - being quirky only children and co-presidents of the Judy Garland fan club to name two. That Nebraska born and raised friend deemed me an honorary Irish descendant because she recognized how much it hurt for me to not know where I was from.

I'm unashamed to admit that I went through an entire MGM phase, by the way. The entire summer of 2005 was spent at Hollywood Video in Waukegan, IL religiously renting Gene Kelly, Judy Garland, Fred Astaire movies. I still know all the words and half the choreography to most of the old school movies.

That said, I'd grown up with these cool grandparents from down south and realized that we had a very peculiar history in the country. For some reason, I was a Midwesterner with a spoken twang and all these Southernisms - I didn't fit into the Chicago mold that got spoofed on SNL. I assumed that my family had come from West Africa, been in the States since at least the early 1800s and became Northern in 1958 when my grandparents moved up from Mississippi.

My childhood was spent in predominately Black churches, schools and neighborhoods. At my elementary school, we recited the pledge of allegiance and sang the Star Spangled Banner in addition to Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing. We flew the Stars and Stripes and the Pan African flag at assemblies - and all of that seemed completely normal. At 14, I decided to attend a high school clear across the city, which made for a two hour commute in either direction and my first experience in a diverse setting.

I was in high school when I saw my name written in another language for the first time. A friend wrote my name is this gorgeous Urdu script on my notebook. I remembered staring at it incredulously. How could something as intimately related to who I am as my name seem so unfamiliar? How much of understanding is lost of me because of how little I've been exposed to? It was then that I realized how fortunate I was to go to school with folks whose parents didn't speak English as a first language, whose families had moved from around the world or worshipped a Divine in ways I'd never known..

I remember learning my first lessons about being an ally in 2001 when we saw the footage of the twin towers falling during second period Algebra. My entire understanding of fear and terror had been a domestic one - I soon after began to realize the vitriol that often goes along with Americanism. The language of fear I'd inherited was one of klansmen nightriders, patrollers and hateful overseers. After 9/11, I saw our country bare its teeth and nip at the heels of friends who wore head coverings, friends whose families were from a number of countries that most of us couldn't place on maps (and proudly so).

Language for fear, lawful citizenship and belonging morphed into an exploration of xenophobia and United States identity for me and I took these lessons on to college (and ultimately, New England). To this day, while I critique my personal privileges (being cis-gendered, a native English speaker, straight, able-bodied and documented thanks to the 14th amendment), I remind myself of the first time I was unfamiliar with my name written in Urdu - the first time I was forced to hear myself rendered in a language I didn't understand, and in an exercise of trust and bravery, believing the person who wrote it..

Which brings us to July of 2009 when I moved to Central Square in Cambridge, smack dab in between MIT and Harvard.  Here I was, a lil' doe-eyed Black Chicagoan who'd only spent time away from home in four to eight week blocks at a time, living indefinitely in a part of the country whose rules and language I was disgusting unfamiliar with. When I began my blog, I sat in the front rows of lecture halls at Ivy League universities and historical societies with no college degree and very little confidence in my ability and right to navigate those spaces. I attempted to recreate a bit of solace from my predominately Black childhood and adolescence in Chicago by approaching Black Cantabrigians, only to be rebuffed for class reasons..

You see, my family hadn't been free or educated (the normative way, not in Mother Wit) early enough.

And for the first time in my life, I stopped speaking about where I came from. I was reluctant to introduce myself to people because the terrible trio of inquiries were sure to cleave me from the herd - "What do you do?", "Where did you study?', "Who are your people / Where are you from?"

"What do I do? Um, I do this. I love to learn, so I come attend lectures for fun. Where do I study? Nowhere - I can't afford it. Who are my people? I don't know."

I soon realized that appreciation for history was not always recognition of history. So one day I stormed the records available through the Cambridge Public Library and began my Heritage Box, a collection of old newspaper clippings, photographs, obituaries and census records from the past 250 years. I'm very happy to say that I've since presented our family tree (from 1820 on) to relatives at our 2011 St. Louis reunion and am preparing to donate information to the Mississippi Department of Archives and History and a bound publication of Great Migration interviews to the Newberry Library in Chicago.

...and I'm eternally grateful to my Nebraska friend. Later on, I'd learn that I had 20% European ancestry, including very recent Irish immigrants who'd come to Mississippi. Thank goodness for kinship regardless of how history unfolds.

Thank goodness for the ability to come home to oneself, and for what a blessing it is to do so.

*This piece was originally recited at a Massmouth event on January 7, 2012 in Brookline, MA

Embed Block
Add an embed URL or code. Learn more