Resist and Redefine

img_1026Below is a list of slaves held by Elijah Ratliff (1787 – 1865) in 1861. Among them is my great great grandfather Graham. I hold on to this history because my grandmother told me stories about him.  He is real for me.  This is also the farthest back I can go in my black family tree. Although I can link my “Dyer” family name directly to white settlers on the Mayflower and slave owners in the Caribbean, I cannot connect my maternal African roots to anything so lofty…an epic journey, a fledgling nation, kings or other empires or a specific region or tribe. Instead, the most concrete proof of my black ancestors involves me living as the legacy of this country’s deepest shame.

It is easy for the liberal consciousness to wrap its head and resources around the fact that the people at Standing Rock, the Sacred Stones Camp, Red Warrior Camp and the Oceti Sakowin Camp, are protecting water. Water is life.  Yet we cannot forget or ignore that they are also fighting for the right to remain connected to their past as well as their living heritage moving forward. Since the beginning of the organized European nation on this continent, the greed inherent in capitalism has fed itself on the erasure of non-white people’s ethnic history. This is an ongoing battle between culture and commerce. It is the real face of the American experiment.  It is wholly repugnant.

When I look at this list of names as property connected to my own family, I am reminded how sacred and powerful ancestral memory is and how often it has been the target of the American commercial machine. Tracing family trees has become big business and can be a thrilling way to learn history through a personal lens for some.  But for people of color in today’s America, these tenuous connections to ancestors and traditions are even more important.  They give a tangible context to the dominant culture’s relentless effort to deny us the status of basic humanity. Ancestral memory is in part what ignites our desire to resist and redefine.  Maybe this is what scares some people about “identity”.  If the American Indian and native people are any example, the fuel of cultural identity remains more viscous, volatile, alive and more permanent after 500 years of attack than anything that can ever be shaken loose from the ground…and it is already on fire.

Names taken from the will of Elijah Ratliff, Anson County, North Carolina, 1861

1. Big Ellick
2. Wesley
3. Laury
4. Graham
5. Bukugan
6. Anthony
7. Julyan
8. Dina
9. Lucy
10. Caroline
11. Wallis
12. Bone
13. Sallie
14. Washington
15. Tom
16. Harry
17. Martha-Jane
18. Bill
19. Johanna
20. Rose
21. Warren
22. Betty
23. Anna
24. Isaac
25. Mary
26. Anderson
27. Stephen
28. Harriett
29. Zacy
30. Willy
31. Silva
32. Anderson
33. Lize
34. Elbert
35. Tommy
36. Sass
37. Little Ellick
38. Ann
39. Frank
40. Peter
41. Stephen
42. John
43. Nealy
44. Nance
45. Sam
46. Hannah
47. Buck
48. Lane
49. Lewis
50. Luke
51. Abram
52. Henry
53. Jim
54. Peter
55. Peg
56. Robin
57. Jesse
58. Perry
59. Katherine
60. Peter
61. Jesse
62. Carolina
63. Reubin
64. Jacob
65. Jon
66. Tilla
67. Big Frank
68. Mary
69. Peter
70. Richmond
71. Poll
72. Alph
73. Jam
74. Riley
75. Alice
76. Riley
77. Ellen
78. Mary
79. Mike
80. Tempy
81. Molinda
82. Patience
83. King
84. Sam
85. Ellen
86. Ben
87. Sis
88. Riley
89. Harriett
90. (child)
91. Charity
92. (child)
93. George
94. Allen
95. Sarah
96. Vina
97. (child)
98. Isaac
99. Mitchell
100. Margaritt
101. Charles
102. Lisa
103. (child)
104. Vina
105. Ephraim
106. Matt
107. Frank
108. Harriett
109. (child)
110. Lizzie
111. Jane
112. Cindie
113. (child)
114. Emaline
115. Anderson
116. May
117. Jefferson

Family Wall

I keep hearing the story, mostly from my non-POC friends, about family members or people they are close to who voted for the incoming administration. These friends are all struggling to navigate feeling as if the world has been swept from under them, while having to face the people who did the sweeping on Facebook, on weekends home, and over the coming holidays. They are asking tough questions: when do you argue; when do you sit silent at the table or “just not talk about politics because…well…family”; when do your actions or inactions enable the violence that is steadily marching back into the norm of life in the US? Christina Sharpe wrestles with this question in her article for THE NEW INQUIRY titled “Lose Your Kin”…check it out!

When I consider this situation, I can’t help but think about the many people I know who were thrown out of their “families” because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. I think of families divided and ripped apart by war or extremism. These are people who have had no choice. They had to pick a side, just to survive. And they chose “family” that will always unabashedly have their back. We are taught in our Western democratic world that life should not be about choosing sides but about compromise. But the current “compromise” trades on the basic ability to survive for too many of us. It is not just that we are being asked to wait for another election cycle, we are being told to watch our communities get torn apart; we are being told that our lives matter even less than when we have been shot in the street; we are being handed an aggressively paternalistic message that says inequality is entirely justified by skin color and chromosomes. As a result, for those of us in the crosshairs, family cannot first be about blood. It must be about who we see in the mirror standing next to us. Liberals are woefully unprepared for the painful decisions that are needed to make the “beloved community” we so loftily talk about. “We did this to ourselves” is a tepid, inadequate and inaccurate response in light of the fact that so many seem to know someone they may call brother, or father or spouse who did this and did it proudly. We must be more.

There can be no easy answer to the question “what is family” but we must ask this question boldly and with a new sense of urgency. How has the desire to justify and make excuses for “kin” fed the growth of fear and hatred on the other side of family walls of denial?

Your family sits in the other room.
They have been there for a very long time.
It used to be easier to see them
…for them to see you.
There used to be an open space
where your room ended and theirs began.
It contained the support
that held the house together.
There you saw pictures and mementos
of the many lives before yours
that added up to who you are
…your birthright, your heritage.
Then someone thought
“French doors would be nice”
still letting light in from either side
but something to keep the sound out,
some privacy
while you learned to dance to music they didn’t enjoy.
Then you woke up one day
to the glass painted over
(did they do that…or did you do it in your sleep?)
You could still hear,
but couldn’t see them any more.
The doors still swung both ways
until over time the hinges grew rusty
in one direction from lack of use
and the door was no longer safe to open.
The door was as good as a wall.
That’s when the lock came
…and the lost key.
Then you forgot altogether there was a door
let alone that it had ever been open
behind the shelves and the couch.
Occasionally, you heard them
your “family”, in the other room
claiming more mementos and taking pictures
of all that had come after you
…the noises of life.
They heard your sounds as well.
What a peculiar price to pay
when no one seems to care enough
or have the courage or the lack of pride
to shift the furniture and find the key
or just pack up all the memories and finally move away?