Someone Knows My Name

In this country, we like to talk about where we came from, even if we’re not sure exactly where that is. We invent legends, loosely based on fact and wrapped up in word-of-mouth lore.

There are a few truths I know. My family, on both sides, has scattered like leaves and has left little history. We all share a streak of artistic ability, minds and bodies that quickly grow addicted and obsessed. Some of us are quick runners, due to a genetic, evolutionary history of petty crime.

On my father’s side, which is where I got my dark hair and light eyes from, there were those among us who were vaudevillians, makeup artists, ice dancers, salesmen. On my mother’s side, where I get my wily sense of humor and quick temper, there were those among us who were ginger-haired, quick with their fists and their wits, travelers and guards.

Further back, before the minstrels, the woods were dark and thick. Some of my ancestors had money and slaves. They kept human beings under their pale thumbs and called it Christian duty. They didn’t think anything of it. The ones that they kept pinned to the ground thought something of it, though. After a time, they rose up. They burned the big house and took their souls back.

It’s a shameful piece of family lore, one that I know very little about. I know that it happened deep in my paternal ancestry, near the Alabama/Tennessee border. This side of the family produced my angelic Great Grandmother Redmond, who was born in rural Pulaski, Tennessee but traveled far from there early on. Her family tree had deep Cherokee roots, and it’s a quiet, not widely known fact that many Cherokee kept slaves. My great-grandmother, beautiful, dainty, with a clear, glowing olive complexion, was sometimes wary of the African American aides at the nursing home where she lived out her final days.  I remember visiting her sunny, antiseptic and Shalimar-scented room, watching her clutch at a soft bed blanket and furrowing her brow when an aide she didn’t know passed her door. “You have to watch them“, she said to us once.  Her quiet bigotry saddened me then, it was so out of character of my perception of my saint-like great-grandmother.

What happened during the time of our ancestors shames me now.  I know it’s not my fault, of course. Less sensitive types might think I shouldn’t feel remorse or low feelings at all over something that happened almost 200 years ago in a red, dusty place that I’ve never stepped foot in. I wish I knew more about it. I wish I could travel back to the time before and after the uprising and bring back truth and healing to the present.

But if I don’t feel pain for those that my family oppressed, who will? There are slaves everywhere, all over our Earth. Close your eyes, spin a globe, point a finger at a part of the world and you can almost guarantee someone is indentured unfairly and cruelly. Those whose ancestors were oppressed often become the oppressors themselves. If we are to heal people someone has to feel remorse and keep the tears flowing. We can use our words as swords.

I’ve been gobbling up books about slavery ever since visiting Virginia this summer…am currently being blown away by Someone Knows My Name by Lawrence Hill and would also recommend Weren’t No Good Times, from the Real Voices, Real History series). I’ve always been a  lover of historical fiction, especially southern historical fiction. Maybe in surrounding my thoughts with sorrow, strife, redemption, pain, justice, and mercy I can find it in my heart to forgive my ancestors who held a strong arm over souls that should have been born free.

“Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.” – Harriet Tubman

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4 thoughts on “Someone Knows My Name

  1. It’s important to look at the pasts we’ve inherited…not to take ownership of the choices of others, but certainly to be honest and able to see what happened (so we can be wiser and more compassionate).

  2. I know very little about my family, but I remember talking with Ba.D. about his family while I was still pregnant with Li’l D. He knows 100+ years of his family’s history, off the top of his head. I was reflecting on the oddness of this fact when he said something like, “I’m boring you to pieces, huh?”

    I replied that it was rather the opposite. I’d just been reflecting that our son would know very little about his history on my side, but would have clear lines running generations back on his family’s side. That seems like a gift.

    One thing that stands out was Ba.D.’s mention of slavery, something about “four generations from slavery to Yale.” It’s incomprehensible to me that so few human lifespans could separate us from something that seems so clearly, blatantly wrong now. I’d always felt pained by the thought of slavery, in any form (as you’ve said, there are different forms of slavery that continue today), but it mostly felt distant until I thought, “If it’s just four generations between Ba.D. and slavery, that’s five generations between our future child and slavery.” That’s easier to wrap my mind around than “130 years” or what have you. It reminds me to be mindful of peoples’ suffering now, and also to rejoice the many freedoms I enjoy.

"... all my lovers were there with me, all my past and futures."

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