To this day the West African coast is dotted with multiple forts and castles, many of them the ruins of the Atlantic Slave Trade. One of the more notorious of these is located on Senegal’s Goree Island. Goree Island is home to the Door of No Return. For three hundred years my people would walk through this door, losing their lineage and roots in the process. Once the ships set sail the old life of my ancestors ended and the horror of the New World began. The sting of the finality of that journey lingers in me. Though the advent of DNA testing makes it possible for those of the African Diaspora to pinpoint their tribal origin, the knowledge of our specific village and clan has vanished in the mists of history. I accept the bitter legacy that the Door of No Return bequeathed to me.
There is a door on this side of the Atlantic as well. There is no museum for it, for the door exists only in memory. As a child I called it the Brass Door, for that is how I envisioned it. It was erected in my Grandma’s house. A daughter of the Mississippi Delta, she would occasionally tell me stories of her life in the South. Some of her stories were hilarious-such as the time she went to town on an errand and left my aunts at home with instructions to not let the goats in the house under any circumstances. The natural curiosity of children led my aunts to bring the goats in the house anyway. The goats promptly smashed all the mirrors in the house and made a mess. When my Grandma returned she yelled at them:”NOW you see? THIS is why I told ya’ll not to bring the goat in; he’ll see his reflection in the mirrors and ram them!” No matter how many times I heard this story it made me double over with laughter.
Grandma’s other stories were not as entertaining though. When Grandma stated that she stopped attending school in the third grade to “work in the fields” I sighed in disappointment. When Grandma told me how she, as an adult with children of her own, had to step aside and lower her head for white children to walk past her I bristled with indignation. It was the story of Jenny though that deeply wounded me. Jenny was my maternal Great-Great Grandma. My great-Grandma died when my Grandma was eight years old, so Grandma was raised by her Grandma Jenny. One day while talking about her childhood Grandma dropped a bomb on me:
“Your great-great Grandma was a slave, yes she was. Born into it”.
I don’t remember how old I was at the time. I remember how I felt though. In that moment of revelation Black history was no longer an academic issue to me. In that moment it became real, personal and painful in a way it had never been. My great-great Grandma was a slave? I was that close to one of my nation’s greatest shames? This knowledge bowled me over and I wanted to know more. Over the years I would pepper my Grandma with more questions about Jenny. Where was she born? How did she get to Mississippi? Was she sold to the Deep South from one of the Mid-Atlantic states? Or was she a victim of the clandestine slave trade that continued to flourish after the legal one was abolished in 1808? What was Jenny like? I never received answers to my questions. While Grandma would admit that the legacy of enslavement touched us personally, she refused to give details. I’d meekly ask a question and she’d pretend like she didn’t hear me. Under my queries my sweet Grandma morphed into a woman of steel, the lilt in her Delta accent evolving into a double-edged sword that cut my attempted interview to shreds. “Chile I said that’s ENOUGH! I don’t want to talk about it!” And with that she would turn away from me and go back to watching The Price is Right or one of her soap operas. Grandma could become a fortress when she wanted to, and her refusal to discuss slavery in depth brought to mind a door. It was there. I KNEW it was there. But I couldn’t force her to open it for me. Left with no choice I had to drop it.
My subsequent knowledge of slavery and all that followed it would largely come from my own studies, but I never stopped yearning for the personal knowledge. The first time I attempted to read Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” I felt so hurt and conflicted that I threw it down and couldn’t go on. The description of the chokecherry tree on Sethe’s back made me think of my Jenny, and she haunted me. Did my Jenny have a chokecherry tree on her back as well? Were my Jenny’s children sold away from her? I could have blood family scattered throughout the South and not even know it! I wanted to know Jenny, I wanted to honor her and I wanted to remember her. But I couldn’t because the Brass Door of shame and hurt separated us.
As a teen I slightly resented my Grandma for not answering my questions about slavery. As a grown woman I better understand why she found it so difficult to address the subject. In reading the experiences of other African Americans and their family elders regarding slavery I see that it wasn’t simply a case of not wanting to discuss it but being unable to. American chattel slavery was too psychologically traumatizing for them to face. As a post-Civil Rights Era baby I can’t fault them for that, for I can’t fully understand what they went through. I have to respect and empathize. My Grandma died nine years ago, taking the secrets and knowledge of my maternal family line with her. I love her and I miss her deeply. I’m still indebted to her for the way she loved and cared for me when no one else did. But I need to push through the Brass Door. Her generations’ inability to discuss what happened to our people makes sense to me. I can even see why my own peers would prefer to do the same. Facing New World slavery and learning about it is not particularly fun. When I read “The Book of Night Women” earlier this year, a fictionalized account of life on a Jamaican sugar plantation in the Nineteenth century, I had to stop reading at certain points, unable to continue because my tears blurred my vision. However in a country where the experiences of my people have been whitewashed and trivialized I find it necessary. If I don’t go back, if I don’t seek out the world of my ancestors I risk losing it forever. In 2013 we have senators who insist that chattel slavery was actually a blessing and African Americans should be grateful for it. Schools in Texas have christened American slavery as a kinder, gentler version of bondage that wasn’t nearly as bad as those pesky liberals would have you believe! Witnessing the way African American history is treated in this country, I fear that the “Unpaid African Internship Program” of Stephen Colbert’s satire may actually be taught as historical truth in the United States by the time my grandchildren are born. I cannot take part in such a travesty. So I’ve committed myself to researching this aspect of my history voraciously. Last month I forced myself to read “Beloved” and to process the emotions it brought to the surface. Once I finished “Beloved”, I scoured Amazon for non-fiction regarding American slavery. I’ve built a massive reading list of said books through my account at my local library and begun my study. American slavery is a beast that I need to know inside and out. Once I finish that study I’ll move on to Slavery in Latin America and the Caribbean. I’m opening the Brass Door and stepping through. My African past- my clan, my tribe and my name-has already been obliterated. I refuse to allow the same to happen to my American one.