BACK TO AFRICAPosted May 19th, 2011 by Thomas Norman DeWolf
I just got back from the National Genealogical Society conference in Charleston, SC. I spent a week working the Coming to the Table exhibit booth. As the exhibit hall ebbed and flowed with people, there was quite a bit of down time; plenty of time for thought and reflection.
One thing that really impressed me is just how many people are seriously interested in genealogy. Over two thousand people took the time to attend this conference. Judging from the license plates in the car lot, they came from far and wide. Like me. I drove more than 850 miles to be there.
Our goal with the exhibit booth was to attract genealogy buffs who might be interested in linking descendants of people who were enslaved with descendants of the people / families who enslaved them. That is the guiding mission of Coming to the Table.
Well….. it sure was interesting to see how people reacted to that proposition.
Our location as the last booth in the exhibit maze made it so that everybody had to pass us if they circuited the entire hall. Many took a wide berth when they read our display poster (which featured a quotation by Rev. Martin Luther King). Others stood back and watched us from across the aisle. You could tell they were curious, but they would only go so far. Not far enough to be engaged.
We thought maybe our book display or the DVDs we were showing on our monitor might be a deterrent. In our best attempt to be truly “white people friendly”, we rearranged the books and reprogrammed the DVDs. In your face books like Post Traumatic Slavery Syndrome went into a box under the table.
After a while, I started reaching out and putting information cards into people’s hands. “Can I please give you one of these?” I said. Although nobody refused, most still wouldn’t budge into a conversation.
But, a few did, and those were most revealing.
The people who wanted to talk were very candid. There were white people who had done a lot of research, knew exactly what their family history was, acknowledged the slavery aspect and seemed genuinely interested in doing something — like making their family records available to help black people find their ancestors. Then, there were black people, mostly women, who had “brick walls” blocking their research path. (The big “brick wall” for most is getting past the 1870 census, which was the first one that recorded us by name.) Most of these ladies also wanted connections and were happy to discover a new resource. I gave them cards for my Our Black Ancestry website.
And then there were the reprobates. One woman said “Aren’t you glad we brought you over from Africa?” When I said “no” and told her why, she launched into a diatribe about how black people were responsible for slavery because they sold their brothers. What I said about how the slave trade depopulated Africa and has inhibited its development ever since passed right over her head. There was another one whose caustic comments about “those people” in comparing “good” v “bad” immigrants (read “hard working Mexicans” v “fence jumpers”) made my stomach turn. She wanted the bad ones to be sent packing (or otherwise “disposed” of). Am I supposed to feel all right that she said this in my presence and surely thought I would agree with her?
Although I have become quite committed to the work I am doing, I often get really tired, confused, angry and resentful about the historical / emotional dynamic that compels (?) me (and not white people) to be kind and understanding on the issue of slavery (and other historical truths). I had to really stretch myself to not respond in an aggressively negative way to the woman who thinks we should rejoice over being “rescued” from Africa. In the end, I swallowed my ire and chalked it up to the blissful ignorance American history books and society sanctioned denial have made possible for people like her.
On the other hand, it continues to impress me how black people are generally retrospective and compassionate. Many of us want to heal. At the same time, few white people comprehend that healing is in order. How will we ever break through that psychological barrier? (That is certainly a rhetorical question).
My final take away from the whole experience is that it is clearly a lot harder for white people to deal with the issues of slavery and the continuing racism it engendered than it is for black people. Black people have been talking to each other ad nauseam all my life. We need to see white people being serious and talking about it too. If they don’t come to the table, finding resolution is a lost cause — just like the Civil War.
Anyway… just a lot of stuff to think about…. fodder for the book Tom and I are writing. I’m sure to be bombarded with additional fodder as we undertake our road trip this coming weekend!
BTW: The photo is me sitting on the “Bench by the Road” at Sullivan Island, the disembarkation point for almost half of all Africans brought to America as slaves. The Bench Project is a memorial history and community outreach initiative of the Toni Morrison Society. The name is taken from Morrison’s remarks about the absences of historical markers that help remember the lives of Africans who were enslaved.
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