Posted May 19th, 2011 by

Sharon at the "Bench by the Road"

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. 

8 responses to “BACK TO AFRICA”

  1. Thank you Sharon! I was just thinking about the Bench by the Side of the Road this morning as I was beginning a list of places to make pilgrimage to, as a White person seeking to decolonize White folks. That is, to get to something that is deeper, richer, more complex than "White." Of course, always aware that when walking down the street, or going through airport security, etc. I'm certainly White. Perhaps that is one additional roadblock for White folks, not only is there little practice talking about slavery, racism, genocide and their current legacies, but there is also a barren landscape of alternatives for us Whites to turn to. I have attempted over the years to visit places in the spirit of pilgrimage and witness for healing White people: the African Burial Ground in Manhattan, Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Park in SE Colorado, Manzanar in CA, to name a few. Going to these places and witnessing the pain and healing they embody inspires me to do healing work among White folks. That is one reason why Tom's (and his cousins in 'Traces of the Trade') voices are so vital for me. Thank you for your patience, courage and determination to find a way forward, together.

  2. Brenda Pell says:

    Very interesting, gave me some food for thought!

  3. Will Hairston says:

    Wow! I really appreciate the honesty and the powerful way you describe the experience. I think you are right on describing how hard it is for whites to even face the topic … and even harder to talk about it … and even hard to accept the responsibility of being a part of a perpetrator family or Church or State or Nation. Please keep on keeping on. Your honesty and courage is so refreshing and encouraging!
    And don't be too afraid to let some of that anger out. It is a much needed gift to us whites who are so slow to get a clue.


  4. gwen says:

    Sharon, for at least a year not, I have been in collaboration with a descendent of my ancestor's slave owner. It has been a VERY profitable venture on both sides. She knew history of the white family that would have taken me many years to discover (if ever)…step marriages that would have fallen off my radar) and from information about my slave marriages, she has broken through some of her brick walls. And her info has broken through some of mine.She found one of my gggrandmother's brothers, because she knew all of the women's married names and found him living near two of them. I am now two generations into slavery, finding an ancestor in an 1828 document, with another possible parent to take me back yet another generation. I think I am close to getting back to my original African ancestor. Another of her relatives is insisting that our families are related and wants to do DNA testing (how far we have come for a white person even to consider it), I really don't think we are, but he has convinced not only the oldest living descendent of the enslaver, but the older descendents of the three siblings he enslaved (my gggrandmother and her brothers). We need to advertise the advantages of such a collaboration. Neither of us would have gotten as far without the other's input, and it has generated healing and brought the two families together.

  5. Sharon, Loved your 'field' report. Actually, it cracked me up. 'Makes you want to holler,' as the song goes. But God bless you for trying to be 'White people friendly' on the latest doings about slavery. Your CTTT information table probably blew their little minds. Keep up the wonderful work. Next time, call me. I will send my friend who is a White man 'passing' for Black–proudly! (He's a jazz musician, of course).
    Warmest regards,

  6. I believe that some of the hesitancy of whites to recognize the effects, legacy and their connection to slavery and the slave trade is the fear of having to bear responsibility in some way, especially financially or economically. To many, the fear of "reparations" is a fear of the "big payback". BTW, I too, loved your report and while my heart hurt for you at some parts, you had me cracking up with your attempts to make your display "whites friendly". Having been in similar situations, I know how frustrating it can be. Sad part is that there is no point of friendly that will work for the many, only a few. I was reminded of this when I watched "Freedom Riders". In the beginning of the "Movement", there were some whites on the front lines, but as it got hotter and hotter, their ranks got thinner and thinner. Please keep up your work, My Friend of so many years!

  7. […] and Peace and less on profits and power and war. Sharon’s most recent blog post — BACK TO AFRICA — preys on me. As much as I believe in the healing model Sharon and I are testing together, […]

  8. […] Mercy, and Peace and less on profits and power and war. Sharon’s most recent blog post — BACK TO AFRICA — preys on me. As much as I believe in the healing model Sharon and I are testing together, as […]

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