The Promised Land

Posted June 23rd, 2011 by

When I was a child, many of my friends were recent arrivals from the South whose families came north during “The Great Migration.” Those of us who were born in Chicago sometimes laughed at their funny accents and country ways. There were also many children who disappeared every summer. When school let out for vacation, their parents sent them south to experience country life with their grandparents.

I was not one of those children. Although I have undeniable roots in Alabama and Mississippi, I was not born there nor did I have grandparents in those locations to spend my summers with. I didn’t visit the South until I was a married woman with a child of my own. I have been making pilgrimages back at almost every opportunity since.

My journeys take me to a lot of old courthouses, cemeteries and farms. As a genealogist, I believe the best way to appreciate the truth about my ancestors is to walk in their footsteps. And that is one of the things I did during my most recent excursion with Tom DeWolf.

Together, we visited the courthouse in Forrest County, Mississippi; a county named for Nathan B. Forrest, a Confederate general and the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. We also went to Money, Mississippi where we saw the dilapidated remains of the general store where Emmett Till purportedly whispered at the proprietor’s wife, Carolyn Bryant. We walked the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma where civil rights demonstrators were beaten and incarcerated on “Bloody Sunday”; Tuskegee University, whose buildings the KKK had a habit of burning down and Clarksdale, where, as late as 1997, the high school prom was a segregated affair. (No wonder Clarksdale is known as the place where the blues was born.) We went to Charlottesville, Virginia where 80 of Thomas Jefferson’s 200 slaves were held in bondage — including some of his own children. In Richmond, we experienced ghostly chills as we walked the Slavery Trail. In Tulsa, Oklahoma we relived “the single worst incident of racial violence in American history” which involved  the entire black part of town being burned to the ground in  a fit of white rage.

Almost every location we visited has a bitter memory associated with it. Every time I go South, I am reminded of that and the paradox that the South, as bitter as the memories may be, is the only homeland most African Americans will ever know.

It is interesting to note today that African American people are engaged in a reverse pattern of migration. They are pulling up stakes in northern cities like New York and Chicago to return to places like Georgia, Florida, North Carolina and Virginia.

One thing my elders used to tell me is that Southerner’s were not hypocrites. They let you know straight out where you stood. That place was at the back of the bus, in the balcony of the theater, drinking at the colored water fountain and standing in line while others were served. In the north, they played a game of saying you were equal and that color didn’t matter, even though it did. We were last hired and first fired, paid less and expected to do more, given the dirtiest and most menial of jobs, redlined into conclaves where integration was a myth and educated to the point of only functional literacy.

I have a hard time these days gauging whether and how much things have changed — South OR North. A recent Pew Center poll (April, 2011) of Mississippi Republicans reported that 46 percent think interracial marriage should be illegal. At the same time, Mississippi leads the nation in growth of interracial relationships. According to Census Bureau data, the figure went up by 70 percent between 2000 and 2010. The nation’s mixed-race population is also growing dramatically, with the South leading the way. In Georgia, Kentucky and Tennessee, this population expanded by more than 50 percent. I am not sure what this translates into in terms of actual numbers. If you start with two people, a 50 percent increase would take that up to three.

I am not advocating here for interracial relationships or reverse migration. The gist of the matter is that, in spite of all the bitter memories, my ancestral paths keep leading me South. In almost every town, I haven’t needed a GPS to find the ancestral homestead. At virtually every cemetery, I feel like I’m holding a dowsing rod as I discover graves of ancestors I may not even have been looking for. I feel very much at home with my former in-laws in the little town of Tallassee and enjoy riding back roads during deer season with my shotgun in tow.

If my son weren’t so committed to living in New York with my grandchildren, I might be on the midnight train because, after all is said and done, where — exactly — IS the promised land?


7 responses to “The Promised Land”

  1. Holly Fulton says:

    Thanks, Sharon, this is fabulous. Will share w/CTTT com'y here. There are a few from the South in the group. Best to ya!

  2. Very nice Sharon! Your travelogue is very inspiring. As a traveler and writer, (writing on another , yet titled historical novel), I try to see the world through the eyes of that slave boy in the cane and cotton fields circa 1763-1830, with no hope of being anything but a slave for his entire life. What was his reality? Our minds must stand in the bare feet of the slave and witness the world through his/her eyes if we truly strive to tell accurate stories of our past.

  3. Willene says:

    U have spoken our soul, thank you, this is marvtastic!!!

  4. Wendy says:

    I enjoyed you all travel log for this trip.

  5. I'm remembering our trip to Sapelo. That one change my life! Thank you for sharing your experiences.

  6. Will Hairston says:

    Thank you Sharon for taking these brave journeys and sharing your brilliant and honest reflections!

  7. Toinette Duncan says:

    AAs people of African heritage it seems possible that WE have changed more than the systems of racism in the U.S. and/or Canada ( my country of birth ) have. There exist a growing faction among us who have good and healthy expectations and investments in our families, communities and the world at large. We are increasingly self-determined and teach this to our "pulleys". You seem an example of this in your forays to the south. Most naturally, healthy people are drawn to their roots. You are free to find your healing over our history they way YOU like. And, the way you have chosen to do this is exciting and empowering to me (and many others no doubt). Some in our communities recoil at the thought of visiting such overtly racist places as the south. We may actively commit to other cultural endeavors that provide learning and personal healing. This is another example of the freedom we are living at the expense of bloodshed by our ancestors to indulge in what WE need. Now this is something that was much less common even when I was young. There were the movements that brought us together to rage, cry and organize. There were the activist leaders who taught us the pragmatics of effecting change. While these things still happen to a more or less extent, it is fulfilling, fruitful and farreaching that as individual members of a group WE have come so far as to have our own initiative in finding our healing. As Charles Blockson writes, we Canadians and Americans are cousins in this history of the enslaved people who sought freedon in the north. Canada was and is not the haven that propaganda or romantism would would have us believe and yet we continue to thrive against all odds. Each day it seems more of us are ready willing and able to live in "our truth" unafraid that we will be ostracised; knowing instead that we should be embraced because of it. I am one definition of a women of African heritage in the human race you are another and there are so many more yet we are sisters with common roots. I believe that this is a profound change that even reaches across the color lines. We are recognizing our own humanity. We increasingly relate to others with the expectation that reguardless of their colour they must recognize the humnity we share. When our humanity is not respected we as individuals and en masse have developed stategies to more readily address these derogatory events and move on. We of all colours who recognize the sickness that racism is chose to move about with whom we chose. This is irreverent to a system that would keep us from each other despite our "own truths". White people seem to be increasingly unwilling unwilling to be defined by a racist system and look for their own healing form their oppression. This is the change, the healing on previously divergent sides, that sing brings us together as citizens of the world. Thank you.

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