Broken Family Threads

It is said that it is Black History Month, though many of my friends chafe at that and say it is ALWAYS black history. I understand. Imani Perry’s book South To America has been getting some buzz and as I writer I notice those things.

Yesterday, I read an essay adapted from her book published in Time Magazine’s Feb 14 – Feb 21 2022 issue titled “The Way Home.” It is about her effort to reconnect with a grandmother in Maryland who she is able to know very little about. Was her name Easter Lowe or Esther Watkins ? Was she born in Maryland or Georgia, was she 101 years old or 91.

I realized as I read how much I could relate to her journey to Maryland which is described in the article. Her attempt to get some insight into unknowable people. I recognized my own “roots” journey, often fraught with disappointment and too little too slowly. I am fortunate to know what I know now. Though the African American experience of slavery is not mine, I know how it feels not to know anything about where one came from (both of my parents were adoptees). At one time, I used to tell people I was an albino African because no one could prove me wrong, not even myself. Now I finally do know better.

Slavery was not exactly in my family history but in a way it was. My paternal grandmother was put to work in the Rayon mills in Asheville NC at a young age. She was not allowed to keep her own earnings and was probably expected to do a lot of other chores in the home. Her mother died when she was only 3 mos old and she had to live with a decidedly evil step-mother (from a story I heard about her being tied to a tree in a thunderstorm). She was a run-away slave. When her family visited her grandfather and her aunt in La Jolla California, she refused to return to Asheville and her slave labor there.

Poverty and the Great Depression was likely the cause of both of my grandmothers being separated from their babies. There really was not any family support for them. My maternal grandmother also lost her mother at the age of 11. She also escaped harsh conditions with her widowed father who was a sharecropper. She ran away to Memphis where she met and married my mom’s birth father.

Though I am not black and my family wasn’t enslaved, I can relate to Imani Perry’s story because in very real ways it is my story too. I didn’t grow up with a strong white supremacist’s identity. I was in the minority in Hispanic El Paso Texas and anyway, we didn’t have a clue to our ethnicity. Even so, I do recognize now that being white has put me in a class of advantages and I’ve worked very hard at educating myself by reading every anti-racist type book that has come my way. I celebrate the contributions of Black, African Americans to the diversity and vibrancy of the country of my own birth.

The Long Song

February is officially what is known as Black History Month. Some of my black friends joke about there being a month for something that has been going on all along – that being “history.” Never-the-less, after all the consciousness raising of last summer’s protests and my own significant efforts at self-education regarding racial inequality, as this month comes to an end, a story came into my awareness that seems to fit my blog’s topics and themes.

Here is the post that brought this story to my attention – “Today I watched The Long Song on PBS. **spoiler alert** When the recently freed black slave mother’s baby is stolen by her white master and his wife, I cried. So many thoughts came over me. My brain made a correlation. So many mothers get their kid’s ripped away. Sure, it may be due to drugs, neglect, violence and/or abuse. But I believe for most of these mothers, exposure to these things all come with ‘normal’ life in their world.”

“Often times, when their kids are taken, they don’t understand why. They were never rescued. Why do their kids need rescuing ? And despite all their parenting issues, I believe they most often deeply love their children. I do believe losing them, regardless of the state they are in, cripples them further. So, whether it’s right or wrong on the kid’s behalf, they are removed. It’s always a tragedy. It’s always traumatic. And there is always sorrow and grief. And today this 3 part series made me feel my sympathy for these mothers. Losing a child has to be one of the worst and longest lasting pains known to humankind.”

That true – one of the worst and longest lasting pains known to humankind.

The following is courtesy of Masterpiece theater’s What To Know Before You Watch

Told through the eyes of July, a slave and spirited survivor, The Long Song is set in the 19th century and explores the last days of slavery in British-ruled Jamaica. The story is about injustices humans inflict on each other and the unexpected ways in which people’s humanity can overcome harsh circumstances.

Born into slavery at the Amity sugarcane plantation, July gets taken from her mother as a child simply because the owner’s sister, Caroline Mortimer, spots her out in the fields and thinks she’s cute. There are many painful scenes yet to come, but this one is particularly crushing in its simplicity. Her kidnapping, which alters the course of her life and devastates her mother, is nothing more than a casual whim from people who have no awareness of their own cruelty. 

The story unfolds with the strong-willed July working as a lady’s maid for Caroline . When Robert Goodwin, a new overseer at Amity arrives, both July and Caroline are intrigued by his revolutionary spirit and intent to improve the working conditions on the plantation. But the winds of change across the hot plantation fields end up not being without consequences.

Robert Goodwin is a white Brit who initially sweeps July off her feet with promises of fidelity and fair wages for all the recently freed slaves on the plantation. And yet, he sours the second the Black people in his employ stand up for themselves, twisting into a hard, gnarled version of the idealistic man July fell for.

Based on the award-winning novel by the late Andrea Levy, the fictional story is inspired by Levy’s family history. Levy was born in England to Jamaican parents who arrived in Britain in 1948. “I’ve always used my books as a personal journey to understand my Caribbean heritage – and with that sooner or later you have to confront slavery,” Levy said.

After the book was released, research by a family member proved just how personal The Long Song truly was. “It was all done and then my niece found out a lot about our own family history,” Levy explained. “She found out that my great grandfather was born a slave. His mother was a housekeeper on a plantation called Mesopotamia and her mother was a field slave called Minnie. We found out that my great, great-grandfather was from Gainsborough in Britain, his name was William Ridsguard and he was the attorney on the plantation, and he had a child with his house keeper…that child, Richard Ridsguard was my great grandfather.”

Regarding the 3 main characters it is said –  “Andrea Levy really created three people who can be complete contradictions – I think you will find yourself doubting, hating, loving them. They are complete human beings.” The novel which was published in 2010 was the recipient of the Walter Scott Prize.