Alabama…..Russell County, Coosa County, Clay, Monroe, Tallapoosa, Jefferson, Madison, Jackson…..North Carolina…..Nash, Edgecombe, Onslow, South Carolina…Charleston, Lancaster, Virginia….Richmond City, Henrico Co., Prince Edward, Appomattox, Buckingham, Lynchburg, Amelia, Surry, New Kent, Accomac….south central Tennesee, western Georgia….
“Where?” in the South is not an easy question…
I guess I have always put these places in some mythical category in my brain. I’ve never been to most of them–not deliberately at least. My father made a point of taking me to Prince Edward County, Virginia and Lancaster County, South Carolina, and my uncle took me to Russell and Madison counties once upon a family reunion. I’ve prided myself on memories of these places but never thought I’d ever need to refresh them. I thought I knew where I came from. I thought I knew where I was going.
Maybe I’m just wise enough to take pleasure in the fact that I am half-assededly prepared for nothing. Thirty years of asking questions, being consumed with imagining their world and I am almost enjoying all the pieces and places I never thought of. History in broad strokes won’t help me now. I peel open my oldest and dearest friends and ask them to help me. My office floor is covered in books and crates.
I am currently awash in a sea of books. Sitzfleisch takes hold. Piles of books about Africa, the Transatlantic slave trade, slavery, genealogy, cultural history, atlases, guidebooks. How does one travel back into time without really traveling out of one’s own time? I suppose I am writing my own travelogue about that journey–with one foot in my own time, and another foot in the miserable past. What is our passport–these books? The things we thought we knew? Why do I feel as thought I’m crossing some invisible Maginot Line between the living and the dead more than I am setting my mind to go back into time? With every river I will cross the Kalunga line—facing as it were, the renascent dead.
These books cannot and will not tell me much more than the outline of the people I hope to get to know through scribbles left over from business transactions long since forgotten. I loved my grandmother in such a way that my heart breaks even to think about her. But these people are so dreadfully remote. I want to love them in that way–the way a child loves its grandmother and acknowledges her to be a link to the ancestors. I want to hug them. I want to be overjoyed to see them in my dreams, but I can’t. Not now. I don’t know these people. They are strangers to me, even thought I take it, I am no stranger to them.
I see their pictures. Cold, history shocked eyes. Vacancies of memory staring back at me. These are the eyes of willed amnesia. I want to be angry. Angry at white people, angry at African elites, angry at people for coming here after 1970 and not really giving a damn—angry at us for forgetting them and stereotyping them-I just want to be angry at somebody….but that doesn’t come easy either. I’m not angry or mad so much as I am choosing regret over something I had no control over and which cannot be changed. I get it, really I do–without amnesia–willful amnesia–they never could have moved on. The chains would be oppressive even in phantom form.
I don’t really care if I’m dredging up bad feelings with them though. I don’t know if they get it–I want them to show me their secrets. Like survivors the world over, they didn’t pass down to their children all the rotten-ness of life. All those rotten hearts, rotten words, rotten souls went with them into the grave in a pocket of their minds. Whip marks–no—bruises from rape–no—-distrust and fear—no—hunger—wanting for just one more crumb—no….all of it had to go to the hell of not asking and not telling. I’m here to ask of them something they could not give of themselves—the details of their pasts, and the fleeting memories of the generations ripped from Africa.
The map looks daunting but its really fun to imagine yourself, just like you did when you were a kid, toy-car ing it down the page of the road atlas–as if you were really to scale! In your minds eye you saw the little lead-painted wonder glide down the map as seeing yourself like an ant from the sky. You are the moving little pulse….this path will take us from where the slave pens stood in Baltimore through southern Maryland and into the northern Tidewater of Virginia and from their to Richmond, west to the southern Virginia Piedmont and the Blue Ridge spine.
From there, western Carolina, central Carolina, Georgia’s head, Alabama’s torso, Tennessee’s bottom and Mississippi’s rib cage. Louisiana’s mouth and Florida’s eye. We will see the places where my folks were enslaved and the land they worked and the graves but we will see the places where the other “ancestors,” were–the people without whom I could never give texture nor tone to the story. In many cases I will not find a house or even a landscape…I will rely on historical sites and museums that interpret and give a general picture of regional life. I don’t know how to steel myself–the armor doesn’t come easy–I have to surrender to the fact there will be so many unanswered questions, so many things I’ll never know. I just hope it makes me appreciate and love to death every detail I can squeeze out as I authenticate my ancestor’s story and weave it into the story of African American foodways.
And all the while, I am confident. Confident I’m going to find something amazing and beautiful about them and about myself. I don’t know how far back I will trace them or what will come up, but I am sure of one thing. I will go far, very far. And I will go very far inside myself and find more than just DNA.