Reclaiming Black History

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Se wo were fina wo san kofa ayenki.
(It is not taboo to go back and fetch what has
been lost.)
Akan proverb
A couple of years ago during a combined 80th birthday
celebration for my mother and the first ever family reunion
of the Davis-Gamble clan from Marshall, Texas (my maternal
line), two of my siblings compiled a book of our family
history. The fifty or so photocopied pages in a blue, plastic
three ringed folder, opened with our family tree from as
far back as our collective memory: the end of the Civil
War. Several pages attempt to piece together lineages of
deceased family members. The remaining pages contain
the trees of my mother, Bettye, her only sibling—George,
each of her children (9 total), their children and grandchildren.
Of course, we have the template to add more pages
which is fortunate. Already my mother has 15 great,
grandchildren.
On the front page of the book was a sepia colored copy
of an old photo. The photo was of a group of people standing
on the front porch of a modest house circa 1900. Written
in recent ink with lines pointing to them were the
names of my great grandmother, Julie Jones, standing in
the back and her husband, my great grandfather, Dick
Jones on the opposite, front row. Dick Jones was the son of
James Bank who had come to Marshall from Kentucky.
The story above the picture states that Vinnie Banks was a
“formerly enslaved woman of African descent who migrated
from Virginia to Kentucky.” The oral history as it’s been
passed down intergenerationally says that Vinnie actually
walked from Virginia to Kentucky, carrying James Bank in
her arms, when she received word she was free.
Walked! I instantly thought that perhaps it hadn’t been
such an arduous feat. Perhaps she had lived in a border
county. My brother cautioned against such limited thinking.
Ironically, I had just seen the movie, The Great
Debaters about the art of debate at Wiley College, a
Methodist Episcopal HBCU certified by the Freedman Aid
Society and, coincidentally, the school my grandmother
attended. In being challenged to identify a little known
fact about his father, James Farmer, Sr., the character playing
James Farmer, Jr. stated that his father had walked
from Florida to Massachusetts to attend school. My belief
in the strength of the human will was restored.
But even greater than the walk was imagining what her
life had been. Had she been raped and beaten to produce
and reproduce? She was, after all, a Black woman of childbearing
age who had been enslaved in one of
the primary slave-breeding states and the
child she carried into Kentucky, James, was a
mulatto. Had he been her only child? Had
she experienced the world-destroying pain
of having her children sold away from
her/stolen away from her the way DCFS disrupts
Black families today? Had her knees
been rubbed raw and her soul drained with
prayer on the Watch Night? Had she danced
and sung for the jubilee, remembering those
whose aspirations she fulfilled? Was freedom
what she’d imagined it to be?
No one in our family knows what became
of Vinnie other than her son James moved to
Marshall, the Confederate capitol of Missouri, where eventually
my mother came into being. The length of her memory
seldom extends beyond James Banks’s son, Dick
Jones/”Papa”, an imposing figure on the white horse he
rode through town. Such is the story of many Black families:
cut off from not only our extended collective history,
but our family histories, as well.
This February is not only Black History Month but it
begins the yearlong countdown to the commemoration of
the 200th birthday of Abraham Lincoln when individuals,
organizations and institutions will be celebrating “all
things Lincoln.” I wonder what Vinnie Banks thought of
Lincoln, shifting her from enslaved to free with little, if
any, support. Had he been her longed for savior?
Even if few knew or understood Lincoln or could
divine his motives, women like Mittie Freeman were
painfully aware of the material effects of his emancipation.
She told a WPA writer, “[i]t seem like it took a long time
for freedom to come. Everything just kept on like it was.
We heard that lots of slaves was getting land and some
mules to set up for their selves. I never knowed any what
got land or mules nor nothin’.” Surely, Vinnie had prayed
for freedom, but at what cost? What was the legacy of her
freedom struggles post-Lincoln? How did it impact and/or
empower the women in her daughter-line? Are we yet free?
Several weeks ago, I attended a meeting of the Illinois
Amistad Commission formed in 2005 to ensure the proper
and accurate instruction of the history of the U.S. slave
trade, enslavement and its vestiges and the triumphs and
contributions of Blacks in the U.S. in all Illinois K-12
schools. While the teaching of Black history was mandated
in Illinois several years ago, the implementation and monitoring
promises to be a momentous task, especially given a
teaching force that is predominantly white, middle-class
and female, particularly in small urban, post-Brown v. Board
of Education communities that are predominantly white.
Black History is American history and should be studied
year round. I trust that all Black parents will hold their
local schools accountable so that we can all intelligently
critique history and its figures. But as my family book presciently
suggests, family histories (and by extension, the
histories of neighborhoods and towns) should be the first
site of historic investigation for our children. The knowledge
gained in schools can be used to augment our
understanding of private/family struggles in the
public/political domain.
Regardless of the legacy of Lincoln and our collective
struggles for freedom, “we are the ones we’ve been waiting
for.” For the seed of true emancipation lies within each of
us. It is this seed that joins us across the generations. Just
as the struggles and sacrifices of Vinnie Banks continue to
be felt into the seventh generation.

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