Here it is. My sister and I are going to visit the place where our ancestors likely. . .no, probably, okay—let me be honest with myself. My sister and I are going to visit the home and land our ancestors worked as slaves.
There, I’ve said it.
I’m curious about what I will feel when I get there. The prospect of both extremes exhausts me. If I feel nothing, does that mean I have no connection with my heritage, no sympathy for my people’s plight, no appreciation for the tilled soiled that turned me up and spit me out in a hospital in Shreveport, Louisiana? If I feel everything, will I be able to hold down the tremors that may roll up and toss my body about? Can the tears be held back? I have pictured that hold, like I picture God holding back the waters of the Red Sea, with his big ole holding-black hands.
It all started when our mom died, this need to sink claws into a history and find a place to root. This happens to all children who have been abandoned, whether by force or choice. We have this sense of non-belonging that tugs at our hems and keeps us looking back. We don’t, I don’t, know what we’re looking for, but when we find it, we know. My sister and I are looking to find it. We’ve been looking since 2006.
In fits and starts we put the tree down and pick it back up again. Yes, we can pick up trees. We are strong like that. I’ve made a big to-do of things in the wake of this trip. I’ve forgiven; said things that I’ve wanted to say for decades as a way of mending myself up for the journey. My sister has done so too, reluctantly and obediently. But then, just the other day, I got into a disagreement with my sister. We rarely weary ourselves with such trifles. We have often tried to “make up” yearly fights. This disagreement was diplomatic. Non-demeaning. Necessary. It just made sense. Whatever was down there between us needed to be dug out and examined. It needed to be procedural and deliberate, in the same way we dug up and dusted off the muddy remnants of our family’s history.
Together and soon, we will take a two-hour drive from Memphis, TN to a small town in Mississippi. First, at Mississippi State, we will visit the part of the library that houses our stories from the perspective of white oppressors–cause, yes that happened. Then, we will try to fill in gaps and keep ourselves from imagining that we were the winners in this game America played for so very long, but it will not work. We will surely mythologize.
Kathy, one of my best friends, has traveled to Africa. She recalled standing on a shore and feeling as if the ocean was trying to tell her something. Even though she didn’t fully know the language of the waters, she knew of the story well. There came with the pregnant tide a trepidation and heaviness that drug Kathy down to tears. Each time she speaks of that memory, I get chills. Now, contextually, I wonder about the experience I will swap with her.
But then there is Desiree’s (my other best friend) vision. One of me stepping onto the grounds and looking about. One of me not seeing the specters of field hands and cooks, menders and blacksmiths, horse keeps and house maids, leaping up from their places, with heads wrapped, bodies weary, clothes tattered, and spirits bedraggled. They are applauding, as if they had been waiting for us to get there, like their children coming…home. She describes the thunderous reunion as one filled with wailing and moaning, signifying the celebration of tragedies and the end of grief surrounding miss-told stories. She believes the ancestors will be grateful to see us and we will feel an urgency pushing us toward truth, as if all of their fingertips are pressing at our backs at once.
Our truth has missing pieces. So many missing pieces. A rape. A staircase. Murder and fire. A massacre. Fleeing. Hanging. A few gaps. Then, there is us.
I’ll be sure to let you know how it all turns out.