Friday, February 08, 2008

black history month: a case for voting black

My aunt's apartment was stifling hot and smelled strange but I tried to ignore it.

"Our people took the name of Mr. C-, you know. He owned our family and when the war was over, we just kept the name," my aunt said.
"I don't know anything about that time. I mean, no one's told me stories about it," I said.

"Well, it's here and there." She thought a little. "You know, there is a story about a relative of ours. The rest of the family kept the C- name and stayed in Alabama. But one left. He came up North and disappeared."
"Disappeared? Why'd he disappear?"
"Because he passed."
"No!"

"Yes. He was white. Real white. Your great granddaddy passed for white for a while; his wife could pass, too.” She paused again. “I don’t know how your grandfather got so dark. Anyway, he came up to Chicago and the story is that he worked in a store and started a business. But he never got back in touch with the rest of the family. He's just lost."

She said this like he just wandered into State Street and just couldn’t find his way back.

"I have never heard this story!"
My aunt sighed. "There aren't that many family members left who know it."
"Huh. Fascinating."

Unfortunately, I have totally forgotten what my passing distant relative’s name was.
...

The new Skip Gates special on PBS is full of these stories of passing, diaspora, disappearance and reinvention. (But sometimes I wonder if my own family's narrative is real or just patterned on other stories of black family lines whose origins are just as murky or tangled.)

What strikes me about some of these early stories of lost family members reclaimed is how prominent black-owned land figures into them and how crucial the land is to forming early black identity as well as ideas of freedom and citizenship. The program begins with Gates visiting the land his family has owned for 6 generations and passes by a parcel of land his family had owned but had to sell. Since part of their own genealogical story is lost to them, their farm acts like an anchor for their identity. In subsequent conversations with celebrities like Chris Rock, Tina Turner, Morgan Freeman, Don Cheadle or Tom Joyner, Gates reveals that their families had once owned land - 40 acres, 62 acres, 65 acres - donating or selling some of their land to build schools or churches. The revelations about property and land ownership become a source of pride in their family.

What is it that Rock says – If he had known this before, it would have taken away the inevitability that he would be nothing. And property is usually the vehicle for these stories to come to light; they act like a bracket around early black families: you were property and now you have property.

At the turn of the century blacks owned between 12-15 million acres of land; by the 30s and 40s that number shrinks to just a little over a million. For many of these black families the land is a foundation to build their newly acquired identities as freed people that suddenly disappears, forcing their story to jump, only to be picked up further down the line. What happened? What happened in those intervening years? Did African Americans just suddenly decide, "Hm, you know, owning land sucks. Let's pick up and go north"? Usually something else happened to make a family, or even a whole black town, disperse.

Tom Joyner's family story is a good example; Gates finds his great grandmother but her paper trail ends somewhere in late 19th/turn of the century Carolinas, only to pick up again several years later in the north. Joyner has no idea why she left home or what the story of his family is but Gates and his team discover the reason: His family owned a substantial parcel of land but when his two great uncles are accused of murder and executed, the family sells their land to pay for legal fees and the remaining family flees the area. But Gates' team also uncovers that the accusation was probably false, specifically targeted at the two great uncles because they were part of a black landowning family.

Chris Rock asks how his own ancestor could go from slave, to soldier, to legislator, to landowner, to sharecropper all in 10 short years; Gates simply answers, 'Reconstruction ended.'
We're left to conclude what happened to Julius Caesar Tingman's land on our own.
...

Three years ago the exhibit "Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America" came to the Chicago Historical Society and it was a hard exhibit to walk through. Again, I noticed stories of black land ownership (or burgeoning private enterprise) running alongside the photos of ‘extra-legal deaths at the hands of unknown persons' (which is how the Society described the lynchings that spread throughout the country from Reconstruction to roughly 1965 or '68.)

In 2001, the AP ran a series called 'Torn from the Land' that researched and confirmed claims of widespread land theft - claims that are crucial to the reparations movement. Opponents of the reparations movement say that it's a fallacy to punish or extort money from people today for events in the past; slavery is over. I counter that the cost of these past events is still felt today through procedures that, are legal and that still disproportionately affect poor communities of color, i.e., partitioning, rezoning, ‘revitalization’/gentrification, and eminent domain. These legal maneuvers aren't 'extra-legal' or as extreme as lynching but they sure do have the same result – displacement, dispersal, diasporas.

Personally, I'm sort of neutral about the reparations movement. Do I want my father's family to be paid money because of slavery? Not really. What I want is a deeper, more public acknowledgment of how slavery impacted and drove our capitalist system, and how our nation's participation in the slave trade laid a foundation for practices, industries and institutions that not only continue to have an adverse affect on communities of color today but still provide the elite in this country with wealth and prosperity. That's not too much to ask, is it?

Land is at the bottom of our American imagination and mythology. The land was the lure and the land has allowed us Americans to earn our claim to citizenship - we stole it, settled it, colonized it, killed for it, and exploited the shit out of it. American land is a metaphor for our political and national identities at home, as well as a justification for our acts abroad.

As an African American, though I am a participant in (and benefactor of) this American history, I am distant from it because of how the land figures into our own fraught, black history: we were counted with the land, we worked on the land, we fought and were killed for the land. More acted upon than actor, we have seen our roles in history marginalized or elided, but now we approach a moment where, at last, our acts can be writ large and with boldness.

I say we owe a debt to our ancestors for the sacrifices they were forced to make – if we have the chance to take a firm step toward repaying that debt, toward reclaiming the lost land of our identities as black Americans, then we should take it now.

16 comments:

Orange said...

This is fascinating—certainly nothing I ever learned in school or after. And incredibly well-written, too. (Is this what you were studying in grad school?)

bitchphd said...

This is a fabulous post.

I've made arguments about the fact that the 1950s created a lot of wealth for white working class and middle class folks that was denied to black people, and that this fact means that (say) anti-affirmative action arguments are racist because they fail to recognize that the parents of today's white college students were given property and educations that the parents of today's black college students weren't given (and therefore, things like legacy admissions and the advantages of having college-educated parents are unfair to black people).

But I've forgotten that this is double heinous because of what happened to black landowners in the late 19th century. Of *course* a lot of what the KKK was doing was trying to drive black landowners off their land--shit, that's part of the plot of Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, which was one of my fav books as a kid. So obviously it's something I did learn. It says a lot about not only what *isn't* taught, but what *is* (that black people have always been poor, victimized, passive), that I forgot it.

bitchphd said...

Also, would you repost this over at Bitch? If you don't want to, I'll just write a brief post and link back to here, but fewer people will read it. And it's a great response to the posts I've been doing about Clinton lately.

Orange said...

Yes, yes, yes--what Bitch said. Repost! You will educate the feminist masses.

ding said...

you know, i was going to post this on Bitch, but i hung back for some reason. but i will!

(Orange, you have no idea how long i spent on this post. just on the last two sentences!)

liza said...

Damn. This is a great essay. You're totally right about land and a sense of personhood. I kept thinking of the parallels in Chicana/o history in the Southwest/N. Mexico. I'm going to have to check out the Gates special now. I'm at a Latina/o Studies conference in Kansas right now and people keep talking about Black and Brown parallels / alliances, and it's my impression that most of the comparative work being done is fairly contemporary; it makes me curious if anyone's doing a 19th/early 20th C. comparative historical project--I want to read it!

ding said...

liza, of course i thought about landed mexicans in 19th century california while i was writing this.

the media makes a lot out of a black/brown conflict this election cycle and while that may be the case (in a particularly los angeles context) i think that a lot of coalition building could be done, and may be in progress, around this.

and if no one's doing this kind of work, then it's wide open, sweetie!

@Orange: no, this wasn't my specific field (i was a victiorianist - and a pretty uninterested one, at that). my interest in lynching history and subsequent institutional policies that governed race is pretty much a product of my current work with my non profit. all i do now is read about racial justice and policy!

liza said...

I'm not so much with the archival historical work--being all contemporary poetry and pop culture myself. I want someone else to do the slog, maybe some up and coming bright spark looking for a project. Ah well, too bad I don't have grad students to mold.
Also, I'm waiting for someone to do something comparing the Harlem renaissance and Mexican expats in LA during the 20s... I just realized I probably have a reading wish list of books that need to be written-that-I-don't-want-to-write.

bitchphd said...

i hung back for some reason.

Probably because your women's intuition told you that the commenters might act like twerps.

ding said...

Probably because your women's intuition told you that the commenters might act like twerps.

cough. well. yes.

ding said...

@Liza:
I just realized I probably have a reading wish list of books that need to be written-that-I-don't-want-to-write.

you need a staff, like Henry Louis Gates.

bitchphd said...

cough. well. yes.

I know. All the more reason to do it, though. If ykwim.

Miss Mary Smack said...

An interesting book traces the diaspora indirectly, Sundown Towns by James Loewen. He also wrote Lies My Teacher Told Me which is a must-read. Anyway, to summarize, sundown towns were created in response to the growing class of black landowners and arrivals to the middle-class. People were literally driven out of town ("don't let the sun set on you here, boy" or else.....) and their land confiscated for abandonment or other false charges. The scariest freaking thing is that these sundown policies existed in many areas of my part of the country until the 80s (that's 1980, friends). There there was a g.d. billboard at the entrance to Morton, IL in a freakin cornfield that stated "Don't let the sun set on you here" and everyone in town knew goddamn well who "you" referred to. As did the "yous". A man who grew up in that town now sits on my town's City Council and couldn't even begin to explain why he believes and votes and says the things he does which are regarded as racist (and would deny that he is with his dying breath) but how can you possibly pass that sign every day on your way to school for 12 years and not internalize a racist message that clouds every conscious thought?

ding said...

i know that book!

it was fascinating - and sort of made me really angry. those towns still exist today! (wasn't it interesting to see how many were in illinois?)

i know that the Oppression Contest is futile and sort of intellectually simple but i can't help thinking that historical events like this put black history (including black female history) into a different light for me.

like frederick douglass said at Seneca Falls:
When women, because they are women, are dragged from their homes and hung upon lampposts; when their children are torn from their arms and their brains dashed upon the pavement;... then they will have the urgency to obtain the ballot.

black history (not forgetting about the histories of other particular ethnic communities in this country) is a history that includes state-sanctioned oppression, extermination and disenfranchisement. can women say the same? i don't know.

ding said...

but how can you possibly pass that sign every day on your way to school for 12 years and not internalize a racist message that clouds every conscious thought?

great question. and the answer is, you can't. (not unless you're really mentally ... fragile.)

Anonymous said...

"Personally, I'm sort of neutral about the reparations movement. Do I want my father's family to be paid money because of slavery? Not really. What I want is a deeper, more public acknowledgment of how slavery impacted and drove our capitalist system, and how our nation's participation in the slave trade laid a foundation for practices, industries and institutions that not only continue to have an adverse affect on communities of color today but still provide the elite in this country with wealth and prosperity. That's not too much to ask, is it?"



No, it is not too much to ask. Very good acknowledgement of the facts.