Posted July 28th 2014 at 6:29 pm by
in Who Am I? An African American's Quest to Discover Community Through Family History

In Response to Knowing

Slave Market holding cell in Stone Town

Slave Market Holding Cell. Photo Credit: G.S. Matthews via flickr.

In the previous blog post in this series, I shared my genealogical family history through legal slavery and freedom in Central Louisiana from approximately 1798 to 1922. This small portion of my family narrative, with its illuminations on different aspects of life in Louisiana during the 19th century, was substantially more than my mother, Wylene, an African American woman in her 50s, knew about her people for the majority of her life. She was often moved to tears as she learned about more and more pieces of her family history.

She explained, “The pain of it does seem to be going away the more I learn… It’s as if each info we uncover, a layer of pain rolls away. Do you understand? It’s nothing like knowing yourself and who you are.”

She went on to say:

“Just knowing our history, the struggle our family endure[d] to get us where [we] are, all my life, I knew there [was] more to life than what I was going through… I feel the wall[s are] falling down. It’s like for the first time for me, I can make a stand, and stop complaining about what now being done or told [regarding slavery, discrimination, and African American history]. I now know what I need to do, for so many of our people don’t [know] the story of what [we] have contribute[d] to the growth of this society. It’s up to us to tell our story before the story get[s] exploit[ed]…

[W]e are not nobod[ies]. I don’t know if you understand. Knowing who my grandparents slave masters are and where they lived is not about hate, retaliation, or anything like that… [W]e are not nobodies. I do have family.”

I am not sure if I could ever fully explain how the discovery of my family’s narrative through the American Slave era makes me feel. When I first saw my 3rd great grandmother’s name, Milo, in a record dated 1813 making reference to her sale, I was ecstatic! I was just so excited to see her name. To know her name. To see the proof of her existence and know that there was a record of some aspect of her life. For her, her children (particularly my 2nd great grandfather), and her grandchildren, I felt like I reclaimed long lost members of my family. Through seeing and holding the copy of this document, I felt that somehow, I was holding and cherishing them, loving them now despite how they had been treated during their lifetimes. They are family. They are no longer lost in the cloud of the terms of “slave” and “slavery”. They can’t be denied. I know their names.

And then it hit me.

I’m actually looking at a Bill of Sale for my people, for my 2nd and 3rd great grandparents.

milo_deedofsaleCivic Record regarding the sale of my 3rd great grandmother, Milo, to Samuel Glass by John Say.

It reads: “Samuel Glass, Baron of Hugh Baily’s …concerning Bill of Sale of John Say to Samuel Glass. Sale of negro gile Milo. State of Louisiana Parish of Avoyelles. On this sixth day of May in the year of ….one thousand and eight hundred and thirteen [1813]…”

What are you supposed to think when you see the Bill of Sale for your 3rd great grandmother?

Is there counseling for this?

Does this even matter?

According to researcher Arlene Stein’s 2009 publication Trauma and Origins: Post-Holocaust Genealogists and the Work of Memory, Holocaust survivors’ descendants pursue their origin stories and family narratives “to make sense of a traumatic past…and to make their own lives culturally intelligible.” Beginning in the 1970s, the adult children and later descendants of Holocaust survivors began to go through great lengths to create and document their family narratives. I argue that the American Slave era survivors’ descendants, present day African Americans, also need “to make sense of a traumatic past” and an often hostile present, and that conducting and sharing their own genealogical family history can have just as powerful an effect on the African American community. My mother’s response to learning about her historical family history is one illustration of that effect.

Referring to Holocaust survivors’ descendants, Stein says:

The further one journeys back, the more one has in common with others—common ancestors, common points of origin. The contemporary expansion of genealogy represents a search for identity and social location in an uncertain world. (Stein, 2009)

It is highly unlikely that an African American living in the United States of America would record their genealogical family history without also reflecting on the impacts of slavery and their own social identity. At least, that was the case for my family and for those I have encountered while conducting my search.

Discovering and sharing genealogical family history could be used as a tool to draw more members of the African American community to critical consciousness, which is how people come to critically analyze their social conditions and are moved to act to improve those conditions. At minimum, it could create a greater sense of community and solidarity among those with similar backgrounds, based on the example seen with the Jewish community and their annual remembrance of escape from bondage in Egypt.

In the case of developing the African American narrative, another specific group becomes salient: the descendants of their family’s enslavers. My 2nd great grandfather, James, son of enslaved Tamar and slave owner Samuel Glass, was sold to Francois Taussin on February 14, 1857. With the assistance of information provided by genealogist E. W. McDonald, I was able to contact a direct descendent of Taussin. From my membership in a Facebook group, I was able to connect with a descendent of Mary LaCroix’s (Samuel Glass’ wife) sister. In my next blog post, I will share more about my communication with them regarding the nature of our family history.

9 responses to “In Response to Knowing”

  1. Rhoda says:

    Hmmmmm, this is a really good piece, quite reflective, I especially like the linkage you made between the experiences of the Holocaust Survivors, the healing process that they initiated and how important it is for descendants of the Slave era to do same….. a lot to think about.

  2. Nse Umoh Esema says:

    Lakisha, thank you for sharing this particular story- of you and your mother‘s response to unconvering all this history- and the story of the history itself. I’m struck by your question of whether this all matters. I assume that for you, that is somewhat of a rhethorical question.

    But, in case you have any doubt, I just want to affirm that it does matter.

    After reading your post, I’ve been reflecting on what I know about my own family’s narrative and how that knowledge has impacted me. I’m Nigerian by birth and heritage. We have an oral tradition so documentation is sparse but because of a heavy cultural emphasis on honoring our ancestors, growing up, I was told numerous stories about my family. One that has most stuck with me is about how my mother’s paternal grandmother (my great grandmother), was almost sold into the Atlantic slave trade. Her mother had died during childbirth so she was a stepchild, and apparently a burden, to her father’s next wife. The story goes that one-day middle-men, local agents of the ‘White Man’ came to the village to buy her. By some great fortune, her brother, whom she was very close to, happened to be around and refused to let her be sold. In his rage, he started throwing things and scared away the middlemen who’d come to take her. Knowing that she was still at risk, because of the prevalence of young motherless girls being sold at the time, he immediately took her away to her grandmother in a different village. That is where my great grandmother lived until she married.

    Recently, in talking about this story with my mom I was reminded of all the ways in which the fact that this history happened- and the fact that we know this history happened has affected us; I’ll share just two.

    We are from the Ibibio tribe in Nigeria and historically our people undervalue our girls and women; culturally women can’t inherit and are usually passed over when heavily resource constrained families are deciding who to educate. My mother’s sense of pride in having a grandmother who narrowly escaped slavery caused her to fiercely reject these norms. As far as she is concerned, and her father before her, freedom–whether physical, through education or financial– is part of our bloodline and there’s been no height too high to scale to make that possible. My sisters and I have known this all our lives and heard the connection between my great grandmother and freedom articulated in this way many times, it has definitely affected our perspectives.

    More recently, I realized another way that knowing this story has affected my family, and probably me- though I haven’t fully unpacked the latter yet. My great grandmother was going to be sold by middlemen who were our own people; they were fellow Ikot Ofon villagers (my great grandmother’s village) who were motivated by greed and opportunity. The narrative then, around slavery, within my family, was that our own people (Nigerians) bore a significant part of the responsibility. That message affected my grandfather, my mother and I’m sure me, in uncountable ways—a concrete one being my grandfather’s eagerness to denounce major mainstays of Ibibio tradition at the time—particularly around religious practices.

    Anyway, sorry this is super long. I’m sharing all of this to say that I think knowing one’s history and narrative matters tremendously; we pull lessons from those narratives that tacitly guide our perspectives and actions throughout life.

    As you continue to unpack all of this in your phd studies, will you try to identify the ways in which knowing ones genealogical family history affects their perspective & actions? Or is the notion that it does have an affect, so insufficiently accepted that you need to focus on proving that?

  3. Danielle Davis says:

    Words can never explain how much I admire you for the work you are doing. I am in complete and utter shock as I read threw the lines you have written, Your knowledge always seems to astound me to the fullest. I love you and thanks.

  4. Khalid el-Hakim says:

    Lakisha,

    I believe that you are doing the most important work that any African American should and must do. The process of finding “knowledge of self” is liberating and empowering no matter whether it’s good, bad or ugly. It’s only going through this process that the healing can begin that addresses what we as a people had to endure. When it’s as personal as you’ve been able to make it is transformative and gives a significant point of reference to build upon.

    As the sister from Nigeria was able to reference her families’ history back to when the White man came, I am sure she has stories that go way before that too. Stories based on creation, religion, culture, politics, education processes, growing into adulthood and etc. We completely lost ALL of that knowledge through the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Similarly, the Jewish Holocaust that lasted approximately ten years was one of the most horrific events in the last century and you’re reference to it is powerful. The Black experience within the boarders of these United States still has not been given the full attention and study that is needed to repair the damage that has been done to us. So again your contribution to expanding this knowledge base is invaluable.

    As you know I’ve been involved in this work for a while and I only recently started talking about my personal families’ history. I probably didn’t do it much before because it’s was so personal. The more I infuse my family story the more I recognize how necessary it is that we find our personal voice in history.

    A question I have for you is what are your thoughts on the reparations movement. Many of the problems African Americans face is based upon generations of missed opportunities that began in slavery but were then compounded by black codes, reconstruction, Jim Crow, and etc. I’m asking because it’s something that has resurfaced recently again in the dialogue within the Black community. As you consider what has been lost in your own family I’d like your opinion on this issue. For me I think of my grandfather not being able to purchase a home in a neighborhood of his choice and missed income gained by such an investment is significant. Or on a broader level, if the the University of Mississippi only integrated in the 1950s that means whites were given a 100 year head start on educational opportunities. When looking at it that way for me there is a tremendous cost that may not be recovered however there should at least be attempts to not only acknowledge but to itemize the damage. I believe as we further our work we must seriously consider the implications of the reparations movement.

  5. Matt Weinstein says:

    LaKisha, thank you for sharing your research, your experience, and your family’s experience here; these are deeply personal and important stories, all the moreso because of how rarely they’ve been discussed in an American culture that pretends that such a heinous past has no relationship to the present (as opposed to direct links to the present).

    As I read the piece, I thought of my own genealogical research into my Jewish family history in Europe, which I did a few years ago, just before I came to DUSP. I had not realized until then that my Great-Great Grandparents were murdered by the Nazis, along with the entire Jewish population of their village of Ustrzyki Dolne in Southeastern Poland; it was not something my family ever talked about, and those dots were never connected for me until I asked around, and did some research on the subject. I then visited Ustrzyki, and hiked (literally) to the desecrated and neglected Jewish cemetery on the hillside overlooking the town… and I realized, all at once, that somewhere among those overgrown graves and toppled headstones, my ancestors were buried. Nobody from my family had set foot in that village in almost 70 years; now it’s been transformed into a resort town in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains. Its dark history of genocide is unremarkable in Poland, and the thousands of tourists who visit the town every weekend don’t see what I saw; indeed, nearly every town in the country has a desecrated, overgrown Jewish cemetery just like the one in Ustrzyki Dolne. The other visitors I met were there to enjoy a nice summer day in the mountains.

    Particularly as generation after generation passes on, and these pieces of our collective history can feel ever-more abstract, it’s all the more important that we both pay witness to the atrocities of the past, and discuss them, to understand what they still mean all these years later. I look forward to reading your coming posts, and I again I both thank and salute you for sharing your story and your family’s story with us.

  6. Wylene Hameed says:

    I’m sitting here reading this info,and as I am reading it, I’m thinking to myself, “My great great aunt,” while shaking my head in unbelief. Is this real, how can it be?

    It’s times like these that you can see the effect of slavery, how it still very much affecting us today. It took me going back to school and with some info from my daughters, that I came to the conclusing that, until we here in America recognize how slavery is affecting this country, then we are lost. We need to confront the truth about how slavery has affected both blacks and whites.

    LaKisha,this is a well written article, and I really enjoyed reading it. I’m so ready for the next post.

    If I understood you correctly, I’m waiting the time to meet my auntie. My auntie, wow! Or to talk with her, as well as the Tussin descendant. Now, you have me on pins and needles. Thank you, and may God continue to Bless you to complete this assissignment.

  7. Gwen Braxton says:

    Another well written article as you bring us from the sale of Milo to the present. You have connected with so many people along the way. You have found and reached out to relatives you did not even know existed.

    I know the beginning and the end but the middle is where the “good” stuff is to be found. This aunt that Wylene refers to, the Facebook cousin and relative you have found, the cousins who began trees based on what they found, etc. So much more to be revealed.

    Anxiously wairing for the next article is akin to waiting on Scandal, Dallas, Nashville and other shows to return. This is better.

  8. Gwen Braxton says:

    *wairing=waiting

  9. Mary Dobbins says:

    As always I really enjoy reading about our family history. Your words captivate me to want to read more.

    I thank GOD for the peoples who went thru the struggle for me (us).

    Thanks to the other people who shared a part of their family history. Very interesting!