Pulled toward Africa: History, blackness and family


Why have I since high school felt some interest or pull toward Africa during a time when there was such a negative attitude about anything black or African? The Underground Railroad placed my Mother’s family in Canada and some of the “benefits” of assimilation: Education that provided reading, writing and speaking skills and an ability to understand and negotiate white, Western culture. Sometimes that “benefit” was via skin color so someone appearing white, sometimes had the option, if one could stomach it, of disappearing into the white world temporarily or long term.  If you stayed within your African American, mixed race family or community, being “high yellow”, “redbone” or almost white, gave you access or status.  

I sometimes have told “white people” that I know that white skin privilege is a reality because I have “benefited” from it. I noticed as a kid in grade school that there were times when my friends or classmates who were much darker than me, were passed over in favor of myself or another “high yellow” classmate.

If I remember correctly, there was a “Negro” organization in Chicago during my youth called the Links. In order to be a member, you needed to be of a certain fair complexion and have enough money to pay your dues. My parents express great displeasure with this organization. They rejected the idea that anyone was better than another because of color or the amount of money they had. My mother also expressed some disgust about the humiliation she felt at a time when she needed a job and had at the time to accept one at a dress shop that only wanted to hire a “light skinned colored girl”.

I think this also explains something about the fact that my college educated mother read to my brother and I a version of an infamous book called Little Black Sambo. The one she read to us had beautiful illustrations of Sambo, his parents and the fierce tigers. I loved that story! My Mother had a college degree in sociology and graduated from the progressive the leftist leaning Roosevelt University in the early 40s. In the late 30s the faculty broke off from the YMCA City College because they were placing quotas on the numbers of Blacks, Jews and women  who would be allowed to enroll.  

My mother also had my brother and I memorize the 23rd Psalm before either of us could read or write, which reflects the voice of a people in captivity expressing a deep faith and determination in their ability to endure through harsh oppressive circumstances. We were being exposed to a concept of “righteousness” before we could say it along with the idea that evil would ultimately undo itself.

I didn’t really know about my family history and connection to the Underground Railroad until I was well into adulthood. I may have been told that some of us escaped, but I really didn’t understand our being a part of a history of resistance or liberation struggle.

On my Father’s side of the family, I had a grand Aunt Hattie. In the 70s when this pull toward Africa and understanding my history was becoming very strong, I felt a real pull toward my Father’s birthplace in Marianna Arkansas in the northeastern part of the state near Memphis Tennessee. My father left when he was about 6 or 7 years old and never returned.

I remember listening to a Taj Mahal LP called The Real Thing and the cut I’m Gonna Move Up to the Country & Paint My Mailbox Blue played. My first thought was I’m going to go to Marianna Arkansas and see Pa’s peoples and the soil that birthed him. When those folks heard that Elmer’s boy was coming to visit, my Grand Aunt Hattie in particular said Come on boy and come see ya Ant Hattie!

When I got there it was in November.  The land was open and flat with patches of forest here and there.  Al Green, of R&B and Gospel fame, in fact was from a town in between Marianna and Memphis called Forest City.  I met a lot of folks that told me lots of stories.  When I was introduced to people, Aunt Hattie usually referred to me as one of Lucinda’s grandsons.   I was Elmer’s youngest son.  A light would go on in people’s eyes, there would be a warm embrace and I’d usually hear something like, “What took ya so long? Your Daddy aint never been back since he left.  I sho am glad you come to see us.”

Once during that first visit with Aunt Hattie we were stepping through an okra patch headed toward Cousin Quentin’s house and Aunt Hattie remarked how cold it was. I said, “Well at least the air is fresh”. And she responded, “Boy you don’t know how fresh this air really is!” It took about 5 beats and then I fell out on the hard ground holding my stomach and laughing with a deep bellyache that wouldn’t let go.

One thing that Aunt Hattie told me, a woman with no more than a 3rd grade education, was this:  “Even the Devil can tell the truth.  Just make sure he don’t use it against you.”  That observation has come rolling back into my mind over and over again since the 1970’s.  It came up again here in Ethiopia when I read a paper online by an African American woman scholar based in Atlanta, Georgia.  Eve Troutt Powell titled her paper, The Tools of the Master: Slavery and Empire in Nineteenth Century Egypt.  “The Tools of the Master” actually references an Audre Lorde quote: “The tools of the master will never dismantle the master’s house.”

This paper is basically about how the in the 1800’s the British use their anti-slavery stance as a means to gain more colonial control in Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia.  They were basically saying that because you have not abolished slavery, you are obviously not civilized enough for self-rule.  Need I tell you who they thought was best to rule in Africa?  The Great Grandmother in my Ethiopian family abducted by Sudanese marauders and forced into servitude.  She eventually escaped to Khartoum and found refuge within the Ethiopian community there in the Sudanese capital.   After settling in the Ethiopian community in Khartoum, she was courted by an Egyptian whose offer she eventually accepted and she later bore two children by him.  I have broken bread with some of the elders, who were descendants who knew this great grandmother. 

But back to my father’s family… Long after this, I heard stories about various family members who left the South in a hurry because they killed white men that offered an insult or affront they could not accept. I never got details, but this past Fall my father’s youngest sister, my Aunt Julia, suggested to me that Grandpa may have left under such hurried circumstances. According to her, Granpa was really skilled with a knife and could often been seen with a wet stone slowly sharpening, sharpening. She said when his temper raged you better look out! Aunt Julia recounted an incident to me back in the 30’s that happened on May Street in Englewood on the Southside of Chicago when it took quite a few people to convince Granpa not to knife a man to death.

Also according Aunt Julia, my Granma, a real peaceful churchwoman as far as I knew, had a fierce temper too and could cuss like a sailor. I never, never, ever saw a hint of that side of my grandparents. In fact in my family, except for Mom’s brother Uncle Paul, I never heard anybody in my family curse. Not hell, not damn, not nigger, no shit! It was all very straight and proper. Adults did not use bad language around children. Adults did not slap children or hit them on the head.  (Don’t wanna make those children crazier than they are!) On the other hand, us kids said and did a lot of things I will not recount here. 🙂