I forgot that they were starting Skip Gates’s next round of African American Lives until I was half-way through Criminal Minds last night, so I missed some stuff.
But, damn, I love this series.
If you aren’t watching it (because it’s public television, and who thinks to watch public television?), the basic premise is that Gates takes twelve African-Americans and he and his team trace their lineage as far back as they can find and then tell those stories to the folks.
The really nice part about having Gates involved, I think, is two-fold. One is that, because he’s done this for his own family, his empathy for the emotions this kind of discovery brings up is just exactly right. He really gets the power inherent in hearing the names and lives of your people. The other thing is that he is excellent at putting things in context, in taking these individual lives and explaining the broader circumstances of history that they were caught up in.
It seems like a lot of the participants feel kind of cheated, that they can’t believe that no one in their family ever told them about the relative that fought in the Civil War or about the vast amount of land their families used to own. But I also think that Gates does a careful and kind job of explaining why so many folks turned their backs on their lives and didn’t ever talk about it.
I think I told you this story, about a guy who used to work down at MTSU when I first moved to town and his job was, in part, to go around cataloging all the old slave buildings still standing, take pictures of them, measure them, try to preserve as much information about them as he could before they crumbled.
He found some stuff you almost couldn’t believe. He found, for instance, a doctor and a lawyer over near Memphis who were working to refurbish all of the buildings on their family’s plantation and they were staying in one of the slave cabins while they worked. One black, one white, who were family and who wanted to turn the family land into a place where the whole family could visit their dead relatives and have holiday meals and get married and be a family together, on equal footing.
Or the two ancient men just south of Nashville, one white and living in the big house his family had always lived in and one black and living in the slave cabin (later sharecropper shack) his family had always lived in and the white guy thought the black guy was his best friend. And the black guy told the researcher that he was, as his duty to his family, staying on the property to make sure that the white guy never married, never had kids, so that, when he died, it would be the end of the people who had done such evil to his people. He was there to make sure that line would cease.
Or, more to my point above, the guy who called the researcher up and asked him if he, by chance, knew of a certain plantation and whether a woman by a certain name had ever been enslaved there. And the researcher said that he was very familiar with the plantation and could easily get access to the records to see if the woman was a slave there. Then the guy asked the researcher if he flew into Nashville, if the researcher would take him to that plantation. The researcher said that he might have to pretend he was another scholar, because the researcher wasn’t sure the white family would agree to letting a descendant of their slaves on their property, but yes, he would take him down there.
So, there they are, the researcher, the man, his wife, and their four year old son, standing among the slave buildings, which have been, like the rest of the farm, kept in pretty good repair and the researcher is explaining what all the buildings are like and what they’re used for, because he’s uncomfortable about what he’s found.
But finally, he takes them to a cabin and he says, “I did find a slave by the name of [whatever her name was]. This cabin belonged to her and her sister. It seems, from what I can tell, looking at the records, that she and her sister were kept here in this cabin where they were pretty constantly pregnant. It seemed to be one of the main sources of income for the plantation, the breeding and selling of your ancestors.”
And the guy said, “So, it’s true. That’s always been the family story.”
And the researcher is uncomfortable so he turns to the wife and they start talking about the stone walls that the slaves put up all over Middle Tennessee and they talk for a while until the wife notices that the husband is just standing there, tears rolling down his face, touching the doorframe of the building.
She goes over to him and says, “If this is too much for you, we can go.”
And he says, looking at the researcher, “I don’t have anything from my people to tell me that they were real. Nothing handed down. I didn’t even know for sure that that was really her name. But this building right here. This was where she lived, where she really lived. I can put my hand where she put her hand.”
That’s some powerful stuff, right there, America. To feel that the people you came from were as real as you are, to be able to put your hands where they put their hands.
I love that Gates gives that to folks.
To me, that’s the best kind of story-telling a person can do–to tell you a true story about yourself that makes you and your loved ones seem more real.