I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the “Black family”. No, not the “normal” thoughts that seem to prevail. Not the thoughts of Barack Obama when he blamed Black men for not showing up for their families, their children. He’s not the only one. Years ago Bill Cosby said the same thing. There have been many others. The narrative is always the same: blame Black people for issues in the Black family. What I’ve been thinking about is different, it’s about strong Black families, families that are doing well. My thoughts? I wonder how they’ve managed to survive, to exist at all. Because you see, that we, white people, have a 400 year legacy in this country of working to destroy the Black family. But this story starts on another continent. None of the people in this story are real, their experiences are composites, based on real history. Some of the inspiration comes from the many things I’ve been reading lately. “Homegoing” by Yaa Gyasi is on that list. What I’m writing about is inspired by her and her novel.
What follows are not stories for the faint of heart. Very little of the racial history in our country has been. If reading this disturbs you? Good. That’s part of the point. If it hurts and you’re white? Then spend some time reflecting if your pain matters in comparison to what has been inflicted.
Our story starts in Africa, more specifically in Ghana. The year is 1787. A little north of Kumasi a boy, a young man actually, around 17 years old, goes for a walk in the woods. Why? To think? To ponder nature? We don’t really need to know. He’s captured, kidnapped, shackles are put on his wrists, an iron collar around his neck. It could be a rival tribe, it doesn’t matter. Over the next few days he’s chained to others and starts a long walk to Accra, on the coast. There he’s forced into a dungeon at Cape Coast Castle with hundreds to wait. Everything he knows about family is gone. He’s been ripped from the anchors that tied him to his community, to the life he’s known. And yes, you know the next part. He’s loaded into the hold of a crowded slave ship, sent to Virginia where he is sold. Everyone in this country descended from the enslaved has a similar story in their past.
A few years later our young man meets a woman, falls in love, or what passes for love in the world of the enslaved. The couple has a child. Shortly after the child’s birth the man is sold, his master has economic problems, needs to raise money. When the child is five she is sold as well. Again, a need to raise cash. A child can’t do a lot of work, but still needs to be fed and is a drain on an already financially strained owner What does this child, this little girl know of family? Hers is gone.
This girl grows up into a young woman. She’s 15 years old, the year is around 1805. She is enslaved, not considered a person by the country where she resides. She is property. Her owner can do what he wants. And he does. It happened a lot. Her owner rapes her. After time she becomes pregnant, has a child, a son. The son starts to grow up. At around age 5 the owners wife notices that this child, this enslaved human, looks like her other children and insists that the child be sold. Sold away from his mother, away from his rapist father. What does this child know of family?
1855, a young Black woman walks alone on the streets of Philadelphia. It’s a short time after the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 passed. She is 25, born free. She carries papers that show her freedom. The problem is that these papers only matter to people who will honor them. The new law, the latest Fugitive Slave Act says that the enslaved are property, it doesn’t matter where they are, the rights of ownership prevail over any state or local laws. It allows marshals, slave hunters, to cross into northern states and return runaway slaves to their “rightful” owners. Except not all of those who are “returned” have run. Some of were free, either born that way or having their freedom bought. Yet without papers they are subject to being sent into slavery. There jeopardy is even greater when they live in a “border” state. Our young woman is kidnapped off the street, sent south, sold. She leaves behind a husband and children. Does it matter how many? What was once her family will only know that she is gone, never knowing where, why, or what happened.
Let’s skip ahead a few years, to 1890. Slavery has been over for 25 years. What replaced it in many ways was worse. It’s not just the Jim Crow laws that prevented Black people from voting. It’s things like “convict leasing”. A man of 25 lives in the Mississippi Delta. He’s married and has two young children. One day he walks into the small nearby town. He’s going to the local general store buy a few things for his family. He has very little money. He’s stopped on the street, asked how much money he has. It’s a local sheriff. He’s arrested. The problem? He has a little over three dollars. His dilemma is that the local laws declare him a vagrant if he has less than twenty. The next day he goes before a judge and is sentenced to ten years in the local penitentiary. A ten year sentence. Why? Because he was poor and Black. Things get worse for our young man. A local company bids on his labor, they agree to pay the prison $18 a month for him. He’s put to work building a railroad. It’s brutal work clearing a right of way, putting down crushed stone, railroad ties, and track. The labor is hard and after a couple of years it kills him. Those two children he left behind have no idea what happened. They grow up only knowing that mom said dad left one day and never came back.
1930, a young man, 25 years old, married, a father, walks through a small town in Georgia. His thoughts are elsewhere, was he daydreaming? Not being totally focused, in the moment, is dangerous for a Black man in America today, sometimes deadly. It was the same then. He barely notices his surroundings, engrossed in thoughts, perhaps daydreams. He bumps into a white woman. She screams. He is arrested, jailed, accused of rape. Sometime in the darkness of the night that follows a group of men show up on horses. They are wearing white robes, hoods, carrying torches. How many are there? Fifteen? Does it matter. His jailer? Conveniently absent. Perhaps he’s one of the men on horseback. The next morning our young man is found beaten, dead, hanging from a nearby tree. How many have died like him? We can’t be sure. All we can really know is that another Black family has been destroyed by white violence.
We’re jumping ahead quite a few years now to 1999. A 28 year-old Black man was just released from prison. His crime? Possession of half an ounce of marijuana. He’s served 18 months of a three year sentence, being released for “good behavior”. His story: on a June afternoon he’s driving home in Baltimore after work, looking forward to seeing his family, his wife, his children. He changes lanes, failing to signal his turn. A white police officer stops him, it is a “pretext” stop, the excuse used to stop someone to then look for drugs. The officer finds the marijuana, our young man is arrested. His criminal defense lawyer, his public defender, tells him to plead guilty and he does, sentenced to those three years. His conviction is officially recorded as a “felony”. The irony is that the white judge’s son had been arrested three days before for possession of a couple of joints. He’s not charged, but rather given a stern talking to and sent home. His defense lawyer smokes most days after work to “unwind”. Yes, our drug laws are not evenly enforced. A higher percentage of white people use illegal drugs, yet the preponderance of arrests are young Black men. So our young man spends 18 months away from his family. He’s out of prison, but his problems are far from over. You see, he and his wife were barely making ends meet before his arrest, living paycheck-to-paycheck. Since then she’s had to move into subsidized public housing and receives food assistance. The issue for our young man? Public housing rules say that his family will be evicted if a convicted felon lives at the residence. The rules for food assistance say that his family will lose that too. Our young man can’t return to his family. His story worsens. He applies for a job, he’s unable to find one. He needs to “check the box”. His application goes in the trash as soon as a prospective employer sees he’s been convicted. Another family destroyed.
As I said at the beginning, every one of these experiences are composites of real life. Multitudes of Black people have lived through them. In the case of the latest young man, it’s still happening. It’s referred to as the “school-to-prison pipeline”. Laws that appear to be “race neutral” really aren’t if they are applied in an unbalanced, racist manner. Consider the sentence disparity between crack and cocaine, two chemically identical drugs in different physical form. The original sentencing guidelines called for a 100:1 difference for crack to cocaine. In 2010 the disparity was reduced to 18:1. The real difference? Crack is primarily used by Black people, cocaine by white. Race doesn’t show up in the law, not at all. Only the naïve can claim that race and racism doesn’t account for the difference.
If you are white and reading this I want you to ask yourself about the history of your family. Do you know it? Let me tell you about mine. On dad’s side, we came here in 1620 on a little boat called “The Mayflower”. I’m thinking you’ve heard about it. Francis Cooke is on the boat, as is his son. A year later his wife, on the next boat, joins them. Maybe you’ve heard of Sarah Wildes? Probably not. She’s a witch hung in Salem. Asa Porter? Fought in the Revolutionary War. He’s buried in Marlborough, NH. My mom’s side of the family? I don’t remember the whole story. Last name Cormier. Left La Rochelle France in 1632 as an indentured servant. Came into what is now Annapolis Royal in Nova Scotia. Mom has done research on all this. Our lineage ties us to Charlemagne and well before. I know my family’s history. If you are white then you probably know yours. If not, it’s there to be found. But don’t, don’t ask a Black American theirs. Go back. Read above. Being Black in the United states means having a history was stolen, destroyed, taken away. It’s not there for the finding. Records of those transported on slave ships rarely, if ever exist. Transactions of the enslaved being transported, sold, bartered, murdered, were not recorded. If a hypothetical descendent of any of the above tried to research their family’s history? Dead end. There isn’t one.
Don’t ask why the Black family is often troubled. Honor that it still survives.