Back in Black
Powerful first-person accounts in I Was A Slave make me ponder my own blackness in the diaspora.
cop takes me for a ride back to my ancestral ties
By sigcino moyo
Not much snow on the ground, but we're in the last flurries of the snow job that is Black History Month, with its talk of black hair, black love, the elusive reparations -- and the usual homage to sporting and artistic contributions besides. Meanwhile, life goes on. Last Thursday, Metro's swinest laid that shady profiling on me and pulled me over. When I asked the officer why this particular black motorist got targeted, he said it was part of the campaign to rid the streets of guns. Then he insisted on asking where my ancestral home is. Africa, I told him. His brow twitched. Guess the stats had me hailing from Jam-Town.
So I got to thinking about a quintessential black moment back in 1995 at NYC art show called Black Male: Representations Of Masculinity In Contemporary American Art. Of all things, a simple wooden crate blew me away.
A black woman pulled up beside me, read the plaque and sighed. She looked at me. I looked at her. We instinctually leaned into each other for a moment of conciliatory comfort. The moment was large. We parted after a few minutes without speaking or exchanging another glance. Some dude, you see, had used a crate to mail himself out of slavery.
In general, I'm more blackheart than bleeding heart, but it was some time after the crate episode that I promised myself I'd become more active in pushing the diasporic black experience on a general public otherwise engaged.
Some years later, that self-imposed responsibility unexpectedly frothed to the surface while I was perusing a copy of Emerge, "Black America's Newsmagazine." Here, I came upon one Donna Wyant Howell, a historian and national director of the American Slaves Foundation.
A Washington-based Howard University graduate whose great-grandmother Cora Wyant was a freed slave at the age of nine, Howell is the only known historian specializing exclusively in slave narratives. At the time, she'd compiled four books in a planned 24-part series entitled I Was A Slave.
I was on the horn to American Legacy Books in Washington, DC, ordering up some personal copies, when my idle banter with an assistant led to an arranged interview with Howell herself.
Review copies arrived. I devoured them -- it's impossible not to be rocked by first-person factual accounts of slavery. Rasta elder Burning Spear's words, "Do you remember the days of slavery?," echoed in my mind as I absorbed, reflected and tried to identify myself as a black man from Africa living in Canada, whereas at about this same time chess-playing strangers in a Havana, Cuba, town square bellowed "Black man from Europe!" when I passed by.
I don't remember the days of slavery, but I got some remedial education reading her chapters on plantation life, the breeding of slaves and how it was for men and women. If I didn't know then, now I do. Black experience in the diaspora is far and wide, timeless and familiar.
Of course, there's the expected sufferation, like from interviewee Austin Grant: "They didn't give us nothin', I tell you, but a grubbin' hoe and axe and the whip."
But there are also the sidewinders, like from Florence Napier: "Ise sho 'joy myse'f on de old plantation, an' weuns all had a good time."
You wanna talk about sistahs with 'tude? Check out Mandy Morrow talking about her string of marriages, the last of which began in 1920: "If I wants de pet, den I's gits de dawg or de cat. Shucks! It don't tooks me long. When dey don't satisfy dis nigger, I's transpo't dem."
And if we want a different context to indulge the mythology of the voracious black sexual appetite, then consider the circumstance Lewis Jones was born into: "My pappy am the breeding nigger. When I's meet a cullud person on dat plantation, I's sho mos'ly dat it am my brudder or sistah." His father had roughly 50 kids -- that Jones knew of and could count off- hand.
These folks are neither meek nor short of words when they get to throwing it down, live and direct.
I gave Howell a holla at her DC office.
She was cordial, businesslike and definitely no-nonsense. Ebullient, she recounted how her journey with I Was A Slave began while researching an unrelated project in the Library of Congress. She stumbled upon reams of slave interviews that were abandoned in five or six archives around the U.S. Government clerks had transcribed them between 1934 and 1941 for a Roosevelt administration make-work project.
The interviews were purportedly for publication, but that never happened, because, as Howell deadpans across the wire, "it's so much work!" The inspirational discovery of this material would ultimately re-sculpt her life's path. You could feel that weight in her words: "Think about how I felt when it hit me what it was that was sitting there in the archives. What other choice did I have? I knew it would take the rest of my life, really."
The power of I Was A Slave is in that raw text. But the photos -- haunting, breathtaking and charming -- are also crucial to the black historic landscape. Howell scoffed, "Oh, I just put in everything I could. Back in the Civil War days photography was an expensive process, so they weren't going to waste their money taking pictures of the slaves -- although, obviously, there were some taken."
What's shocking about these narratives is the almost casual ease with which these survivors conjure up their often devastating recollections. It was no surprise to Howell: "It was a situation into which they were born. And the generation before that had been the same way, so they didn't know what it was like to be free." That's why a goodly number never left the plantation, even after emancipation.
The books were read. Interview was bagged. The story was scrawled -- and I was off to do my part by spreading the word.
Only one problem: no hook. It wasn't within the ghetto of Black History Month, when newspapers give free reign to dip into things past- tense. And so I'm beat down and embarrassed.
My slave burden (books, interview and story) sat in a box under my desk. Seething years passed.
Shift to February 2002. I'm trolling for unspeakable things on the Net when I happen upon a site that unleashes a deluge of emotions -- guilt, anger, shame, a little fear and also glee: http://www.iwasaslave.com/.
I know suddenly that I have to come crawling in under the auspices of BHM to get this monkey off my back and do my share. Seems fitting somehow. For the record, Howell's up to six completed books now -- including one on slave children and slave auctions.
Now that I've completed my ancestral obligation, the burning question is, just how soon are Five-0 going to fuck with me again?