BECOMING BLACK – an excerpt, part 3

nelson hancock smallHere is an excerpt from my collection of essays, Becoming Black: Personal Ramblings on Racial Identification, Racism, and Popular Culture. In this essay, “Double Consciousness, Roots, and Finding Our Place in History,” I attempted to explain the history of slavery in America, by looking through a very personal lens. Rather than talk about slavery in terms of abstract individuals, which is what most conversations surrounding the topic tend to do, I talked about the people in my family. I was fortunately able to include a picture of my great-great grandfather, Nelson Hancock (pictured left), who was born a slave.

Lelia Moore, Mary Anne Settle, William and Mary Vaugthers, and Catherine Mulatto Brown are four of my great grandparents who exist on my family tree with no real history to call their own. They are joined by other generations of my great grandparents Joe Walker, Amanda Walker, Thomas and Mary Banks, Samuel and Katy Venable, Issac Jackson, and Susan Brown, all of who were slaves, but whose stories have long since been forgotten. It is as if their existence didn’t matter enough to be properly recorded or remembered, and their forgotten lives—like the forgotten lives of millions of other slaves—are all missing chapters in the history of this nation. On a national level, each one of these missing chapters is a part of America’s history that has never been told. But on a more personal level, these chapters are pieces of your being—of your soul—that have been lost and can never be recovered, leaving you incomplete. This incompleteness, born out of a lack of history, tells you that you came from nothing, and therefore part of what you are is nothingness—you are defined by, and regarded by, a lack of understanding of what came before you. And again, this is where double-consciousness is formed.
To be the descendent of slaves is to be the heir to a fragmented history that inevitably is a frustrating mess of non-existence on one side, and, quite frequently, surprising revelations on the other side. The legacy of slavery in America is like a giant tree. On one side of the tree, massive branches extend across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe. The boughs are strong, having grown for centuries, blooming with leafs of history. On the other side of the tree, most of the branches have been chopped off and hauled away to be used as firewood. The branches that remain are short, with leafs that bloom sporadically. It is almost impossible to believe that these two drastically different sides can exist on one tree—one side lush and healthy, the other side ravaged by abuse and neglect. Yet there it is, for everyone to see, a giant tree that grows in every town and every city in America, providing shade with its giant branches on one side, while the other side, with its damaged and severed limbs that leave people wondering, “What’s wrong with this tree?”

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