Given my interest in history, pop culture, racial ideology, and the crossroads where these subjects intersect, it is embarrassing that it took me this long to see something that was right in front of my face. For many years, I have loved the song “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” It was not until last night, however, while listening to one of the many versions of this song, that it occurred to me that while the song was not specifically written about him or for him, it is essentially about my great great grandfather, Nelson Hancock (picture above).
“Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” is an old Negro spiritual, dating back to the 1800s. Many different versions have been performed and recorded, by so many artists, in so many musical styles, that some people don’t know the history of the song, or its real meaning. The song is about slavery, and how families were often divided when either the child or the mother was sold to another plantation. It is crucial to understand that the song is specifically about being separated from the mother, and not from the father. Quite often, the father of slave children was also their owner. Slavery in the United States had a series of laws in place, including one that proclaimed the status of the mother determined the status of the child. This meant that all children born of mothers who were slaves, were slaves themselves. It is important to note that the United States was the first slave-owning nation to adopt this law (in centuries past, in other nations, the status of the father determined the status of the child). It is also important to understand that this law led to the rape of millions of black women by their owners (white men), who used the law to maintain an inventory of slaves.
My great great grandfather Nelson was the son of a slave mother named Lelia Moore, and her owner, John Douglas Hancock. Nelson was born in 1855, and some time before he turned five, Lelia was sold to another plantation (she was between the ages of 18 and 20). Nelson never saw his mother again, nor did he know what ever happened to her. He grew up in slavery, a motherless child, until the Emancipation Proclamation, when he was about ten years old. This song is as much about him as it is all the others, born into slavery, separated from their mothers and families, living in a country where their humanity was denied, and their existence was as nothing more than property.