I saw a woman who looked exactly like my grandmother in the mall the other day. Which was odd since my grandmother lived in Alabama her whole life and I am in Puerto Rico. Yet, I routinely catch traces of my family in the faces on this island.
Which could explain why I spend so much time looking in mirrors when I travel. Turning my head from side to side, I watch the light catch at the narrow angles of my face — my stubborn chin remaining in the shadows. I press my forefinger to the tip of my nose, feeling the sharp point of cartilage, and I trace its uneven geography. I search for a clue to my identity.
Whose face is this that reflects back at me?
I don’t ask this in an ontological or existentialist sense. It’s more a question of genes and heritage. Whose sap flows through the veins of my genealogical tree? Which antecedent shares the face that stares back at me? Where does my branch rest on this tree of lineage. Who do I look like?
There is something about my face that invites queries when I travel– questions to determine exactly what kind of black I am. And this face that I’ve known for more than three decades is suddenly unfamiliar and adrift in unknowing.
Here in Puerto Rico I am mistaken for a Puerto Rican until my kindergarten Spanish or worried-look-of-confusion-because-I-can’t-understand-what-you’re-saying-to-me reveals that I’m not what I appear to be. I’m not what I look like.
And what I look like is maybe someone who could belong to this island, or perhaps I’m Dominican, or Cuban, or Jamaican, or maybe from farther down the Atlantic. My face, my nose, my brown skin, my curly hair all place me geographically somewhere along the Atlantic Slave Route.
This is the route that changed the face and fate of the once New World, that displaced and unsettled some 15 million Africans.
This was the route that my ancestors traveled to reach the land of the free. This was the unwanted path they journeyed for those in pursuit of profit –the sell and forced work of their stolen bodies creating the wealth and infrastructure of the world that I now inhabit.
My skin and my face bear witness to this heritage. I am a descendant of the enslaved. The great-great-great grandaughter that someone once prayed would survive. The one that someone hoped would have a life free of shackles and much different from her own. I am the future that they longed for.
But who were they?
Our family records are lost or buried under the weight of human commodification. Receipts of sale bear first names only, brief physical descriptions, and always always a price- the worth of a human life distilled into dollars. My generic last name is a staircase with no real destination. In fact, the best way to figure out who my ancestors were is to find the last name of the white family who owned them. Some days it seems as if my forebears can only be found through the intangible– virtually untraceable- web of memory.
When one counts the cost of slavery, often the number of white lives lost during the Civil War is presented as an accounting or settling of an owed debt. As if that in some way addresses the violence, the oppression, the havoc wreaked in our communities and lives. As if that in some way rejoins the family bonds forcibly broken. What I often think of is this untethering from history. This setting adrift of descendants from the people who came before.
The more I learn about the always cruel and ever-involving brutality of American slavery, the more I want to know the names of these people whose survival (at stacked odds) ensured my existence. I want to learn the names of my great aunts who were forced to pick cotton while carrying their babies under the hell-fire Alabama sun. I want to know my great-great grandfather whose back felt the wrath of a lash time and again, while his very body– the mortgaging and selling and trading of it — funded the economy of the United States of America. I want to know these people – my people-who every day for centuries kept moving forward despite being cogs in a killing machine that fed off of their bodies: the productivity of their hands, the labor from their back, the spouses from their beds, the children from their bellies and sides. Even the melodies from their tongues.
I want to stitch their names in fine print across the delicate expanse of skin. Harold, Isabel, Susannah, Charlie. I wish to erect a monument of memories in my heart in dedication to the people who bore these names. Luvenia, Arthur, Sammy, Helene. Names that I will one day whisper to my own children. Katherine, George, Evaline, Marion.
I will tell them what no one has ever told me- girl who looks like nobody and yet everybody at once. As I trace the delicate imprint of names on paper, I will rebuild the chain to our past and re-anchor us to our history.
These are the names of your ancestors- people who never knew freedom, but whose daily existence was an act of defiance all the same. This is who you look like. This is where you come from, This is your heritage.
And this heritage is worthy of being remembered and celebrated as much as the heritage of the descendants of the Mayflower. The blood, the labor, the sweat, and tears of your ancestors created the America around you.
There is no shame in being a descendent of the enslaved. We don’t bear the guilt or shame of someone else’s sin. Neither do the enslaved.
Take heart child. Take heart.