I’m fourth-generation African American and a 1.5 generation Northerner.
My story is similar to the ones chronicled in Isabel Wilkinson’s breathtaking book about the Great Black Migration, Warmth of Other Suns: as far as I can trace my ancestors-thanks mostly to relatives’ memories–I can go back about 4-5 generations, to rural Mississippi and Arkansas.
This is where the branches of the familial memory stop. Not that my people don’t reach farther back but, due to the European slave trade and limited resources and my kinfolks’ buckle-down ethos and the tangle of broken and blended families in my bloodline, finding out about those ancient ones didn’t take precedence in our collective lives.
At least not like that.
What my enslaved and emigrating kinfolks knew–like so many people who arrive in the US–is that they looked toward a better future for those of us whom, as my late maternal grandma would pray, she “will never see.” To that end, my maternal grandmother asked her two oldest daughters, my aunts Lois and Dorothy, to take her three youngest children–my mom and my uncles Lafayette and Mack–to the more promising land of “up North” to break away from the hard-scrabble sharecropping life and lethally oppressive life under Jim Crow. My aunts dutifully granted my grandmother’s last wish, and my mom, aunts and uncles settled into the new land of Ohio when my mom was 10 years old. When my married mom turned 24, she gave birth to me in that part of the world. Ohio is the land of my birth; I have since lived in Boston, and now New York.
Because my parents are citizens, I am a citizen, even while the US steadily questions the legitimacy of our citizenship because we’re not white–when this nation talks about “Americans,” the connotation is “white.” We’ve seen this writ large with the pitchfork-carrying discourse around President Obama’s birth certificate.
And we’ve seen this pitchfork-carrying discourse codified in vicious laws like SB 1070 and ugly words like “anchor babies” and, of course, the I-Word. And we’ve seen the discourse carried out as “objective journalism” to this day in media outlets like the New York Times. That constant questioning of people of color and our right to be in the US.
And I tire of that questioning–that delegitimizing and the accompanying dehumanization undergirded by xenophobia, racism, and classism and fortified daily in “well-respected” news sources from which people receive information that helps shape their thinking and actions toward each other. That is changing, though, due to the ceaseless activism with our partners Define America, MoveOn, Presente, GLAAD, Cuentame, and NHMC: thanks to our collective effort, the Associated Press dropped the I-Word from its stylebook!
We still have a bit more to go, a few more news organizations to persuade to drop that word that hangs a question over people’s dignity and humanity, and I’m here to help–especially the children whom I will never see.