The Footprints Before Me…

Glittering waves of Dauphin Island, Alabama

Glittering Waves of Dauphin Island, Alabama

The soundtrack of lapping waves must be the same here. Does the gentle spray of water caressing a shoreline ever change? Does the water on the west coast of a mother country stroke the sand in a distinctly-gentle language? The sun today warms my skin and reflects with near-blinding brightness from the powder-white sand beach, even though it is thinly-veiled by the gauzy clouds inching across the sky. The sea breezes are light, hinting at innocence, giving the brown pelicans no trouble as they glide atop the waves in search of the place where they will dip into the surf for a meal. There are two good-sized pieces of driftwood lined up end-to-end . . . perhaps set there in perfect symmetry by the waves, or maybe, the remnants of a game played by children from the condos lining the beaches that face oil rigs in the far, far hazy distance pretending to be silent sentries. It is a perfect May day to spend on Dauphin Island.

Yet I sit on this beach with footprints forever on my mind. The words on my tongue had always been of my once-living ancestors—distant relatives whose blood nonetheless courses through my veins and warms under this gauze-cloud sun. Those with whom maybe I share a birthmark or a laugh or the slide of an eye as a warning to find a better lie or tell the truth. Folks who walked this earth, but who I never met on this earth.

 My family is Alabama for at least four generations—my soul is rooted here. So whenever anyone has asked why, or how, I could possibly love this place, my answer has often been,

          “Because generations of my people’s blood and footprints are in this soil.”

And then, two days before I end up on this beach, there they were. Footprints. Excavated after hundreds of years underneath layers of earth in Mobile, Alabama.

Actual ancestral footprints preserved in Alabama soil. Photograph of an exhibit located in the Archaeology Museum at the University of South Alabama
Actual ancestral footprints preserved in Alabama soil. Photograph of an exhibit located in the Archaeology Museum at the University of South Alabama

Who knows whether they were my actual kin, but they belonged to my people—Africans stolen from West Africa and their descendants, many whose first footprints in this land are stamped into the shores of Dauphin Island. The first ship of 200 men, women, and children arrived in 1719, and many were enslaved in Mobile because they were believed to have a superior knowledge of rice cultivation—rice being the cash crop of the day. In either 1819 or 1821—almost exactly one hundred years after the first ship landed on this island—a massive hurricane hit Mobile, resulting in a storm surge that washed ashore and flooded a rice field with enough sand to create an entire new layer of earth over freshly-laid footprints. Over the course of two decades, more and more layers of sand, dirt, and debris accumulated on top, preserving these ancestral footsteps—evidence of somebody’s people captured, frozen in time.

Before this day, when I spoke of footprints, I spoke of people I had never seen and never met, but with whom I share a story. Maybe I knew their names, maybe not, but they were part of my marrow all the same. But this day, on this beach, my skin also browns under the same sun as generations of ancestors who came before me. The wind carries the same scents of sea air to my nose, and the sound of the same waves they heard lapping the shore repeats in my ears. Every grain of sand here feels touched by another ancestor touching another facet of me. My words about footprints feel like remembrance—a tap on the shoulder from somewhere in eternity to remind me that I am not a mistake. I am intentional. That a tree can be transplanted—its roots severed and re-planted in new soil—but that the roots remaining would always remain, even if buried by time and layers of dirt. The tree, and the severed roots, would always remember life joined together and the trauma of the separation.

Dauphin Island is a stunning place, but sitting here, I wonder how it must have looked to the enslaved Africans at first sight. These West Africans sailed away from sandy shores and through glittering ocean for treacherous months at sea, only to land on a different sandy shore and what must have looked like glittering ocean, too. Did they know how permanently they had been severed from their home, how cleaved they had been of their freedom, when they stepped off the boat? Did they know that the rest of their natural lives would be spent in involuntary servitude? Could the trauma and horrors of the middle passage possibly prepare them for the  savagery of the peculiar institution awaiting them here? I sit wondering what they must have been experiencing as they reached this shore from the one they left; what was going through their minds when they stamped these first footprints here.

I wonder how they survived, and also wonder how they lived. Who they loved and what made them laugh, smile, weep. I wonder about their jealousies and human frailties and practical jokes gone awry. About betrayals and regrets and triumphs big and small and all of the pieces that make us human. Today, people sunbathe and play in the water. There are a few Black families here and there along the beach, and as I leave, I end up talking to a couple of mamas. They are local families–from about thirty minutes away in opposite directions. But most of today’s beachgoers are white. Other than some folks under a nearby tent who are looking at me whenever my gaze scans the horizon, no one seems to be paying me any mind. But the ancestors of my ancestors of my ancestors may very well have come through Dauphin Island. Maybe not. In any event, there are footprints underneath the sand where I sit watching the pelicans and listening to the waves. So I stay put.

This, I get from my mother. When asked where she grew up, the honey way “Demopolis” eased from her lips gave taste and substance to even the crispest, most bitter Chicagoland air. Light softened and time slowed to the lift of her smile as she drifted into reverie about my
family. But everyone was also an open book to my mother, whether one knew it or not. She could read somebody in a second. So when told that she was better off “escaping the South,” her eyes would scan the teller up and down as the atrocities of eras flowed from the teller’s imagination. Narratives my mother knew better than well, yes, but recountings of such unimaginative consistency that the tales could have been read from the same newspapers and textbooks. And all while omitting the things my mother, my family, defiantly loved about her beloved Alabama.

My childhood was filled with her stories about my grandfather and his brothers building one another’s homes; her grandfather owning one of the first Model Ts in town; and the way my
grandmother sent her to school every day with words of affirmation and encouragement or taught her to sew. I regularly visit, and pay my respects, at the Montgomery Greyhound Station where the Freedom Riders were brutally attacked in 1961—the same station where my mother routinely picked up my cousin when she rode the bus home for the weekend from Tuskegee Institute. I have stood in the home house kitchen where my grandmother fed her family for decades though both of my grandparents passed before I was born. I visited the school where my mother stepped through the hallways from kindergarten through twelfth grade, and I imagined her footsteps as she grew. I stood on the spot, in the church, where my parents married, and overlooked the Tombigbee River from where they cut the cake at their reception. These are just some of the footprints set out before an intentional me, and I dare say that my Black family is not alone in knowing joy and love and pride and pain.

The atrocities of the Atlantic slave trade and the institution of chattel slavery; the racial terror and machinations that killed Reconstruction, brought about Black Codes and Jim Crow; the anti-Blackness that continues to plague the soul of America, are all well-documented yet hardly fathomable. I have studied and litigated and debated the root causes of why someone would deny or despise me, or my folks, simply because of the color of our skin. But at my core, it is not the lawyer-me, or the writer-me out here today. It is the feeling-me, the curious-me, the grateful-me that my mother and my people still taught me a kind of defiant love for my folks, for Alabama; taught me that the sins of anti-Blackness originate in the hearts of man, and not from this soil; taught me the importance of community-building and respect for this land. These are the footprints that root my soul in this earth. I am tethered here—nourished by a kind of defiant love that says Black people are allowed to love the South. I am my best in Alabama.

It is my mother’s varied experiences that made me want to be here—to connect with family, make my own friends, create my own memories. On this most recent trip, I spent time, met folks, and stepped in footprints in Hobson City, Gee’s Bend, Atlanta (Georgia, yes, but with hosts as Alabama as they come), Mobile, and, on this day, Dauphin Island. So I dig my feet in the sand and continue to feel the footprints. Does this root me into the soil more? Maybe. But I feel a wash of pride as enveloping as the water lapping the shore at the way I put a Black community’s Alabama on the page.

I started Moonrise Over New Jessup as a tribute, a love letter to the complete memories of my mother’s Alabama. That is a whole other essay. But in many ways, Moonrise completed me. The story flowed from my pen because it was inspired by the richness of my family history and lore, and it challenged me to do more than want to know the soil better; more than want to be under the sky she loved. It is my privilege to write in Alabama. Over the last couple of years, Moonrise took shape during long stretches of time in Montgomery and Mobile; after long conversations with family and family about life in a place too often called with pity or scorn. After the footprints long ago laid in this soil led me home.

Check out Still by Seinabo Sey for the music in my ears while I wrote this piece…

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