Reaching Forward, Reaching Back

I jumped up with the bell, prepared to make good my escape. But as my classmates milled around, blocking any speedy exit, He asked me to stay behind. Again. It was the second time in as many days that my teacher had asked to speak with me after class, but this time, I knew it was coming, and I had already prepared for my sprint out the door. During the second hand’s final lap around the clock, I had stacked my textbook atop my notebook. My muscles twitched in anticipation as my brain plotted how to move through a crush of students, from the middle of the room, and into the corridor. When the bell finally rang, I sprang to my feet, ready to bolt. But before I made it to the door, above the din of chairs scratching terrazzo and students chattering, He told me to hang back. The noise lowered briefly in recognition that I was, again, being singled out. Curious eyes regarded me as classmates now took their sweet time leaving the room—curious eyes with skin, hair, lips that looked nothing like mine. 

I sank back into my seat as the room emptied. Unsettled not because I was being judged by my peers, but because I knew what He wanted, and I was ginning up the courage to say “no.” Black History Month was upon us, and some of the teachers in our school were similarly holding Black students after class to ask whether we would participate in a program “celebrating” our families. We were to go home and ask what our people were doing during the Civil Rights Movement: Who our parents, our grandparents, marched with; what they fought for; who they believed in (Malcolm or Martin?) Who had been bloodied, battered, humiliated, degraded by America among our kin? This “celebration,” our Black families’ pain and trauma on full display in the high school auditorium.

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It was easy to ask us individually because there were only 52 Black kids of 2500 students in a school big enough to have a flourishing arts program, state championship teams from football to debate, an overstocked library, several different school bands, countless academic clubs, an auto shop, and even an aviation curriculum where students could obtain their small aircraft pilot’s license. We were generally one or two to a classroom in this enormous, well-equipped school, a place so populated by teachers and students who looked nothing like me that the imbalance often felt hostile.

This showcase was presented as an opportunity to promote understanding and racial harmony; to educate the predominantly white audience of teachers and students about the Black American experience. When He had proposed it to me the day before, He had done so with bright eyes and vigor, asking:

“What were your people doing during the Civil Rights Movement? I mean, they must’ve had some horrific experiences down south.”

I didn’t have the language at that moment for why the question touched a nerve, but it did. He finished talking about the proposed program (the year before, I am ashamed to admit that I participated in some forgettable play), and then he asked if I would add one or two of my family’s anecdotes to the mix. I made some excuse about not knowing anything, and told him I would get back with him. He let me go. That day.

Mama’s words cut right to the heart of my uneasiness that evening. After school and basketball practice, we were to eat dinner and do our homework. Her office was downtown, and her commute often brought her home late, so we would catch up about our day in the family room as she ate her dinner. That night, I told Mama what He had asked. Her raised eyebrow said she knew this question; the purse of her lips said she despised it. She laid down her fork and, between bites, she said, 

“Why is it his business what our family was doing? Where were he and his people during the Civil Rights Movement?”

We shared a soft, annoyed laugh into an unspoken agreement, and then, she continued her dinner. Obviously, Mama had shared the stories with me that He wanted. But the pursed lips, the eyebrow, the soft chuckle of annoyance, and the “that’s it from me” way she continued her meal were clear: 

Don’t you tell that man what he wants to know. Especially since he’s offered nothing in return about what his people were up to, or asked the other students in the class to account for their folks, either. It wasn’t just one or two white folks acting a fool in history, so if we have to account for our doings, then so should they.

It would take me years, a law degree, and a career as an attorney to deconstruct my intuition, and my mama’s instruction. The best trial lawyers are expert in the art of soliciting the answers they want from witnesses——meaning the one asking the questions controls the flow of information. Expert attorneys know how to get what they need to massage a story and tell a particular tale.  

“What were you doing during the Civil Rights Movement” is a question attempting to net the night sky, trying to compress the vast complexity and gloriousness of generations of Blackness into a single narrative. But, “What can you tell me about 1960?” or “How did you learn to quilt?” are questions behind which I have spent countless hours listening to the tales of my elders and their elders and, if I’m lucky, even their elders. To dip into reverie and lore as they breathe life into our ancestors is a gift. Time escapes the day because the answers to these questions are what they are—maybe full of joy or sarcasm or humor or pain or all of the above. We meet ancestors we may have never heard of before; learn of travel and love; of property and poetry; of blood feuds and bad days; of resilience and resistance. Talking about our lives in our own way offers the freedom to delve into topics as we wish. Or not. But time is also escaping our elders, some, for whom these memories are already fading, or gone.

That night, Mama wasn’t shrouding our history; but insisting that the light shine on all of it. The brutality of chattel slavery existed in this country for 246 years, and, for most of that time, in the south and the north. The rise and fall of Reconstruction happened. Jim Crow and the Black Codes happened. America’s innumerable creative cruelties happened, and continue to happen, against Black people every day. But when the light illuminates only certain stories about us as representing Blackness, the remaining universe of our accomplishments and joys and suffering dissolves into ideas detached from living, breathing people until, over time, our stories, and the people who lived them, vanish. 

Thankfully, Carter G. Woodson demanded space in academia for scholarship about Black life, and respected scholars have dedicated their lives to combatting our erasure from history. But my earliest Black history education came from Mama, who took great pains to make sure we knew our own, lesser-known stories through reading and keeping our family history alive. Our family goes back at least four generations in Marengo County, Alabama. Though some eventually scattered to the four winds, Mama made sure I knew the names of the people she knew—history and lore that my blood relations and kin by skin keep alive for me today. Our people built a community; they taught that if you could see it, you could be it. Mine are folks who sometimes reached out for a helping hand, and sometimes reached to offer one. People who knew what it was to be called out their name, but who also knew their name. My family is remarkable, yet hardly alone.

Because from Hobson City and Tuskegee, Alabama to Dearfield, Colorado; from Mound Bayou, Mississippi to Bronzeville in Chicago; from Colemantown, New Jersey to Zora Neale Hurston’s beloved Eatonville, Florida; from the South Carolina Sea Islands to the more than 500 freedom colonies established in Texas; from Glenarden, Maryland to Allensworth, California; from Wilmington, North Carolina to Seneca Village of New York; from Nicodemus, Kansas to Greenwood, Oklahoma, our people built community with each other. And this list is barely a handful of the approximately 1200 Black towns and settlements founded in the United States between the late 18th and early 20th centuries, in addition to the countless Black neighborhoods, bottoms, and quarters we called home. Homes where people viewed self-reliance as the best way to achieve Black social advancement in America. 

With often scarce resources, we found ways to make a way out of no way—we bought land, and built homes, schools, churches, and businesses. When tax money seemed unable to make it to our coffers, we made do by reaching forward and reaching back. Though several of these towns and settlements proudly exist today, many have also been lost to the wanton and cruel destruction that white supremacy leaves in its wake. We have been defrauded out, rioted and bombed out, polluted out, and eminent domained out of our ancestral homes. And through it all, my people have painstakingly etched family trees and family lore into our blood memory, for there is no omega without the alpha and all that comes between. The flames of my curiosity are continuously, and eagerly stoked by my folks—a curiosity that only grows with each visit to an elder, a town, a museum, and an archive; with every book that documents the fullness of our history. We weep for our ancestors, then,  because people who looked like us, our kin, lived in these places for generations before these communities were torn apart. People who walked the footsteps on the soil that led to me.

On reckoning day, my teacher stood, expectantly waiting for me to regurgitate our horrors or our heroism from the Civil Rights Movement. But without the language for it at the time, sitting at that desk, subject to the power he held over my academic career, and knowing that any refusal could invite negative consequences, my heart started thumping in my chest. Thumping as his expectation for a bit of stage play dialogue quietly overrode my family’s right to grieve, and pay proper respect, for our heritage. Thumping as those responsible for, or benefitting from, our trauma were not being similarly asked to add to the performance. Thumping to break a rib as I second-guessed my refusal, and considered telling him instead a story of our humor, achievement, or love. That our lives were not all roses, but that we did experience joy. Thump, thump, thump, said my heart as my blood heated and raced through my veins because I knew his question cared nothing about such flowers about our lives, no—his question sought only the manure. But our trauma wasn’t theoretical, or for anybody’s entertainment. Or blameless. Real people perpetuated this dirt, while their descendants continue to reap the benefit of what their ancestors sowed. 

But perhaps these Black History Month presentations remedy anti-Black racism. Have they ever moved the needle on voter suppression, housing discrimination or the starvation of resources from predominantly Black communities? Have they ever resulted in equal pay for equal work; improved the disparate care Black people experience in the U.S. healthcare system; purified the air, water, and soil disproportionately polluted in our communities; stopped police or vigilantes from harming us; or lowered the disparately high African American incarceration rate by one single person? Perhaps. Or are they, perhaps, an opportunity for our audiences to watch us for comparison and self-assurance? To say that, no matter what horrors, or other anti-Black foolishness exist in their past, or their family’s past, at least they never committed the atrocities being acted out on stage? Perhaps. 

“Did you talk to your mother?” he asked over the sound of my heartbeat in my ears.


“And? Tell me, what was your family up to during the Civil Rights Movement?” His eyes were bright and expectant again. My mouth was open and dry. Maybe it would have been easier to just answer and get it over with. 

“You know, I … I …” He must have sensed my trepidation because He came closer with that “you-can-trust-me-with-your-pain” look on his face. He sat in the desk in front of me and turned to face me, his eyes soft, likely expecting something so horrifically bloody I could barely verbalize. “I … I …feel like, maybe, I . . . should be asking you that question.” In a pulsebeat, his eyes narrowed to slits and hardened from a gentle rain to a storm. “Or maybe, we could just put this question to the whole class tomorrow?” Bubbles filled my stomach as the ground beneath me turned . . . shaky. And all because I had asked to tell our story on our terms, while also asking for an honest, full accounting of the circumstances giving rise to the Civil Rights Movement. 

He was disappointed in my insubordinate answer, he told me, as he stood up to rush me out the door. I have no idea what happened to that performance that year; I just know that I didn’t participate. But I do remember finishing rather poorly in His class.

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