In the scholar Imani Perry’s new book “Breathe: A Letter to My Sons,” she includes a poignant passage about the legacy of slavery. I bent the page here:
“Black Americans are a genealogically and culturally mixed people. We cannot aspire to purity; our new languages and new cultures are not shameful — though the histories that produced them are the shame of those who oppressed and those who reap the benefits of that oppression.”
In-depth political coverage, sports analysis, entertainment reviews and cultural commentary.
Most black Americans can trace their roots back only so far. Slavery severed family ties, and when my ancestors first arrived on this continent, the direct connection to Africa slowly faded, as it did for other black families. And I refuse to purchase a DNA testing kit for dubious answers.
A few years ago, I visited the world’s largest genealogical library in Salt Lake City. I was thrilled to find Census records of my family in the late 1800s. Those few Census documents I printed off felt like pay dirt, pieces of a disjointed puzzle I will never complete. I squinted at the handwritten names of family members I had never heard of.
What Perry, a prolific writer and professor at Princeton University, is saying to her sons in her poetic tome is that it’s okay that their story starts here, on this land. America should be ashamed of slavery but black Americans do not bear the burden of shame. We are people of African descent acculturated in this country.
I choose not to wax about hailing from kings and queens of Africa. I understand the desire to embrace those images as a counter to Dark Continent stereotypes. We should know African history. However, I don’t know if I can claim a royal lineage. It’s highly unlikely that I am a progeny of princesses. My worthiness, nor that of my ancestors, is not tied to a monarchy.
Perry visited Chicago recently, and she let my three-year-old sit in her lap at a coffee shop as we chatted about family history and what we want to pass down to our children. She spent many summers here, but was born in Birmingham and sat at her grandmother’s knee and received the message of never feeling shame from her mother.
“This notion that in order to have a history that’s important, it has to feature prominent people. I want to push against that,” Perry said. “It reminds me of people upset about [stories of] domestic blacks in the South.”
Slavery, sharecropping and domestic service render feelings of shame for some black folk. That shame is rooted in the idea that their kin didn’t fight back or passively accepted second-class citizenry. It does not help when celebrities drumbeat that false narrative, denying the humanity of our ancestors or less splashy acts of resistance.
I don’t want my toddler daughter internalizing shame, whether it be from slavery or segregation right here on the South Side of Chicago. When she grows up, she will learn her people toiled on the Southern soil on both sides of her family before making the journey north to Chicago for better opportunities.
“Land is prideful,” Perry told me. Much more prideful than being a princess.
In her book, she writes to her sons, “But only recently have I been willing to take seriously the question of what it means to wander in the midst of this story, to name a homeplace in the middle. It is easy to critique, to deconstruct, to analyze it. It is harder to find one’s footing as a life journey in it...You historically and politically sit in a landscape of white supremacist history. The decisions about what to do with that are lifelong.”
For my daughter, she needn’t wander aimlessly. Her home is with her family and she inherits their dreams — the ones lived and deferred.
Natalie Moore is a reporter for WBEZ.org
Send letters to: firstname.lastname@example.org.