As I write this, Hurricane Florence is flooding the Carolinas. When you read this, she may well be drowning many parts of the area, along with many creatures who will be unable to escape the rising volume of water.
There are times when we simply cannot avoid devastation, and even death—but as (mostly) wealthy first-world people, we stand a much better chance than most.
One of the threads running through the CAC’s recent Conspire 2018 conference was the legacy of slavery. In all honesty, as I said last week, I really didn’t want to attend this conference and face its theme: The Path of Descent is the Path of Transformation. I expected—dare I say assumed—that, because there was a person of color presenting, the issue of slavery would arise. I didn’t want to address my feelings of helplessness about the color of my skin, the actions of my forebears (my paternal ancestors are from the South and did own slaves), and the slow drowning, over the course of my life, of any sense of pride or dignity in my own white heritage. I’m a woman whose husband, Henry, spends much of his retirement digging deeper into his family history and genealogy (and mine), while I remain disconnected from and uninspired by my own.
Perhaps fifteen years ago, I heard a presentation by members of the DeWolf family, whose New England ancestors had been highly successful slave traders. Modern DeWolfs have chosen to research, document, “own,” and publicize that history, creating a film and some books in the process of coming to terms with that history, and seeking transformation—which is still underway, in many respects.
In the course of his own family research, Henry discovered that his ancestors had also been slave traders. They sold a castle in France, Chateau de Grand Puch, to finance their slave trading in the new world. That trade was how some of those ancestors ended up in Puerto Rico, eventually intermarrying with other locals and—ironically, from today’s perspective—thus becoming “people of color” themselves.
Where am I going with all this? Good question. Three things stood out for me from the Conspire presentations around slavery. The first was the fact that scientists have now documented how trauma changes genetics—and that those traumatized genes are passed on to future generations. They form an indelible part of the heritage of enslaved people—what some are now calling Post Traumatic Slave Disorder.
This leads me to wonder many things. How were my ancestors’ genetics changed by their experience of owning, and perhaps abusing, other human beings? How do we make reparations for irreversible genetic damage? Can we, as a culture, move forward from this indelible communal sin? Recent history would seem to indicate that we can’t. Where, then, do I find hope?
The second thing that stood out for me was hearing the legend of Igbo Landing. This is the story of a group of Igbo people (from what is now Nigeria) who were brought as slaves to Georgia in 1803 and, when chained together and taken off the ship, chose to drown themselves in nearby Dawson Creek, singing as they did so, rather than live as slaves.
It is practically impossible for me to imagine choosing death over life—because, frankly, I’ve had a pretty darn good life. But that theme of the conference—the path of descent is the path of transformation—states pretty openly that we need many little deaths in our lives in order to grow and be transformed. Perhaps, sometimes, we also need a big death. Perhaps, sometimes, we have to choose.
Jesus chose. He could have stopped his preaching, retreated to Galilee, and stayed below the radar of the religious leaders he so threatened—but he didn’t. Martin Luther King, Jr., chose. He received plenty of death threats before he was assassinated. He could have stayed quiet—but he didn’t. Oscar Romero, the Salvadoran archbishop who will, next month, be declared a saint by the Roman Catholic Church, chose. He challenged the military leadership in his country to stop abusing the poor. He received death threats, and he could have stayed quiet (as did the rest of his church’s leadership)—but he didn’t.
The third thing that stood out for me was an education on what has been a very popular song over the course of my life: the spiritual “Wade in the Water.” I was taught, growing up, that it was about the Israelites crossing the Red Sea to escape slavery. That is its surface meaning. For the African American slaves, however, it had multiple additional meanings. Slaves who chose the possibility of a big death, by attempting to escape their slavery by heading north to Canada, would wade in the water as often as they could because their scent would then be lost by the dogs who were tracking them.
Another wading took place for many at the Ohio River, on the route of the Underground Railroad. That river formed the boundary between slave and free states. (Slaves were still in danger north of the river because of fugitive slave laws, but their chances of success increased once they crossed.)
Finally, there was that legend of Igbo Landing—and understanding that wading in the water, in order to intentionally drown, could be the best choice available.
For slaves, water had immense power. Perhaps even more power than Hurricane Florence.
So where do I find hope? Henry has given me some. A Quaker branch of my mother’s family (it was literally brother against brother) moved from North Carolina to Indiana specifically to “flee the institution of slavery.” They became instrumental in the Underground Railroad. I recently learned that 60 percent of slaves who set off on that “underground” journey toward freedom didn’t make it—but that does mean 40 percent did.
I could go on, but this is more than enough. As usual, I end with some questions: What does this raise for you? What little deaths do you avoid or resist? What bigger deaths dwell in your heritage and your genes?