This is a guest post from Annie Reneau, who blogs at Motherhood and More. It first appeared on her Facebook Page. Annie has written about race here before. She carries an interesting perspective as a white ally for others seeking to better traverse the road to being helpful and supportive white allies in the struggle for racial equality. Whereas I grew up surrounded by racism within my family and community (more here and here), Annie grew up in a family that followed the Bahá’í teachings of unity and acceptance. In Annie’s own words, she was “raised in a home where racism and racial prejudice were neither accepted nor tolerated (more here and here).”
Black History Month is an important time for non-black people to bone up on black history. Hopefully, we can gain much-needed perspective that helps us to appreciate the myriad contributions made by black people to humanity. At the same time, it is a useful time of reflection upon our relationship to black history, how we have, through oppression, prevented the contributions of black people from benefitting humanity and elevated our own statuses at the expense of entire generations of black people.
There is a useful trend this year to focus on contributions over oppression. My family is thoroughly enjoying this trend and the plethora of information and resources that accompany it. My family, though is made up of both black and white members. We center history all year on black history.
Annie takes a moment to point out to white families that our personal studies of black history within the United States cannot be separated from slavery and our involvement in it.
I am a house slave born Akiwa
I have birthed two of my slave owners children
My fairer skin
Made me appealing to him
And I had no choice but to give myself
for my own safety
My children has even fairer skin
They look more like him
So they don’t know I’m Their mother
or their beautiful history
His wife could not bare children
so mine became hers
And it breaks my heart
watching them grow
Knowing the things they could never know
But I watch them as they learn to read
and do as the owner does
And I kept silent out of a mother’s love
Knowing nothing good could come from the truth
They treat me as a slave
sometimes even with unkind words
Even though from me they came
But for their sake I speak no words
So that their freedom will always remain
without knowing a slaves pain
As a woman and a mother, this gutted me.
Black history month is about so much more than slavery, but in the U.S., Black history and slavery are inseparable. And sadly, many of us still don’t have an adequate education on the topic.
I’m always flabbergasted when I hear people say that Black Americans need to “get past” slavery. “It wasn’t us,” they say. “That happened hundreds of years ago. Get over it already.” It’s clear to me that these people don’t fully grasp the horror of American slavery, how long it lasted, and what happened after it. They also don’t seem to understand how severe trauma works.
New research indicates that trauma can be passed down at the epigenetic level. A recent study found that descendants of Holocaust survivors have altered stress hormones, that the suffering their ancestors endured left a biological mark. The implication is that the impact of traumatic experience can be inherited not just at a social and emotional level, but in the way genes get expressed generations down the line.
Now, the Holocaust was unfathomable, don’t get me wrong. But when you consider that the horrors of the Holocaust directly affected a generation over a period of about 12 years, while the horrors of slavery in the U.S. directly affected at least 10 generations over 300 years, well . . . go ahead and do the math.
And slavery in the U.S. wasn’t just “slavery.” It’s too easy to blur that word into a somewhat benign picture of forcing someone to work without pay. No, it was the sheer inhumanity that went along with it. Brutality that we can’t begin to imagine in modern America. Husbands torn from their wives and children torn from their parents, over and over again. Generation after generation viewed and treated as animals, and in many cases, much worse.
And this. The story behind “Akiwa renamed Sara” was not uncommon. Put yourself in this woman’s shoes and tell me your heart doesn’t shatter.
And it’s just one of a million stories.
So, no. It’s not our job to tell anyone to “get past” this part of our history. Our job is to acknowledge the full weight of it, without caveat or defensiveness. Our job is to unlearn the whitewashed history of slavery most of us were fed as children. Our job is to strive to understand the generational pain and trauma that this long chapter—as well as the decades of injustice and oppression that followed it—have caused.
We also need to recognize that if we are white we won’t be able to fully understand what it means to own that side of our collective history—and because of that, our job is to take a seat and listen to those who do. And to believe them when they tell us.
* Note: While this photo adds imagery to the poem’s narrative, the subjects in the photo aren’t directly representative of the story. This woman was a domestic slave named Martha Ann “Patty” Atavis, and she’s holding Alice Lee Whitridge, one of her owner’s children. More info can be found here.