Repairing the Breach of Slavery

What Linked Descendants Say About Making Connections Across the Divide

Reflections provided by participants of the December 2015 Coming to the Table conference call. Post co-authored by Sharon Morgan, Our Black Ancestry, and Prinny Anderson, Linked Descendants.

If you could have a conversation with a descendant of the people who owned your ancestors, or with a descendant of someone your ancestors owned, what would you want to say? What would you like to ask?

CTTT tree This was the starting point for a conversation when ten people recently gathered on a conference call sponsored by Coming to the Table — Bittersweet: Linked Through Slavery. The themes from what people shared on the call are presented below. Feelings – strong and uncomfortable — came up for everyone.

In general, most callers yearned to comprehend how slaveholders managed to justify their inhumanity, brutality, and callousness to themselves, their families, and their descendants.

  • “How did [the slaveholders] make it right in their own minds?”
  • “How could a man father a child and then sell that child away when it was only 5 or 6 years old?”
  • “How do you rape a woman one day and go to church the next?”

For African Americans whose ancestors were enslaved, frustration, anger, and sadness were the main themes. Their feelings were complicated by awareness of genetic connections to slave owners or overseers. The paradox of owing one’s existence to men who most likely raped one’s foremother, along with keeping her in bondage, separating her from family members, and holding her under threat of losing her children and all her loved ones, is painful at best. Confronting that paradox hurts beyond belief:

  • “I feel anger and sadness.”
  • “I am incredibly angry.”

Beyond those reactions, the massive “brick wall” for African Americans that makes them unable to find records and documents to trace their family trees continues to be a source of frustration. Callers mentioned reluctance within their families to discuss the enslaved condition of their ancestors and the slaveholders who sired children with the women they enslaved.

obaDescendants of slave owners experienced a range of responses in their research and attempts to connect: denial, defensiveness, diversion, deception, withdrawal, opening up, sharing, and encouragement. Of those in the conversation, some descendants had just started their family research. Some had worked on it for years. Some had talked with their family elders about the slave owning past. Some encountered family members or linked descendants who willfully withheld information, either by refusing to share documents or by refusing to have a conversation. For some callers, even asking about the subject of slave owning in their family has felt like a risk… doing the research and sharing the findings riskier still…. “going public” by connecting with linked descendants the riskiest of all. The risks include disapproval in the family or community, alienation from family members, and even shaming by one’s relatives in front of other family members. Some have reached out to descendants of people their ancestors owned. Many have not yet found those people to whom they wish to connect and make amends. Some have scoured whatever family records they can find to identify individuals their ancestors owned and then logged names, dates, and places on the Our Black Ancestry website believing that giving back the information seems like the least they can do.

The experiences of actually reaching out and making connections – with descendants of people enslaved by one’s ancestors or people who held one’s ancestors in slavery – had mixed results. Sometimes, the linked descendant refused contact – didn’t respond to emails or return calls. They might have agreed to a conversation but then became awkward, uncomfortable, and strange. They may have shared a tidbit of information, promised more, and then not followed through. These last two situations seemed to have happened more on the part of slaveholder descendants. Other times, the linked descendant joined in a reasonable conversation, but the connection went no further. At the most positive end of the spectrum, callers made warm, welcoming connections in which their link through slavery or even kinship has been acknowledged, and ongoing personal relationships have formed where both sides become partners in family research and stay in touch.

Whatever the outcome, there seems to be, in general, a pervasive desire on the part of slaveholder descendants to make amends – both in personal actions and activism for societal change:

  • “My family’s history of slave owning is confusing and upsetting, emotionally debilitating.”
  • “I would want to ask for forgiveness” of the descendants of people my ancestors owned.
  • “I write and talk about my slave owning and slave trading ancestry, and I sleep overnight in slave dwellings to encourage communities to preserve and interpret this artifacts of our linked history.”

Distilled from the conversation was guidance for others wishing to have conversations and make connection with someone to whom they are linked through slavery:

  • “I share the family names of my ancestors widely, and I listen to others talking about their family histories, in case there is a name we share.”
  • “I introduce researchers to one another, in case they have relevant information.”
  • “I want to know what the people linked to me through slavery would like from me – information, amends, relationship – and I stand ready to offer it.”
  • “I believe that the more of the truth I can uncover, the greater the peace I will feel, so I persist.”
  • “I call upon my inner spirit. I trust my faith to support me.”

What would YOU like to say to or to ask of people to whom you are linked by slavery? What wisdom can you share from your experience? Please comment on this blog to add your stories and insights.

2 thoughts on “Repairing the Breach of Slavery”

  1. Thank you Sharon and Prinny for helping to facilitate this conversation. The first bulleted question may be rhetorical in part, but I’d like to take it a step further by asking: “how can soldiers kill other human beings ‘and make it right in their minds?'” Isn’t it because there is a phenomena that one’s adversary – whether for political, economic, social, racial reasons, or because of their actions – is not really a human, and therefore different moral standards apply?

  2. So many of these observations rang true. My maternal line is quite proud of DAR & Colonial Dames membership: when I asked my Mom about slave records documented by census data, she went to that quiet voice we use to discuss cancer: “I don’t think our people owned slaves.” It was a taboo topic, and denial would prevent any further intelligence gathering from her.

    I too find the massive “brick wall” frustrating. I haven’t reported to that I think they should introduce a new relationship category: ‘Owned By.’ From time to time, I unearth first names in wills and slave lists. They could form vital clues for those who’ve not accessed source documents as I have.

    I have had opportunity to enter relationship with a descendant of my slave-breeding ancestors, and consider myself quite fortunate that cousin Ardis had a pre-disposition toward receiving my entreaties. I learned something vital about my own sense of superiority. In an early phone conversation I announced I was so glad to be able to invite her into my family. She replied – in her quiet voice – “I thought I was inviting you to my family.” Sophisticated racial justice advocate that I perceive myself to be, I STILL retained a sense of ownership and cultural dominance.

    My advice is to make the effort to enter into relationship: you are responsible for the effort, not the outcome. It’s a social minefield out there. Prepare to commit gaffes, to find your assumptions have been wrong. Don’t let shame hold you back: your willingness, in Coming to the Table of racial reconciliation, may be part of something larger. Trust that there is a spiritual dimension to overcoming fear, denial, false history. Larger forces are at work.

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