When I was a small child, there was an old woman I remember seeing when we visited my grandfather’s house on the Southside of Chicago. She was extremely quiet, very tall (although slumped with age), with light brown skin and braided hair. My mother told me she was more than 100 years old.
It was not until I was a grown woman that I realized who “that woman” was… Rhody Leslie, my father’s grandmother. She migrated to Chicago in 1939 to live with her sons, Tommie Joe and Robert (my grandfather), after her husband of 67 years died in Alabama. When she passed away in 1954, at age 104, I was three years old. Too young to ever have a conversation with her, I do not even remember attending her funeral. And, until I became an adult, I had no idea that Rhody had been enslaved – along with her husband and mother. Those in my family who knew her well say I remind them of her. A regal six feet tall, she smoked a pipe, swallowed an aspirin and downed a shot of whiskey each and every day.
Being a “linked descendant” puts racism and white privilege in a harsh light for me. It makes speaking out honestly about the legacy of slavery a personal and family imperative.
I always knew that my mother’s ancestral roots went back to at least one plantation-owning Virginia family, but not until well into adulthood did I realize that being directly descended from one plantation family actually means being descended from many such families, and related by marriage to as many as 50 others. Furthermore, this heritage for “first families of Virginia” turns out to endow me with an extended family of European American cousins, but an equally large or larger extended family of African American cousins. And the longer I studied my family tree, the more I realized how large, extended and “linked” it is.
When I joined Coming To The Table over two years ago, I began a journey—a journey into the lives and times of my slave-holding ancestors and, most important for me, into the lives of the people they had enslaved. Taken together, we call ourselves linked descendants.
The Storytellers of BitterSweet have wide-ranging conversations and share stories on many topics, and we imagine that our readers and guest contributors will expand the exchange with new topics and themes. Our stories touch on all periods in U.S. history, from the arrival of Europeans and then of enslaved Africans in North America in the colonial period, right up to the present, and take place in regions all over the country and the globe. The characters we write about come from many walks of life, in stories of work, family life, creative endeavor and spiritual tradition. The legacy of the relationships of bondage and vastly unequal power emerges regularly and has moved many of us to take action toward justice, healing, truth-telling and peace-making. Together and separately, we are on journeys of research, learning, connection and transformation, full of surprises, joys, frustrations, fears, uncertainties and fulfillment.
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… (T)he great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations. And it is with great pain and terror that one begins to realize this …
James Baldwin, “White Man’s Guilt,” in David R. Roediger, ed., Black on White:, NY: Schocken, 1998), 321.
As social beings we are linked or related to each other in a million ways. As an expression of this, we often spend time with new people we meet trying to figure out positive linkages or connections in the recent past–people we both know, places we’ve both been, experiences we’ve shared.