Our Caribbean Kin

“Transcolonial kinship narratives seek to transform exploitative and dehumanizing social relations that characterized the European invasion of the Americas, and Eurocentric understandings of history, knowledge, power, citizenship, and humanity.”
(Reyes-Santos, Our Caribbean Kin, pg. 8, 2015 )

Image: Cover of the text I sit here in Harlem, New York, meditating on the healing potential of bringing “linked descendants” together at the table. I literally share a table right now, with people of all sorts of backgrounds. Some descended from enslaved peoples; others are descendants of enslavers; and most of us are descendants of both. What an ideal place to respond to BitterSweet’s invitation, to share some thoughts about kinship and solidarity based on my recently published book, Our Caribbean Kin: Race and Nation in the Neoliberal Antilles.

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Spontaneous Solidarity

Police guard the entrance to City Hall after removing protesters against the new police union contract in Portland, Ore., on October 12, 2016. the contract was approved by City Council this morning. (Photo by Alex Milan Tracy) [Photo via Newscom]Serial, unpermitted marches; a die-in on a major bridge; even overnight encampment at City Hall did not get #BlackLivesMatter concerns into meetings with the Mayor/ Police Commissioner in Portland, Oregon. Instead of allowing public testimony on a secretly negotiated police contract, the City repeatedly ordered police suppression. One bone was broken; throngs were subjected to chemical weapons, nearly a dozen were arrested on 13 October 2016.

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Just Like Family

In the blog BitterSweet: Linked Through Slavery, we primarily focus on linked relationships between black and white people connected through US slavery—those descended from enslaved people or slaveholders who are linked by virtue of time, place or genetics.  Finding a linked descendant from before the Civil War is powerful and empowering.  We place a high value on these links because personal connections can create a compelling and intense desire for healing and reconciliation.   But I would suggest that there is another link that joins many black and white people today that is an important yet unexplored piece of our national culture.  This link occupies a more recent past, one which can provide another avenue of examination of slavery’s legacy and aftermath.

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It’s NOT All Greek to Me

Anthony Anaxagorou, a  surprisingly erudite, young scholar, ‘schools us’ in a broader appreciation of what shapes belief structures we circulate blithely as cultural currency. Watch what he has to say on the evolution of Western thought, here.

I feel some pride when I consider the term ‘Western Civilization.’ I believe this constellation of understanding lifts us from a more primal ‘Code of the Jungle.’ From its advancement, I draw higher order human pursuits; like justice, artistic expression, the cultivation of knowledge.

No matter how revolutionary, belief systems that are widely adopted are always influenced by those which preceded them. I’ve looked into the bookshelves of eighteenth century, American revolutionaries who wrote so eloquently about their aspirations to freedom. I’ve found they held texts in common. A pool of classical philosophers helped inspire colonialists to engage in a once-unimaginable rejection of tyranny.

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Coming to the Table Leads in Push for HR 40 Reparations Study

I am posting for Pam Smith. She says, “Ahhh the woes of not being a techy in a technological world! A few little glitches prevented me from posting this directly to the BitterSweet blog. As an active member of CTTT I consider this space another home.”

Last week was an historic week for Coming to the Table (comingtothetable.org), an organization I’m involved with composed of descendants of slaveholders and enslaved.  I spend a lot of time with historical records.  Fifty, 100 years from now people will look back to see what our organization did.  Most members will be long gone by then, but some people somewhere will look back to see where we stood.  They’ll search archival records and Internet data that will be stored who knows how by then.  They’ll look at pictures.  And hopefully, among all the material they will find Coming to the Table’s petition http://petitions.moveon.org/sign/congress-pass-hr40-to-2/?source=search urging Congress to pass H.R. 40 – Rep. John Conyers’ bill to study the issue of reparations for U.S. slavery.  That document serves as a tangible symbol of our thoughts, feelings, and actions.

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Part I: Facing Slavery and Finding Amanda

This post is the first of three pieces on 1) how I discovered slavery in my heritage, specifically focusing on a woman named Amanda owned by my ancestor Thomas Jackson and his second wife Courtney Robertson; 2) what more that official county records tell us about Amanda’s life of enslavement and release; and 3) how I found and met one of her great great granddaughters in 1982, my first “linked descendant.”

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Over thirty years ago, for my first sabbatical I set out to study pioneer women’s lives in Randolph County, Missouri. Having required my students to do extensive family history projects in a class on “The Social History of American Women,” I thought I should spend some time pursuing my own.  I was born in Missouri but we moved to California when I was eight and never went back, but still wondered about that place.  Because I was interested in genealogy, when my Grandma Neel died, I inherited her shoebox filled with locks of baby hair, letters, and obituaries so I knew the names of several generations of her people who lived in Randolph County. I wanted to know who these people were and what their lives were like.  I was particularly intrigued by the detail in the obituary of Courtney Robinson Jackson, my grandmother’s great grandmother who died from complications from a fall at  “74 years, 9 months and 20 days.”

In the course of examining the U.S. Censuses of Randolph County from the 1830s to 1870s, I was shocked to find out that ancestors of mine in this region of Missouri (which I soon learned was known as “Little Dixie” — hello!) had owned slaves – not on the order of Thomas Jefferson’s hundreds – but some of my ancestors in that time and place did own slaves, more on the order of five, ten, or fifteen people.  These particular ancestors were typical of white farming families in the upper South and Southern Midwest. Slaveholding for them was part of daily life, a legally sanctioned way to satisfy their labor needs in the effort to survive and “get ahead,” to make a yearly profit, and to accumulate even more property in a capitalist economy.  Slaveholding came with age and a modicum of “success” in large portions of this white dominated nation during the 18th and 19th centuries.

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Up in Smoke: Slavery Researchers Decry Burning of Historical Records

New Post

(Post first written on January 4, 2014)

I am fighting back tears and my stomach is in knots. Most people probably wouldn’t have a physical reaction like this upon learning that 100 boxes of historical documents in Franklin County, North Carolina dating from 1840 were destroyed, but I do.  They were incinerated at an Animal Pound no less.  Reportedly, it took the whole weekend and a lot of fuel to burn these records.  It also took more than $7,000 taxpayer dollars. I have this pained reaction because historical records are a passion of mine.  They helped me find many of my enslaved ancestors.  As a sort of obsessed family historian, for years I have driven far distances to research in ancestral towns and spent days in the backrooms and basements of courthouses.  I’ve combed through fragile 200-year old documents.  I even initiated a volunteer project in western Kentucky to try and unfold and better preserve records still folded into small bundles, like these burned in Franklin County.  Folds in old documents often wears away the fibers in the paper.

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What Do We Want to Say?

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.