With Black History Month approaching, we are reminded through cultural signifiers and celebrations to remember the complicated History of Black Americans in the U.S. With my recent travels to the South to learn more about my family, this association with History takes on a profound meaning. In a failed attempt to discover what paperwork exists documenting a story past beyond my great-great grandfather’s, I am realizing that for Black people, paperwork and legal documentation is not what embodies our experiences or keeps our family’s stories alive. It is what we have created in that absence of it, and the mechanisms by which we find familial connectivity keeps our experiences and History alive.
I traveled to Tennessee, Mississippi, New Orleans, Alabama, and finally, Georgia, all to find documented corroboration in any family stories that were passed down through generations about the history of my ancestors. These stories vaguely described my paternal great-grandfather as “from the Caribbean,” or mentioned of my maternal great-great grandfather that was the son of a slave owner marrying my great-great grandmother, a slave. I excitedly went to county court houses looking for slave schedules of the 1850s that would document the receipt of my family members into their plantations work camps. In Sunflower County and Washington County of Mississippi, and Lamar County of Alabama, this attempt failed. Apparently, slave schedules don’t exist for a majority amount of counties in the Mississippi Delta (if I’m wrong, please let me know!).
There is no recorded documentation of my family in these court houses prior to the early 1900s. On Ancestry.com, I can only find censuses that has self-reported information from my paternal great-great grandparents that has more-than suspicious information beginning in 1870, during a period in which being truthful about one’s ancestry was in antagonism to the newly implemented 13th Amendment, which established birthright citizenship. At this point, coming clean about one’s birthplace–if they had the knowledge of it–would risk citizenship, something many of the formerly enslaved were clutching in the face of oncoming racial terror and Black codes.
I quickly realized that my quest would not produce the results that I wanted. I had to rearrange my mind toward my goals and re-nurture what that “want” was. What was I really looking for? What did I really want to get out of this? Was this all in a way to fulfill a need or necessity that was only substantiated by the success of doing similar inquiries in families of European descent?
My family has this unbelievably odd practice; when we crack an egg, we must remove that strange, tiny, white part that floats on top of the yolk, or sometimes in the egg white. Some of us call it the alien. I don’t cook eggs often, but after searching whether or not this is something that needs to be removed and coming in with CLEAR results that our family practice is most likely superstitious, I stopped doing this about 50 percent of the time.
My mom yelled at me when she saw me crack an egg without removing the alien. To her, I was disobeying family history, and maybe, the ancestor’s wishes. There really is no evidence of the validity of my family’s practice; nevertheless, the tradition lived-on. This is analogous to the existence of families in the African and Black diaspora. There is no evidence of our lives, we just are. Our history is in lived praxis. It is in the past, present, and future. There is of course a looming Black cultural story, but more intricately, there is a Black family culture.
My Black History is the story of a people committed to integrity, intelligence, and family. Our story is in the Mississippi Delta, where we worked hard and were/are active community members. We don’t pride ourselves too much in Western standards of excellence (we’ve got too much sauce for that). We are charismatic and private, keeping our possessions and our people close to home, but too gracious to not distribute our resources and wealth to those in need.
A documented story doesn’t matter. Those things don’t make my History any more real. I am Black, and I am a Burtin and a Watts and a Martin and a Hollis and a Blanchard. Our lives and our future is a reconciliation with our traumatic past.
I still want to learn about my past, where my folks came from, and what plantations work camps we lived on. As someone who studies slavery, centering my family’s narrative in my research will only make my research more human and more tender. But as a way to trace my family’s past, or find the African tribe from which I descended, the project has lost meaning for me. The meaning is in passing down weird traditions, like removing a benign part of an egg (if I have children, I probably will teach them this; however currently, it actually just creates another dish for me to wash. Save water usage, right?). The meaning is walking in the non-toxic principles of my family, like having integrity, working hard, and using that sauce.