Before I was born, a house fire destroyed most of my dad’s family photos. His life has always been a bit of a mystery to me. Save for a wallet-sized photo of him when he was around seven years old, I have little idea what he even looked like as a kid or young adult. I know my grandparents and their families migrated from rural Louisiana to Oakland, California, before my father was born. They made their new life there, where my dad was raised. Too many relatives to count now call Oakland home.
Though my dad grew up in California, I am East Coast born and raised. Growing up, we’d board a plane every few years to visit his side of the family. Grandma would cook her famous gumbo on the stove, big pot boiling. Dungeness crab pulled from West Coast waters––a delicacy on our East Coast tongues. Each time I’d show up feeling like a new person, like a lifetime had passed. (If you ask them, they’ll tell you I look the same, just taller.) There’s always been this great distance between me and Oakland, both physically and temporally.
As I grew older, and tried to find my place in the world, understanding myself through my family history became more and more important. What were they like? What did they do? What was left behind in pursuit of Oakland? How far back can we trace my family’s history? I sat down with my dad on Christmas to ask him what he knew. I wanted to finally learn about my family’s history. I wanted to know why they moved, what kinds of stories he heard growing up. We sat down at the kitchen table. In a neighboring room my brother played Christmas tunes on the piano, while my mom read a novel on the couch. It was mid-afternoon, and our dinner was cooking in the oven. Soon we would be gathered around the table to eat, but first, I wanted to sit down and talk. Much to my dismay and surprise, he didn’t know much. I didn’t understand. How couldn’t he?
In 1942, my family moved from rural Louisiana to Oakland, where my father was born and raised. I’ve never known much about what prompted this move. There was racism. They lived in fear. But that was all I heard. When I ask my dad about why his parents and siblings uprooted and transported their home some 2,000 miles West, he doesn’t know much either. He is able to re-tell me the story that his uncles had told him. One day, a group of white men come knocking on his grandfather’s door in rural Louisiana.
My dad tells me,
So they came to him and they said, ‘We saw your son,’ which was my father, ‘With a mule down by the water,’ and they said, ‘You know we could have killed him right there but we didn’t. We didn’t do anything to him.’ They went on to tell him about all the other members of the family and how they had observed them and that they were just letting him know that if he didn’t do what they were asking, they would have trouble. That’s the time when they left the farming life and moved into the city.
So they packed up and moved. I can only assume this was merely one of many instances of racialized violence my family was faced with in Louisiana. My great-uncles told my dad this story; his parents wouldn’t. For my grandparents, the terrors of the South were a dark secret to be kept hidden away from the light. The trauma they endured was to be left there: in the past. No wonder my dad didn’t know much. The information I was looking for wasn’t available to him, even when he asked. As much as they tried to leave the South behind, they carried relics of it with them into their life in California: in the way they talked, the food they ate, and the way they saw the world. Under the surface lived this world of Southern influence.
My dad continues,
It was funny, it was a strange thing. But at the same time there was this sympathetic world right under the surface that was all Southern. There was Southern cooking, people would get together and talk about the past… The kinds of things that they knew about this other world that they lived in. So when they would sit around and reminisce, it was all about this other world. Even though they tried to stay away from it, they brought everything with them.
Listening to my dad talk about this, I begin to crave these stories. What is lost from their insistence that the past was in the past? I understand why they wouldn’t want to speak about these things. There’s something very American in that assertion that the past is in the past, unable to reconcile with histories of slavery. Buried in our history books, it is the insistence that we can all move forward in our own right. That our past does not affect the future, that it doesn’t matter after all. We like to bury the terror and trauma that our families lived through. But when we abandon the past for the present, what are we left with?
The history of my mom’s family is well-documented. It can be traced back centuries, well before they immigrated to America from Hungary. I know a great deal about my family’s lineage on my mom’s side. I could tell you where and when they immigrated, where they lived before that, even the names and occupations of the specific family members. But with my dad’s family, not only could I not trace the movement of my family from one state to the next, I couldn’t even locate them before America. Where did they come from before Louisiana? Africa? Our history, and the history of many African Americans in this country has been erased. Because those who were enslaved were considered property, they were not granted marriage certificates, medical records or census records from which a typical genealogy would be constructed. Pre-Civil War family research for African Americans means sifting through auction records, property ledgers, and bills of sale. A lost cause for many.
It’s no surprise so many African Americans have little connection to their ancestry. During slavery, children were often forcibly removed from their parents, parents were sold to different plantations, and families were forged, not by blood, but through communities. My last name, Carter, was most likely picked up by my ancestors, who were enslaved by a family named Carter. Our name is not our own.
My dad thinks about this differently, seeing ancestry traced in different ways that don’t always rely on an oral or written history.
Like me, he once believed our history was untraceable. Then my mom got him a DNA kit specifically for African Americans to trace their DNA back to before their ancestors were brought to America.
Your mother got me this DNA kit. Called African DNA or something like that. I tried it and it’s like, all of a sudden, you know that there are links to these different African groups. It made it really fascinating. All of a sudden, here’s a concrete thing. It’s in your DNA. Generations of slavery didn’t wash this away. It’s still alive. We grew up as African Americans; we had no connection to the past, really. Except for our families, you know. And to look beyond that was kind of hopeless for a lot of people. We didn’t have any idea we could do that. Only some vague idea of Africa. But I remember my father was always talking about, you know, we’re Americans. We’re not from Africa. We don’t know anything about Africa, so people pretending that we do, that’s really silly. You can’t let people take away your being an American away from you.
Africa—not just some vague idea, but actual groups of people can be linked to my family’s history. We came from somewhere. Not just an entire continent, but actual places and of actual people. We have a history that extends beyond Louisiana. Now we have something that can connect us and it’s something concrete. It’s in our blood. But it’s more than just our DNA. My dad claims he can recognize the legacy and influence Africa has had on his family. He notes the similarities in customs, in ways of making community, in ways of seeing the world. It’s all there under the surface. It was futile to try and leave it all behind.
My dad continues,
The civil rights movement started in Louisiana. Not just Plessy [v. Ferguson], we can go back to Plessy. But even before that there were newspapers, there were political parties, there were support groups, there were some of those groups that were involved in Mardi Gras and those kinds of things. Those kinds of independent societies that were established to support one another. They’re not only some of the oldest in the country, they’re very similar to African societies that are developed for the same purposes. When you see people dancing in the Mardi Gras, those are African dances.
In the early 1990s, a surge of Black films began to be created about Black families going south in pursuit of their roots. In one, Down in the Delta, directed by Maya Angelou, a single mother is sent to live with her uncle for the summer to get her life together. She has no job, and is struggling to support her two children, who are cared for in great part by her mother. She is threatened by her family knowledge. If she does not prove to her mother she is willing to care for her family and understand her family’s history by the end of the summer, her mother will sell their only lasting family heirloom from the slavery period: a silver candelabra that was sold in exchange for her great-grandfather. In this film, and in many others of this time period, knowing your roots is power. To know where you come from connects you to a broader sense of identity. It brings you back home, it reminds you who you are, and it propels you into the future.
Being a descendent of enslaved people means reconciling in some way with the past of slavery: how it shaped you and how you see your role in today’s world. You can’t sit back and look at your ancestry as an African American without thinking of struggle and pushing through. There is no other option but to work for a better future.
In the late ’60s, African Americans began to re-connect themselves to Africa. This was around the time my father was born. Scholars and artists began to re-connect themselves with the idea of Africa as a homeland. Nina Simone famously fled to Liberia in 1974. What began as a visit to see South African musical legend Miriam Makeba ended in Simone’s three year stay. In her memoir I Put a Spell on You she writes, “The America I’d dreamed of through the sixties seemed a bad joke now, with Nixon in the White House and the black revolution replaced by disco … Africa, half a world away from New York. Maybe I could find some peace there, or a husband. Maybe it would be like going home.”
People like my grandfather pushed back on the idea of Africa as a lost homeland, a homeland to return to. We’re American, not African, he said. We don’t know anything about Africa.
My dad continues,
There are things that are just there. They’re a part of your life. And this was infused in the world that I grew up in, too. Things that are considered for most Westerners inanimate are not considered inanimate for Africans or people from my community. So, like, a tree, or a stone, or whatever it is, they’re considered to have some sort of spirit, some sort of intentionality in the world. And that’s the way I grew up looking at things. It was almost like people were joking—but they weren’t really joking. It’s like the way that you treat things in the world and the way that you regard them. You regard them as they are other beings in the world.
There’s a spiritual element, too. A cosmological one. No matter how Christian they were, the way my family saw the world was different, and this was informed by African cosmologies. Many African Americans today take from African spiritualism to inform their day-to-day lives. As a way of connecting to Africa, many African Americans follow Yoruba or other religions derived from Yoruba, a religion stemming from southwest Nigeria. Many Yoruba people were spread across the Atlantic slave trade, and around the world people of the African diaspora practice Yoruba beliefs, which include reincarnation and ancestral guidance in the form of energy and spirits.
I realized that there’s a whole other world that’s informing their existence, but they don’t talk about this much. I remember when you were there eating gumbo one day at my mother’s house, and people were like, ‘Oh, look at that child eating that gumbo. Look at her. Oh, she’s an old soul. No one had to teach her. She’s been here before. But they’re really saying, you know, you’ve been here before. You’re not just new to this world. You’ve been around. You’re a spirit that’s been here. That’s the way they talk but they’re really kind of serious about it. They’re looking for these signs of belonging in something like that. The way you eat something. The way you do something. That’s what makes you one of us.
The predetermined cosmological viewpoint, the ancestral guide which leads you toward goodness, which moves in your step… I’m not sure I believe in this type of thing. Reincarnation is a word that sits like a question in my mouth, but I’m drawn to love it if it means belonging.
Back before we came, Grandma cooked gumbo on the stove in Baton Rouge: sassafras, okra, celery stock. She passed away when I was sixteen. At her funeral, I read Psalm 23. It goes like this:
Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
It’s a similar sentiment, God as a spiritual guide. Before I started this, I was having trouble placing myself in my family’s history. I was having trouble with the lack of knowledge I had, about who we were, and where we came from. As I continue to learn more about my family’s history, I remember these sentiments: to think of your ancestors as guides, and to walk through life in their memory. This much I can take forward. There is an implicit honor in this—this, to me, is legacy.