My aunt's apartment was stifling hot and smelled strange but I tried to ignore it.
"Our people took the name of Mr. C-, you know. He owned our family and when the war was over, we just kept the name," she said.
"I don't know anything about that time. I mean, no one's told me stories about it," I said.
"Well, it's here and there." She thought a little. "You know, there is a story about a relative of ours. The rest of the family kept the C- name and stayed in Alabama. But one left. He came up North and disappeared."
"Disappeared? Why'd he disappear?"
"Because he passed."
"Yes. He was white. Real white. Your great granddaddy passed for white for a while; his wife could pass, too.” She paused again. “I don’t know how your grandfather got so dark. Anyway, he came up to Chicago and the story is that he worked in a store and started a business. But he never got back in touch with the rest of the family. He's lost."
She said this like he just wandered onto State Street and just couldn’t find his way back.
"I have *never* heard this story!"
My aunt sighed. "There aren't that many family members left who know it."
Unfortunately, I have totally forgotten what my passing distant relative’s name was.
The new Skip Gates special on PBS is full of these stories of passing, diaspora, disappearance and reinvention. (But sometimes I wonder if my own family's narrative is real or just patterned on other stories of black family lines whose origins are just as murky or tangled.)
What strikes me about some of these early stories of lost family members reclaimed is how prominent black-owned land figures into them and how crucial the land is to forming early black identity as well as ideas of freedom and citizenship. The program begins with Gates visiting the land his family has owned for 6 generations and passes by a parcel of land his family had owned but had to sell. Since part of their own genealogical story is lost to them, their farm acts like an anchor for their identity. In subsequent conversations with celebrities like Chris Rock, Tina Turner, Morgan Freeman, Don Cheadle or Tom Joyner, Gates reveals that their families had once owned land - 40 acres, 62 acres, 65 acres - donating or selling some of their land to build schools or churches.
The revelations about property and land ownership become a source of pride in their family. What is it that Rock says – If he had known this before, it would have taken away the inevitability that he would be nothing. And property is usually the vehicle for these stories to come to light; they act like a bracket around early black families: you were property and now you have property.
At the turn of the century blacks owned between 12-15 million acres of land; by the 30s and 40s that number shrinks to just a little over a million. For many of these black families the land is a foundation to build their newly acquired identities as freed people that suddenly disappears, forcing their story to jump, only to be picked up further down the line. What happened? What happened in those intervening years? Did African Americans just suddenly decide, "Hm, you know, owning land sucks. Let's pick up and go north"? Usually something else happened to make a family, or even a whole black town, disperse.
Tom Joyner's family story is a good example; Gates finds his great grandmother but her paper trail ends somewhere in late 19th/turn of the century Carolinas, only to pick up again several years later in the north. Joyner has no idea why she left home or what the story of his family is but Gates and his team discover the reason: His family owned a substantial parcel of land but when his two great uncles are accused of murder and executed, the family sells their land to pay for legal fees and the remaining family flees the area. But Gates' team also uncovers that the accusation was probably false, specifically targeted at the two great uncles because they were part of a black landowning family.
Chris Rock asks how his own ancestor could go from slave, to soldier, to legislator, to landowner, to sharecropper all in 10 short years; Gates simply answers, Reconstruction ended. We're left to conclude what happened to Julius Caesar Tingman's land on our own.
Three years ago the exhibit "Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America" came to the Chicago Historical Society and it was a hard exhibit to walk through. Again, I noticed stories of black land ownership (or burgeoning private enterprise) running alongside the photos of ‘extra-legal deaths at the hands of unknown persons' (which is how the Society described the lynchings that spread throughout the country from Reconstruction to roughly 1965 or '68.)
In 2001, the AP ran a series called 'Torn from the Land' that researched and confirmed claims of widespread land theft - claims that are crucial to the reparations movement. Opponents of the reparations movement say that it's a fallacy to punish or extort money from people today for events in the past; slavery is over. I counter that the cost of these past events is still felt today through procedures that, are legal and that still disproportionately affect poor communities of color, i.e., partitioning, rezoning, ‘revitalization’/gentrification, and eminent domain. These legal maneuvers aren't 'extra-legal' or as extreme as lynching but they sure do have the same result – displacement, dispersal, diasporas.
Personally, I'm sort of neutral about the reparations movement. Do I want my father's family to be paid money because of slavery? Not really. What I want is a deeper, more public acknowledgment of how slavery impacted and drove our capitalist system, and how our nation's participation in the slave trade laid a foundation for practices, industries and institutions that not only continue to have an adverse affect on communities of color today but still provide the elite in this country with wealth and prosperity. That's not too much to ask, is it?
Land is at the bottom of our American imagination and mythology. The land was the lure and the land has allowed us Americans to earn our claim to citizenship - we stole it, settled it, colonized it, killed for it, and exploited the shit out of it. American land is a metaphor for our political and national identities at home, as well as a justification for our acts abroad.
As an African American, though I am a participant in (and benefactor of) this American history, I am distant from it because of how the land figures into our own fraught, black history: we were counted with the land, we worked on the land, we fought and were killed for the land. More acted upon than actor, we have seen our roles in history marginalized or elided, but now we approach a moment where, at last, our acts can be writ large and with boldness.
I say we owe a debt to our ancestors for the sacrifices they were forced to make – if we have the chance to take a firm step toward repaying that debt, toward reclaiming the lost land of our identities as black Americans, then we should take it now.