embracing, empowering and enlightening in love . . .
I know my Motherland Mother.
I've never seen portraits of her, cannot recall stories about her, so I don’t know whether I have her eyes, her skin or her temperament. I don't know whether I take after her in my inability to sit still in a chair, or whether my love for music and dislike for cold weather were passed down from her.
Yet I am certain of two facts about her:
First, she lived in West Africa a long, long time ago.
Second, she still lives in me.
I thought about that recently, when a friend told me he overheard a man from another country say that because we African Americans don’t know our pre-American heritage and can’t pin down our roots to a specific place in West Africa, we are “motherless children.”
For years, I used to believe that. I once envied people who spoke of their ethnic lineage and lamented the fact that despite tracing family records or undergoing blood DNA tests that many African Americans get to discover which ethnic group they came from, we will still never know much about our pre-American family. That sentiment was magnified when I visited, then lived on, the African continent and saw the importance of ages-old family traditions and stories passed down from one generation to another.
But much of my sentiment changed in 2001, when my South African wife and I lived in her country while she attended seminary.
I once listened in on a study group session she and other seminarians had at our home. They were discussing the New Testament Gospel According the Matthew, which traces the linage of Jesus back to the Old Testament, chronicling the family history in descending order: “Abraham begat Isaac; and Isaac begat Jacob; and Jacob begat Judas and his brethren …”
To help resonate with the scripture, the seminarians conducted their own, “begats,” reciting their family history, beginning with their parents and then on to grandparents, great grandparents, great-great grandparents, great-great-great grandparents and so on.
One person was able to trace back more than 250 years.
I was astonished; their family stories had been passed down so well, for so long, that they were able to speak about events that occurred two hundred years ago as if the events occurred two weeks ago. I longed to be in their shoes, capable of reaching that far back into my own history.
Then it occurred to me: My African Americans ancestors arrived in this country in 1619; our history here is more than 100 years longer than any of the seminarians knew of their own origins.
Perhaps they’re able to determine specifically where their first-ever ancestors were planted on this earth, perhaps not. I know I cannot. But our last 250 years here is similar to that of any other people anywhere in the world, it is a history interwoven with stories that speak to the fabric of humanity: triumphs, tragedies, successes, failures, joys, sorrows, and everything in between that has brought us this far. There is little reason why I shouldn’t know enough to embrace it and to recount it.
Yet for starters, I have to see it differently.
I used to believe people who say that our roots are in Africa, and without roots a tree cannot grow. But that moment with the seminarians underscored for me what I always knew: Without a trunk, branches, stems, twigs and leaves, you’ve got a tree stump, something that also cannot grow.
Our ancestors didn’t come as lumber, nor did they leave stumps behind.
I know my Motherland Mother. She was uprooted from West Africa and replanted in America. Not all of the roots were lifted, but my Motherland Mother made sure she held on to some of the deepest, strongest and sturdiest. As a result, she did what most plant life cannot do; she survived in foreign soil. In the strangest and often most barren of lands, through harsh winters and despite landowners that weren’t interested in her survival beyond their own benefit, she, as church folk say, made a way out of no way.
Her trunk grew sturdier. Her branches grew longer. And as she had done in the land she was unjustly plucked from, My Motherland Mother bore fruit.
I will never know what street in West Africa my Motherland Mother lived on. Nor will I know whether what her hobbies were there, whether she liked to travel there, or how she got along with neighbors and West African men who came courting. I’ll never know whether she was an introvert like me or whether she dreamed big dreams before becoming a casualty in one of the most tragic realities in human history.
Nowadays, I long to know how she survived that reality – and how she clung to norms and traditions and strengths of her former world and gave them new life here. I’d like to know at what point she realized she would never be free again, and the moment she became determined to ensure that a life without slavery would be a possibility for her children and a reality for her grandchildren. I am a free person because of her efforts, and I believe my Motherland Mother passed down to me, among other things, a sense that even in the direst of circumstances there's always something you can do.
I envision a world where all people cherish their heritage regardless of hue; the more I can learn about my pre-American heritage the better.
But I believe that my Motherland Mother would be upset to know that I didn’t relish every period of my history – that somehow I couldn’t fully appreciate her journey unless I knew the exact starting point. Or that I couldn’t embrace the fact that she and others like her made good use of foreign soil in a world where, throughout the course of human history, many civilizations bite the dust.
Sure, I don’t know everything about her. But I know she was an amazing woman from West Africa. I’m proud to say I’m her son.