February came and went without my writing a post about Black History Month.Though, not because I didn’t think about it, or didn’t want to. I did. I even had a couple of invitations to write guests posts for other blogs. The motivation of a guest spot and a deadline wasn’t enough to inspire me. I had a case of writer’s block on the subject. I couldn’t think of what to write. I didn’t know what I could say that I hadn’t already said before, or that others hadn’t already said. It’s a well-worn story, I thought. What’s left untold at this point? What could I possibly add to that story?
Then, on a rare day off -- and on my own -- I went to my favorite of the Smithsonian Museums, National Museum of American History. There I experienced that story again, in an unexpected way, and was reminded of my part in it.
I arrived at the museum expecting to take in the usual exhibits: the Star Spangled Banner, the First Ladies Gowns, the Hall of Popular Culture. I started to go exploring on my own, thought better of it and then went back to the information desk to get a map of the exhibits. The woman as the information desk gave me a map, and also pointed out temporary collections.
One of them was the Kinsey Collection, which was actually an exhibit by the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), which doesn’t have a physical home yet.
The collection represents 15 years of work by collectors Bernard and Shirley Kinsey. It will be on display in the NMAAHC gallery in the National Museum of American history until May 1st.
I didn’t expect to be so deeply affected by the Kinsey collection. I thought I knew what to expect. I’ve traced one branch of my family back to a slave ancestor. I grew up with the stories of my parents, grandparents, and great grandparents ringing in my ears. I stopped by the Woolworth’s lunch counter from the 1960 sit-ins, on my way to the Kinsey collection exhibit.
I walked in and saw the framed documents on the walls. But as I looked at them, I realized I was wrong to think I wouldn’t be affected. I saw bills of sale, and advertisements for slave auctions. I saw slave schedules and plantation inventories. I thought I was familiar with all these things. I was, but really only from a distance.
Until then, I’d seen pictures and reproductions of all of these things: bills of sale, advertisements, etc. I confronted slave schedules when I did genealogical research on my family, in college, but only in microfiche format. The impact of the Kinsey collection cam when I realized I was looking at original documents -- aged, worn, stained and faded, testaments to what can sometimes still seem to be only an abstract history.
That history became much more real to me upon researching my family history, and finding a slave ancestor, who was also among of the first of my ancestors to know freedom in this country. Finding out that my ancestor had kept his master’s surname, which was eventually passed on to me, made it even more real.
But standing in the Kinsey collection exhibit, that history -- and my connection to it -- became visceral. In the description of bill of sale for an adult black male, I read a quote from Bernard Kinsey, about how he felt holding that bill of sale in his hands for the first time.
“It was a bill of sale from William Johnson, eighteen thirty-two, for five hundred dollars. And when I opened that Fed-Ex up and held this document in my hand it was like I was holding this brother in my hand. And I said I want to know everything about him, and how he lived and this period. And that just started this deep and wide quest.”
As I stood there reeling from the effect of just looking at those documents, and the one artifact displayed there among them -- a small pair of iron shackled believed, because of their size, to have been made for use on a woman or a child -- I couldn’t imagine actually touching them.
The document that moved me the most was also among the most personal. The exhibit was called “A Slave Carrying Her Fate in Her Hands, 1854″ It was a handwritten letter, that had originally been carried by a seventeen year old female slave whose name was Frances. I started to read the description, and then noticed at the bottom a number I could call for a mobile phone audio tour. So I called and listened to the story of Frances and the letter she delivered.
At first glance, the letter appears to be written by Frances’ master, with the recipient being the person to whom Frances was told to deliver it. Upon reading the letter, it becomes clear that Frances probably couldn’t read, and thus wouldn’t’ have known the content of the letter. That’s something that its writer had probably counted on.
I listened to the letter being read, and I felt myself sinking to the floor as the writers’ intentions and the purpose of the later became clear.
Messers Dickerson & Hill
This will be handed to you by my servant Frances. I am told that it is useless to give the capabilities of a servant, that it depends altogether on their personal appearance; be that as it may, I say positively that she is the finest chamber maid I have every seen in my life, she is a good washer, but at housekeeping she has the perfect slight of hand. She is 17 years old the eleventh of this month.
She does not know that she is to be sold. I could not tell her; I own her whole family, and the leave taking would be so distressing that I could not. Please say to her that that was my reason, and not that I was compelled to sell her to pay for the horses that I have bought, and to build my stables. I believe I have said all that is necessary, but I am so nervous that I hardly know what I have written.
Frances was being sold. Had been sold, actually. She was delivering the letter to a slave trader, who would no doubt sell her again. Frances did not know this, the letter explained. She hadn’t been told because the writer owned her entire family, and felt she could not be told because “the leave taking would be too distressing.” Distressing for the writer, perhaps, who somewhat sheepishly apologized for passing the buck of breaking the news to Frances that she’d likely never see her family again.
By the time I reached the floor, I needed to sit down anyway. As I listen to the letter’s conclusion, I was glad to be sitting down by the time the recording ended, with the revelation that the research suggested the letter had been written not by France’s master, but her mistress, who may have sold her for reasons other than paying for horses. The rape of black female slaves by white masters was not uncommon, and Frances’s mistress was likely not the first to take measures to get rid of slave women their husbands might find tempting.
Frances had carried her fate in her own hands, unknown to her, designed and coordinated by others as she passed from one owner to another.
Frances was last identified in Georgia, in the 1870 census, as a free woman.
The African American security guard who walked back and forth through the exhibit saw me sitting on the floor, my phone against my ear, and didn’t say anything to me. He nodded as he passed. Maybe I wasn’t the only one who had the reaction to the Frances Crawford letter. Maybe he’d seen many people before it, standing there or sitting there absorbing the shock, and trying to image how Frances Crawford must have felt.
Maybe he understood that for many African Americans history is hard, especially — as Robin Quivers noted — when it becomes real.
I’m watching African American Lives on PBS, a documentary featuring the ancestry of prominent African Americans. The show features famous entertainers like Chris Rock and Tina Turner and prominent business and community leaders. Usually, when people look up their ancestors it’s a happy occasion to learn where you came from and who you’re related too. This is not so if you were born black in America.
I found out just how hard it is to figure out who your ancestors are last year when I looked up my grandfather on my father’s side. It was so exciting to see his name in the government records, stating who he was married to and listing all of his children including my dad. My excitement was short lived, however, because that one census entry was all I found.
There was nothing at all before that one entry; it was as if he came from nowhere and suddenly appeared as a grown man with children. Watching African American Lives, I discovered why. Until after the Civil War, blacks weren’t listed in the census because they were were slaves — property. To learn anything about slaves, you have to examine property records, and even then you won’t find names — you’ll find descriptions. We were listed with the cows, mules, pigs, chickens and other livestock.
It’s in these records that we discover the true horror of slavery. We see how black people were valued, how they were sold and bought, how families were either preserved or broken up depending on the whim of an owner or circumstances. If an owner needed money, selling a slave was a way of getting some ready cash. Slaves were passed down in wills. The documentary also reveals the history of race mixing and asks the question, was every incident of race mixing under slavery rape? It also asks, what effect has this history had on the African American community today?
It had the effect of stopping me in my tracks on Friday.
Our history is hard, and even harder to avoid. This is especially true for parents. My parents wouldn’t let my sister and I watch “Roots” the first time it aired. They watched it together because, they said, they wanted to make sure it was appropriate for us. I thought they were protecting us from something, but I wasn’t sure what it was.
I’ve since found out, and now as a parent I try to balance teaching my sons about our history with protecting them from it. I’d have been outraged too, if I were the Chicago parents whose fourth grade children were shown a graphic film about the slave trade, HBO’s The Middle Passage, without parents’ knowledge or permissions. I wouldn’t have wanted Parker to see it at eight-years-old. I’m not sure I’d want him to see it two years from now, but at the same time I wouldn’t shelter him from that history.
Besides, I couldn’t if I wanted to. In the second grade, they’ve already started learning about the civil was as part of Black History Month, and Parker has already asked about it. A few weeks ago, when I sang to him at bedtime, he asked if I could sing “Follow the Drinking Gourd” — the song used by a conductor on the Underground Railroad to guide fugitive slaves. I asked him what he knew about the song and he told me. I told him that I didn’t know the lyrics, but that I’d try to learn them.
Our history is hard, yet inescapable. Frances stayed with me throughout the museum. I thought of her when I read about Grace Wisher, the 13-year-old black indentured servant of Mary Pickersgill who helped sew the “Star Spangled Banner” that inspired our national Anthem, and again when I saw Michelle Obama’s dress in the First Ladies exhibit.
I left the museum with Frances stories and those of my ancestors burning in my mind. I left thinking about how maybe there’s yet a way that I, as I writer, can help tell those stories — and how I, as a parent, can share them with my children.
I left understanding that our history is hard, but important not just because it tells us where we’ve been, and illuminates where we are, but because of where it can take us. But only if we know it.