During a recent road trip to organize ancestral ceremonies in Virginia, two members of the project’s executive board were taken on a tour of Fredericksburg. While relating its history, the guide commented on the intentions of one 19th century couple, Mary and William Blackford, and their views of black people’s liberation. Profoundly affected by what she saw every day as a member of Fredericksburg’s slave holding society, Mary Blackford developed anti-slavery opinions and became an active member of the American Colonization Society to assist in immigrating freed Blacks and enslaved Africans to Liberia. Although her husband never shared her anti-slavery views, he did advocate for removal to Africa, believing as Washington, Jefferson, and later Lincoln that Black people could never be a part, equal or otherwise, of this nation. To prepare the men and women who would return to Africa, Mary began to teach them to read and write. Those who did master literacy were encouraged to etch their names on the couple’s windows; these names can still be seen today. For the Blackfords, this achievement was in preparation for freed people to go and live somewhere – Africa, the Caribbean – anywhere but here.
This is an underlying attitude that even today a number of Black people support. For many with skill, talent, and knowledge there is a sense that people of color will never fully achieve or belong in the United States. We are considered spare parts, not integral to the nation’s well-being, identity, or progress. Historically, once we served a stated purpose, which according to some was most fully realized during enslavement, after emancipation we were considered dispensable. During a crisis, war, or natural disaster, every hand and back is needed, but once conditions are stabilized we are perceived as unnecessary or non- essential. If our value is solely based upon labor, then the next immigrant group can easily replace us.
Several years ago Ghana embarked on a repatriation effort for Black people in the Diaspora. Return to a place that wants you. In the early 20th century, Marcus Garvey based his support on an appeal for a return to Africa. A century earlier, Liberia was created for and by Black people who could not even consider themselves expatriates, although America was the only home most had ever known. Similar to Jewish people of the Diaspora creating Zion or claiming Israel as their universal home, the return to Africa as our place is in that tradition. A return to Africa to compensate for centuries of deliberate depletion of resources, including people, negates for many the idea of being a spare part. Those who consider this alternative see themselves as much needed contributors in a future.
Can we do that here as well? Are we needed? Do we have something critical to provide here in this nation? Will people of color fully accept and cherish their American existence? No one is going to give us this; we must state that we are essential and believe it. At this point many of us still do not. We do not fully know, appreciate, or value our history, our ancestors, or ourselves as crucial agents throughout Diaspora.