My roots are tangled….
A blend of black, white and red,
I am labeled Creole, mulatto, mixed, colored in every sense.
Enslaved by the ‘one-drop-rule’
But liberated by the truth
That all blood is red. Betty Saar
In her recently published book, Lose Your Mother, Saidiya Hartman narrates her experiences and thoughts related to finding one’s ethnic roots in Africa. It is a thought-provoking work. The term “tribe of the Middle Passage” is taken from that book, and it aptly describes who we are – not Africans but a people in America of African descent who share a unique history. This is especially relevant as the nation observed last month the 400th anniversary of documented Africans’ arrival at the English colony of Virginia. It was not the place of first arrival of Africans to the North American continent, but it is probably the best known.
The Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project continues to emphasize that this arrival history of at least 500,000 African captives is documented in 52 U.S. locations – from New Hampshire to Texas. There are points of time, social and legal constructs, and history that unite those of African descent in the United States of America. Slavery is not the exclusive or sole determining factor in our lives, but it is the practice from which we must begin to heal – ourselves and the nation. When our ancestors who came from all parts of Africa were put on Middle Passage ships, their identity as specific ethnic groups began to alter. They were viewed as Africans; for those of us in the Diaspora they were from “Mother Africa.” Even though we carry in our DNA ethnic and genetic traces from the Continent, we have over the last five hundred years in America transformed from specific ethnic groups to Africans to Americans. Recognizing and acknowledging that is a first step in our healing. For most Americans, there is no other group of people – those of us with “one drop” – whose DNA most clearly substantiates what America is: African, Asian, European, Native America. We are what the people of the United States of America will eventually be. Accepting the reality of diversity can be a path to healing.
For those of us of African descent, the “one drop” interpretation has been more of a unifier than divider, although even that is not universal or constant. It is what signifies a common history that started with the Middle Passage. Even though we may appear different and even act based upon those variations in skin color, hair texture, physical features, ethnic mixture, and class, the “one drop” rule accentuates our specific American racial heritage. For centuries, that has enabled us, who were enslaved, oppressed, and deemed unequal based upon race, to support advocates, leaders, and contributors from a larger community for our benefit.
As we ring bells for healing, engage in respectful discussions, define components of reparation and reconciliation, and mark our places in this nation’s history, we can no longer view ourselves as the outsiders. We are Americans. We must act to make the nation what we want it to be – a more perfect union. Lives and power matter – let’s get to work to change for the better. Each of us has that responsibility.