I see my maternal great-Grandma in her. They have the same double fudge skin, narrow eyes and full, stout frame. I know she cannot be my great-Grandma though. The timelines don’t match. My great-Grandma was born after the Civil War. The woman in the picture stands in a field of cotton in the 1860s. But great-Grandma and the enslaved woman in the photo hail from the same place: Mississippi.
I began my study of American slavery last year. I took the time to compile my reading list. I never took the time to think about the emotional toll that my study would take on me. I began my research in earnest. However when I read “River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom” I became overwhelmed. The travelers accounts of malnourished slaves and the horrible infant mortality rates were bad enough. The photo of the unnamed enslaved woman stopped me cold though. She was a dead ringer for my Grandma’s Mama. I could be related to this woman somehow, I said to myself. I could share a bloodline with this entire field of slaves and not know it. My increasing knowledge of the brutality and callousness of slaveowners left question marks in my head. The ease with which slave babies and children were sold away from their families made me look at fellow AAs with similar features to mine and wonder. We could have been family at some point. We could share a common female ancestor who bore multiple children, only to have them sold off to pay her masters’ debt or gifted to his children.
I’ve slowed down the pace of my study since the summer. I was tempted to cease reading about slavery altogether. Between the anger and sadness involved it can be so damn painful. But through my tears and rage I realize I can’t be a brat. My great-great Grandma was born into slavery and lived it. If she and millions of my people could survive it the very least I can do is read of their experience. It’s a major part of the story of America and of my people. So I’ll continue to plod on, doing my part to make sure their lives are not forgotten.