Help Me To Find My People

help me to findThe Middle Passage of the European Transatlantic Slave Trade brought more than 380,000 enslaved Africans to the United States and looms large in our memories of slavery in terms of its brutality and inhumanity. But the scope of internal slave trade in the United States dwarfs the Transatlantic trade in terms of the numbers of human lives affected.

The internal slave trade involved the sale and transport of more than one million enslaved Africans from the east coast, inland and by sea, as the US expanded its borders west and south. No less devastating for those it affected than the Middle Passage, it deserves far more attention in terms of chronicling its enduring impact on the black family and documenting how black folks responded to and coped with separation and loss.

Heather Andrea Williams, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, uses recovered voices from personal letters, interviews, diaries, newspaper advertisements, memoirs, and other documentary sources to chronicle individual struggles to find and reconnect with loved ones lost to slavery. The forced separation of family members during the internal slave trade caused immeasurable grief and heartbreak to a people already severely damaged by the American slaveocracy system and its dehumanizing exploitation of their bodies and minds. The first critical tasks for many newly freed Africans in the aftermath of the Civil War was to seek to heal themselves by finding their lost parents, spouses, children, and siblings. With a deft narrative hand and a superb grasp of the psychological and emotional impact of their losses, Williams puts human faces to these often futile quests and allows the voices of her subjects take the lead in telling their own stories of trials, tribulations, and the far too few cases of successful family reunions.

Help Me to Find My People is essential reading for anyone interested in the history of the United States and the devastating impact of the slave trade and slavery on the lives of those forced into a permanent and hereditary servile class. For those of us currently engaged in genealogical research, Williams’ book further underscores the challenges we face as we attempt to locate and restore ancestral connections that existed prior to the Civil War. The losses she chronicles thus continue to impact us today as we search for our roots to learn the histories of our families and their struggles and triumphs in slavery and freedom.

Excerpt from Help Me to Find My People:

It is not possible to even begin to estimate how many people acted on their hope and searched for family members or sent messages or received news through the grapevines that stretched from Canada to Texas, from Boston to California, and frayed under the strain of the distance and the silence. Some people, unable to cope with the dissonance of caring for someone who might already be dead and, in any event, would not likely return, surely eased loved ones from their memories. But others carried the memories with them as they went about their labor of slavery, passed through the hands of one owner to another, and created new families. They were slaves with few material resources and severely constricted mobility, yet some made efforts to search for their families. They had to be opportunistic, willing to seize any chance to make contact with a lost relative. And they had to be strategic, devising targeted appeals for help. When they were able, they sent out missives and messengers who might bring back the dead.

Also check out this interview with Heather Andrea Williams conducted in June 2012.


Blue-Eyed Son of Africa

I just finished reading The Fiddler on Pantico Run: An African Warrior, His White Descendants, A Search for Family. Beautifully written and thoroughly captivating, it recounts the journeys of a reporter across the United States and to Africa to trace and uncover the African roots of his family tree.

Fiddler on Pantico RunJoe Mozingo, a writer with the Los Angeles Times, always doubted the various explanations given by his relatives pertaining to the origin of his surname Mozingo. A chance meeting with a black journalist with a similar name compelled him to look beyond the family rumors and legends that recounted ancestral roots in Spain or Italy. His curiosity led him to discover its connections to the African continent and to the earliest settlers in Virginia. His search for his ancestors also revealed an inconvenient truth many of his relatives refused to recognize or accept. It is a truth of which countless “whites” in the USA remain ignorant: their lost, hidden, or forgotten “black” ancestry.

How many so-called “blacks” crossed the colorline or were crossed by it during the course of our history as a British colony and then as the United States remains unknown and therefore unquantifiable. The phenomenon of “passing,” however, is well documented. A plethora of anecdotal evidence exists and stories similar to Joe Mozingo’s are receiving renewed attention and interest. None of this history should surprise anyone in the US. The mixing of Africans, Europeans, and Amerindians began as soon as the groups came in contact with each other. However, it is with the racialization of slavery and the advent of the colorline in the late 17th century that “whiteness” becomes a definable and desirable status and commodity. The value of “whiteness” increased with the importance of slavery to the US economy, and with the imposition of an apartheid regime of legal discrimination based on skin color after emancipation. Driven by the virulent antiblack racism of US culture, many women and men of African ancestry decided it served their best interests to obey the two principles of white supremacy: (1) Be “white”; and (2) Don’t be “black.” They ignored the social and legal restrictions sanctioned and imposed by the so-called “one drop rule” and purchased their “whiteness” with their feet. They walked or jumped across the colorline and disappeared into “white” America most often without notice. Their decision and choice reveals both the pervasive nature of racism in the US and its tragic absurdity.

Joe Mozingo writes with a keyboard and a machete. Like a field hand cutting cane, he slices through the tangle of dissimulation that comprises his family’s history and the history of the founding of the United States. The narrative path he carves out of time exposes the essential role of indentured Europeans, enslaved Africans, and disenfranchised Amerindians in building this nation and at whose expense and exploitation others could claim and achieve the American Dream. Realism trumps romance on every page of this book. Although Mozingo constantly imagines and re-imagines the life of Edward Mozingo, his African ancestor, and what it could mean for him and his family centuries later, he seldom loses perspective in his quest of self-discovery. Edward Mozingo thus remains more a mystery than a found object to be fetishized and worshiped. What emerges in the end is the story of a man whose family history typifies the American experience while challenging and contesting the status quo and meaning of American identity.

From The Fiddler on Pantico Run

As I listened to the dry rasp of the elephant grass, I gazed out over the Kingdom of Kom. A narrow gorge threaded through the lush terrain below, opening into a smoky blue chasm in the distance, the Valley of Too Many Bends. . . . This belt of fertile savannah in western Cameroon rested at a terrible crossroads, with no forest to hide in when the marauders arrived. The kings may have been safe in their fortified isolation, but their people were not. They were taken first by Arab invaders in the Sudan in the north, and then by the southern peoples who found that humans were the commodity Europeans most desired. . . .

Those who survived had been handed from tribe to tribe, through too many hostile foreign territories to dream of escaping and returning home. And then off they went, into the sea.

High on a ridge, three hundred miles by road from the Atlantic, I sat at the headwaters of that outward movement, imagining the people flowing away like the rivers below. I pictured a boy, gazing down into that blue mountain cradle, the grass dry-swishing in the breeze, the drums coming up in the night. A boy suddenly pulled into the current and scrambling to reach the bank. A boy unable to imagine the ocean and sickly white men in big wooden ships and the swampy, malarial settlement called Jamestown where he would be sold to a planter in the year of their lord 1644.

This is the beginning, I said to myself. The beginning of my family’s story, the point just after which my forebears obscured the truth—and nearly buried it forever.

Joe Mozingo

Joe Mozingo

See also:

The invention of the Color Line: 1691

Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line

One Drop: My Father’s Hidden Life—A Story of Race and Family Secrets

The Invisible Line: Three American Families and the Secret Journey from Black to White

Slavery is at the Heart of America’s Ascendancy

“Among the many virtues of Robin Blackburn’s The American Crucible is its demonstration that slavery must be at the center of any account of Western ascendancy. Without the colonization of the New World, Blackburn notes at the outset, the West as we know it would not exist, and without slavery there could have been no colonization. Between 1500 and 1820, African slaves constituted about 80 percent of those who crossed the Atlantic from east to west. More than any other institution, the slave plantation underpinned the extraordinary expansion of Western power and the region’s prosperity in relation to the rest of the world.” —Eric Foner

Slavery is the beat in the heart of America’s story. Given its centrality to American identity and prosperity we should ask ourselves are we really in an era of post-slavery? Read the rest of Foner’s review of Blackburn’s book in The Nation.

Also see this earlier review by Greg Grandin over at The Guardian.