“Freeing yourself was one thing; claiming ownership of that freed self was another”
-Toni Morrison, Beloved.
Happy New Year, everyone. Happy 2013. Happy clean slate. Happy new beginnings. Happy new year’s resolutions. Of course! Happy promises to make more and to eat less. Happy once concerted effort to quit smoking, and to exercise regularly. Happy mid-February collapse of will power. Happy one pack a day won’t kill me. Happy it’s too cold outside to go to the gym. Happy pizza take out menu is within arm’s reach. Happy total and complete regression. Happy self-imposed guilt trip. Happy you knew this was going to happen anyway. Happy annual trip of self-doubt circa June/July. Happy maintaining a standard of living that is comfortable, albeit mediocre. Happy you still don’t stand up for yourself when your father speaks to you like you’ve just peed on the carpet in front of everyone at Christmas dinner. Happy continue to settle for less and want more from your partner. Happy continued lack of insight into your beliefs, relationships, or systemized every-day interactions and habits.
Happy you didn’t really want it anyway.
…Or maybe not.
Equally as important….
Happy end of 2012. The year where happiness went to die. Happy left-another-horrible-job year. Happy my grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s-year. Happy my-relationship-of-five-fucking-years-just-ended-year. Happy-my-father-almost-died-year. Happy-just-make-it-stop-year.
So I, much like the rest of you, rang in the new year in true celebratory fashion last night: By toasting a sharp ginger ale with no less than twenty drunken Irishmen congregating around my afro like the last remaining four-leaf clover on earth, alternating between verses from Auld Lang Syne and cider-fuelled gibberish about Margaret Thatcher and potatoes. I, along with my newly appointed ex-partner, met up with friends on a roof top overlooking Elwood Beach and watched the fireworks rain down at midnight across the Melbourne skyline. Bad DJ. Beer. Good people. Whiskey. Cold breeze. Wine. Strobe lights. Cider. Chumba Wumba.
…And then there was me leaving.
2012 has been…was…an awful year. I remember literally sitting through therapy some days unable to even speak through the tears. I remember stressing so hard over work, that I would actually cry on the train back from the office on a Friday night even THINKING about going back on a Monday morning. I remember having my insides torn out by lasers in a last-ditch effort to ensure that I can still reproduce one day (and the good news is, that I can). I remember staying up nights waiting to hear if my father had lived or died. I remember the moment when “he” and I looked at each other and knew that it was over.
That’s what I remember from 2012. Those were the thoughts running through my head last night as I counted down the seconds before midnight. And all I could think to myself when I was swatting hands away from my increasingly frizzy fro, was “Please, please, please, just let it end and I will do better next time. I will NOT re-live this year again.”
I will be happier. I will be healthier. I will be better. But I also want to be more knowledgeable.
As I was making my great escape, a young guy who couldn’t have been more than twenty five he looked so sweet and his curly locks were so fresh, stopped me as I turned my back to walk through the illuminated stairway…”What’s your new year’s resolution?” he asked me.
I told him that I didn’t have one. Somehow, emotionally vomiting all over his dew-eyed expression just seemed sadistic.
But I do. And it actually is perfectly aligned with the aspirations listed above. If you think about it…if you know me at all.
I’m going to trace my family tree back to the slave trade. The problem was, and still is, I seem to lack the words to convey just how meaningful this resolution really is. I also hold a distinct belief that Australians, as a whole, couldn’t be less interested in learning about the middle passage and its significance to people of African descent, particularly African Americans. Australians want to drink, and they want to party. They want to travel, and they want to spend money. There’s nothing wrong with that. I’m not judging the lifestyle. It does, however, stifle the overwhelming urge to share my adventure with passers by…like, say, at roof top parties on New Year’s Eve.
Besides, everyone here knows where they came from. Everyone here has a tangible history behind their names, their facial features, their genetic food intolerances. It’s so weird to live in a city where everyone is Greek, or Italian, or Russian, or Polish, or Mauritian, or Indonesian or Chinese Malay, or Malaysian Hindu. So the topic is not only uninteresting, it’s irrelevant!
When I tell people that I’m American, there is this unsaid question that I can feel emanating from their gaze. “Go oooooon….” they say to me. “Aaaaaaand?” But that really is the end of the line, isn’t it? I don’t know how else to address the question. And it doesn’t seem right, that someone as intelligent and educated as I am, should not be able to answer something so simple.
But it is actually ANYTHING but simple. So, allow me to explain, if I can, a little bit of why this is so epic.
A Brief History of Slavery:
Disclaimer: I am not, in fact, a historian. I’m not a scholar on African-American studies like my friend Cassandra. I am not up-to-date on the latest Jay Z retirement plan, and I didn’t see “Do The Right Thing” until three years ago. In fact, I consider myself more of an expert on pop culture. I can sing to you the entire theme song of Fraggle Rock. I’ve practically memorized the fight scenes from the entire Lord Of The Rings trilogy, and I can spot a hipster from a mile away. Having said that, I am a prolific reader. Everything from Gregory Maguire to The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I speak three different languages and play two different instruments, and the only thing that annoys me more than mean people, is mean people doing stupid shit (and that’s all of them).
Once upon a time, in the early 16th century, in a land approximately 26,000 km’s away, there existed an increasingly hostile occupation by the Spanish. Indigenous tribes of the area that were not wiped out by foreign disease and violent colonization, became enslaved and tended to the every whim of their foreign leaders, led by Bartolome De Las Casas, a revered friar and Spanish historian of the time. Having witnessed the effects of slavery first hand, De Las Casas grew sympathetic towards the native people and petitioned King Charles V for an immediate overturn of domestic policy to free the indigenous people from the tyranny of the crown. With all of that unfinished lawn work to do, De Las Casas instead recommended the creation and implementation of a new, bigger, blacker slave 2.0 known as the African; a being built for hard labor, violent oppression and, just as a bonus, they also happened to qualify for a cleaner, whiter name, religion and identity. Fuck you. The end.
Maybe some people know that. The information is, after all, readily available…from anywhere.
But you would be remiss to think that the story ends there. Now, I’m only speaking to people who don’t know anything about this.
In order to have a slave (not like I would know) there has to be a systematic breaking and deconstruction of the human spirit. I do not know this from personal experience, thank goodness, but I can imagine that being stripped of your free will is a bloody good start. Imagine, as an Australian, you go from hanging out at cafe’s on Saturday mornings and shopping in the afternoon, to being beaten up, netted like fish and placed in iron shackles instead. You speak when spoken to. You do what you’re told. You are imprisoned mind, body and soul to the extent that you even refuse to think for yourself; to have an opinion, a hope, a thought, a dream or a desire. You are no longer a person, but an object…a piece of property like a fridge or a coffee table.
Imagine chillin’ with your family in your home one minute, and on a boat surrounded by complete strangers, half of whom are dying of plague, the next. Imagine having your own language, your own name and your own religion. And then imagine that you are given a new name, a new language and a new religion to which you MUST adhere, less the punishment be torture or death. Imagine the threat of a whip every time you mentioned your original name…being so frightened to even think it, that you forget it altogether. Imagine your children being plucked from your arms and given to complete strangers, many of whom do not survive.
Imagine your mothers and daughters and wives being taken as house slaves that exist solely for the forced sexual gratification of their white owners. Imagine not being able to keep the children from those rapes but, instead, having them recycled back into the slave trade to have the same things done to them. Imagine never seeing your family again. Imagine being unable to trace them, because the name by which you knew them before, is now different and completely alien. Imagine having a religion based on nature and your history, passed down by a great oral tradition from parent to child, replaced by white guy with a crown of thorns that means as much to you, as your basic rights mean to your owner. Imagine being denied an education, because your ignorance must constantly be nourished less you realize just how powerful you really are. You must be stripped of any tool that could eradicate your situation. Pride. Love. Self-esteem. Joy.
And now imagine this…you are not you. You are who you belong to. That’s it. That’s how people will identify you, not just for the duration of slavery, but for the remainder of history. That is the origin of my surname. My Irish surname. It is not my name. But an obstinate reminder of who I belonged to several hundred years ago.
Now imagine, if you will, after three hundred years of systematic deconstruction of the human spirit, being told that you are “free.” You would be happy, right? Praise tha Lawd! I is free! Except, what if you are not actually free. What if you are actually the ready-made pie-crust version of free? Meaning, technically, yes it fits the criteria, but it’s not the real deal.
You’re no longer wearing shackles. The defeat of the Confederate army during the Civil War now dictates that you are no longer bound to the land of your owner, and you are even given 40 acres of land and a mule just to sweeten the deal.
And yet…the only jobs you can have are maid, wet nurse, kitchen hand or farm hand. You cannot gain admittance to any university. You cannot vote. You cannot have a bank account. You cannot use the toilet. You can, however, go dig a hole instead. You cannot learn how to read or write still. You cannot speak to any white person unless you work for them and you have been spoken to first. You cannot travel. You cannot appear to be intelligent. You cannot defend yourself against a white assailant, should they threaten your livelihood. And if you are killed by a white person, nobody will look into your death. Nobody cares about you. You are all alone. You have no idea where your family is, and there is no assistance to help you find them. Your voice remains non-existent. And you still have that damn…owner’s…name.
So, who the hell are you? To anyone?
And imagine this…because of the multitude of light skinned black people that resulted from rape, you begin to hate yourself, because you have come to associate lighter skin with “better,” and blacker skin with “worse.” Because you cannot defend yourself against your actual oppressor, you begin to hate each other. You begin to bring each other down. If you have light skin, you hate yourself because you are a reminder of that very oppression. If you have dark skin, you hate yourself because you are not light skinned. Maybe you seek light skinned partners to breed out your blackness. Or maybe, you seek dark skinned partners to breed out the whiteness. Either way, you are reacting to the meaning of your skin tone, because you know…that your life would have been completely different if only you had been born white instead.
Now imagine that two more centuries pass. You now have voting rights. You can no go to a university. Your child can attend the same school as a white child. It is no longer illegal for you to date outside of your race. You can drive a car. You can own a home. You can have a bank account. You can have a passport. You can prosecute your assailants. Somehow, after the unchecked murders of countless activists, protestors, philosophers and religious leaders, little girls and boys and people who you will never know of, you now have a voice that nobody can ignore. A right that you have fought to have, but must fight even harder to keep.
Imagine that you have lived to see the election of your first black president.
And now imagine that you’re living in modern day…having a coffee with a friend. And they ask you this:
“So, where do you come from?”
Imagine not knowing. Not even knowing where to BEGIN to know. Imagine not knowing more than the names of your grandparents.
Imagine looking at the color of your skin and knowing that there is a rich, vast history behind it; that people have died for you to be where you are now, but not having a single clue as to who those people are. At this point in history, your history, it is not just Africa that concerns you. Your family tree would look more like a map of tributaries…with rivers flowing in from all corners of the earth to make the person that you are today. Ireland. Scotland. Cherokee, NC. Asia. Africa…but those places are as foreign to you, as you would be to the people of those places.
And aside from that, Africa is a big fucking continent. I know it’s hard to believe, but in that ONE land mass, lies many different countries! Seriously! They speak thousands of different languages, and they follow different belief systems. And the African populace, contrary to popular belief, is actually as varied as the number of species on earth. Light skinned, dark skinned, caramel skinned, almond eyes, round eyes, wide noses, small noses, pointed noses, straight hair, course hair, curly hair. And with the history that you have acquired, how is there any way of knowing which people are yours?
What if you have a distant cousin somewhere in Kenya who looks just like you?
Like I said before, fuck you. The end.
But I have decided…it isn’t, anymore.
Being New Year’s Day, I have one month and one day until my 30th birthday. Thirty is supposed to be a big time. A massive time. A time where I come into myself and finally know who I am and what I’m about, while refusing to compromise any ounce of that newly gained insight for anyone else.
I say…how in the HELL can I do that if I’m NOT actually doing it? This isn’t metaphoric. I know I like to travel. I know that I like to read. I know that I have a new found taste for salted caramel ice cream with chocolate coated hazelnuts. I know that yoga is the only thing that quiets my mind, and I know that no matter what I do in life…I will never be able to satisfy my parents, so I stopped trying years ago. I know that I am my own worst enemy.
But I do NOT know where I come from. And I am tired of not knowing the answer to the most basic of questions.
So, because no goal has ever been accomplished without one, I have a plan:
- Get a DNA test. You can order these online now a days. You get a kit in the mail, you take a swab of your mouth with a q-tip, and send it back in plastic baggies…several weeks or months later, you get a full DNA map of your genetic background and a list of any living distant relatives. These are, however, very expensive…and I am, as you may already know, newly single, going back to school and struggling. There is also a wait list on any reputable DNA testing website. So, I will submit my details and pounce on the opportunity when it presents itself.
- Hire a genealogist to take a ‘grass roots’ perspective on my situation. Mill through city hall records, and birth certificates, because I actually know very little about my grandparents…particularly on my mother’s side, where I am led to believe that my grandmother ran away to marry my grandfather at 16 years of age, leaving her own personal hell behind.
- What would any journey of personal discovery be, without a trip to ground zero? I’m told that Zanzibar was the port of call where all of the records were kept throughout the middle passage. Whatever answers that I do not find myself, I am hoping to find there. At the very least, I owe it to myself to visit the place that is so important to my personal history…and history in general. I’ve been almost everywhere else EXCEPT Africa. I know more about Australia than Africa. How is that right?
So, in the end, why am I doing this? What is the point?
People of African descent in America may be free, but I do not think that we will be able to take full ownership of that freedom until we have fully traced the origins of our bondage. I do not think that our history defines who we are, but surely it is imperative to understanding. I mean, I can’t be the only one who genuinely wants to know! Surely it is imperative that are able to pass on something to our children aside from lessons of hard knocks. SURELY, the millions of un-named people who have died before us, FOR US, would WANT us to know their names. I find something so incredibly sad about the fact that my great-great-grandmother has somehow vanished into the unimportant details of history. It IS important. It’s important to ME.
The older I have become, the more I feel like I’m just randomly bouncing off the walls of circumstance. Start a new job here. Travel over there for vacation. Pay bills. Paint something. Cook something. Laugh. Whatever. I think that, by connecting the dots of my lineage, I will feel more anchored in this life. Home does, after all, start from a small place within. And I feel like I will have more to offer the people around me. This is not to say that I have nothing to offer. I know that I’m awesome. I mean..come on…did you read what I just wrote?
But life isn’t about being stagnant…it’s about growing, developing, and continuing to challenge yourself by learning. Awesome has a price, after all. You have to be willing to make those monthly instalments…and if I don’t do this now, I’m afraid that it will never happen…