When my family gets together it is a good time.
This Memorial Day Weekend, my paternal extended family met in Memphis, Tennessee. It was a good time. A family reunion is interesting because it links past and present in the eternal now, and we see in real time, in flesh and blood and music and dancing and food and stories told and new memories made and worship and more food and more music and more dancing our connection—in blood and in love—to other human beings. These people look like us and act like us, and we are growing old together.
Since my father’s death in 2013, I am part of the elder generation. We get together and laugh about who is the eldest of the elders, remembering when we were the young bunch. We see younger cousins who remind us of aunts and uncles and cousins who were long dead when they were born. We tell the stories of these people so the younger generations will know that they too are connected.
While in Memphis, our family visited the Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum. This is a historical site that tells the story of the Underground Railroad, a system of houses and hideouts that helped enslaved people to escape slavery into the north even into Canada. When my younger cousins who had organized the reunion said we were going to the Slave Haven, I must confess that I experienced cognitive dissonance. What kind of haven could there be for slaves? Now that I am of the elder generation, I am determined not to be a mean old lady who is constantly critical of the younger generations. So, I held my peace and just decided that I would see in the due course of time what a slave haven was. I was not disappointed. (http://www.slavehavenmemphis.com/)
The museum is located in the home of Jacob Burkle, a German immigrant and a member of the anti-slavery movement who helped enslaved people escape from 1855 until the end of the Civil War. I know the story of the Underground Railroad well. When I lived in Rochester, New York, I lived near houses that were stops on the way to Canada. When I lived in Dayton, Ohio, I learned of the route of the enslaved as they crossed the Ohio River on their way to Michigan and on to Canada. I have always pictured the houses on the secret road to freedom to be in the north. I always imagined slaves hiding in swamps or in the southern woods until they found their way north. However, the Slave Haven helped me to understand that there must have been people in the south who were willing to risk their own lives to help other people get to freedom by allowing their homes to be a stopping point.
The museum does not begin with slavery in the United States. The story begins in Africa where human beings were stolen away from family and friends and their history to be loaded onto slave ships to endure the horrors of the Middle Passage. Hearing this history in a group of family members, from toddlers to elders, I became more keenly aware of what was lost in the theft of human beings away from their homes. The Middle Passage was its own holocaust where many people did not survive the journey. Some got sick and died and their bodies were thrown overboard. Some lost their minds and their will to live and jumped overboard. Sharks follow the routes of the slave ships to this day. I look around at my beautiful family and think: “We are the children of the survivors.”
The horror of the Middle Passage only opened the door to the horrors of slavery itself. Attempted dehumanization followed attempted dehumanization. I say this because the enslaved Africans never lost their humanity. They did not lose their souls or their sense of self or of hope of a better day coming. Once on the western shores of the Atlantic, the enslaved were again sold away from people they knew. Over time, Africans became one people. Only now, with DNA testing, do we know from what parts of Africa we come. We all share a history and culture that is shaped in a large part by being the children of enslaved people.
While in the museum, we went down into the cellar and experienced the cramped spaces where the enslaved running toward freedom would have had to be still and quiet for hours until it was time to move on to the next stop. The Slave Haven helped us to see very clearly that individual choices inside a slave system that was, for a time, the foundation of a global economic system were limited. The idea that an individual could just say: “Excuse me, but I do not volunteer for this slave thing.” Is completely insane. The level of violence necessary to hold a slave system in place was extreme. The kind of psychological violence done both to the enslaved and to the slave holders was extreme and lasts to this very day dressed up as white supremacist ideology.
Yet, individuals did make a choice to maintain their humanity. The slave songs that we remember as spirituals not only sang of freedom after death, but they were also a way to sing about escape. “Wade in the Water” was a song we sang during our tour, and we learned that it meant that there would be water to cross on the escape route. History teaches us that some enslaved people ran away on the Underground Railroad. Some participated in violent revolts, the number and scope of which we may never fully know. Some enslaved people feigned stupidity or broke their work tools as a means of protest. Oops!
Then, there were some who simply made the choice to live every blessed day as best they could knowing, believing, that one day their children and their children’s children and generations they would never see would live to be doctors and nurses and teachers and corporate executives, and preachers and carpenters, and actors and writers and venture capitalists and a number of other occupations too numerous to name. I felt the words of the late Maya Angelou in my bones when she wrote in her poem “Still I Rise”
“Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
Valerie Elverton Dixon is founder of JustPeaceTheory.com and author of “Just Peace Theory Book One: Spiritual Morality, Radical Love, and the Public Conversation.”
When my family gets together it is a good time.