Its unfortunate because of a massive internet hack we are in this particular place discussing your ancestral past. It’s horrible that your private matters were exposed because of something beyond your control. That’s untenable in any situation, but we need to address something right quick…this slavery thing. You were embarassed, and that’s reasonable given the situation and the circumstances that produced it. But Ben Affleck, take it from a Black guy; with a platform like yours, don’t you dare be embarrassed to come from an ancestor who held enslaved people. Because….We need to know.
I don’t think many Black people really understand the profound guilt, shame or embarassment some white descendants of slave holding families feel. It’s not just that many assume personal responsibility for the past or that they grasp that their privilege or power is not just based on perceptions based on skin color. Clearly these things become suddenly very real. It’s the feeling of inheritance from slavery that immediately engenders the internal deflation of the American dream. It’s a retroactive forfeit of meritocracy, a moment when you realize your positioning in the now is surrounded by shadows from then.
Recently, I caught flack from a younger African American man on YouTube after they posted my interview on culinary justice with Vice Munchies editor, Helen Hollyman. He said that my message of Southern people being “family” was an old, kumbayah feel good trick to ease white guilt and win favor. “Nothing makes white people feel better…” he said. I looked at his picture icon, his phenotype clearly showed European ancestry. I felt a sincere pain in my gut, both an aching ego and a deep concern for his. He didn’t get it; if he ever plans on finding his past, he will have to go through the same valley–not around it.
To put it another way: if you don’t own your slaveholder ancestor and I don’t own my enslaved ancestors past and the slaveholders who are a part of my bloodline–we will never know the real America and we will never know or understand ourselves. Even the most Afrocentric among us cannot find our “Kunta Kinte” if we don’t know who enslaved them. We have to share our histories, our knowledge, our experiences if we want to understand where we come from.
I don’t know about your family, but this I promise you–in the South, ancestor worship is a mainstay of many, especially white Southern families of influence and renown. As more and more African Americans get interested in genealogy, because so many of us want to know who we come from, how we got here and how far we’ve come, the dialogue across the color line is especially critical. Many formerly slaveholding families have papers and details vital to the process of climbing African American family trees. We need formerly slaveholding families to come to the fore, not hide.
Slavery, wherever it was, made something permanent–for good or ill-it created an alternative history of bondage, blood and bone that is inescapable. This is a fact that makes your embarassment–and those of others in your shoes–so much less helpful than owning your past. When you and others like you own it, and you share what you know–we “meet” our ancestors again. They lose their anonymity and come alive. They are healed and we are healed because we can reveal their humanity, bring them out of American amnesia, and with hope, give them honor for all they gave to all of us. The vast majority of Black roots-seekers are overwhelmingly grateful when white members of these families share what they know. That’s not always the case–some people, in the age of digital, social-media genealogy refuse to talk to possible descendants of their family’s enslaved workforce. Others are even more disturbed at the idea they share genes and names with people of color. It’s unhelpful to us all–the way we all hide, obfuscate, disown, forget, avoid….we don’t heal, we don’t learn and we don’t move forward.
“We’re all family,” is not a cop out, nor
is it an absolution. It is a necessary and revolutionary change from our past approach to confronting one of America ‘s original sins. It is clear to me that this is not about our feelings, our hangups, our hurts, our embarassments or our causes. It is about what we want to model for the present and the future.
I want to tell you about a young man named Keith. He was my student a decade ago. One class we discussed issues of race and culture, and I was the only person of color in the room. My students began spouting narratives about how they learned from parents or teachers at school that Blacks “didn’t want to uplift themselves like our (ethnic white) ancestors did” or that Black people “wanted to live in the ghetto or bad parts of town.” I immediately tried to quell the bs but some of my students turned defensive and even disrespectful.
Keith had enough. “Shut up, you’re disrespecting Mr. Twitty and you don’t get it.” Another student retorted, “And you do???” Keith said without flinching, “My family owned slaves, a lot of slaves, and you don’t know what that did to Black people in this country.” Keith’s paternal roots went back to a number of large rice plantations in the South Carolina Lowcountry.
He and his family knew about my interests in the stories of the enslaved and our contribution to American food history. They let me borrow old family books and I learned more of their story. Ten years later, as I make preparations to go to those homeland of my sixth great grandmother–a woman brought from the rice growing land of Sierra Leone to the port of Charleston and her surrounding rice fields, I can think of no one I’d rather to have with me than my former student so he can see a part of my history that inextricably is his as well.
I admire your values and your talents, and hey, the Voyage of the Mimi, was a huge part of my growing up let me tell you…but know this, tell the story of that ancestor, and tell it often, because somebody out there, needs you to.
Michael W. Twitty
Descendant of the enslaved and some of their enslavers.
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