“My dear I want to send you some things but I don’t know who to send them by but I will try to get them to you and my children. Give my love to my father and mother and tell them good Bye for me and if we shall not meet in this world I hope to meet in heaven. My dear wife for you and my children my pen cannot express the griffe I feel to be parted from you all. I remain your truly husband until death”
On September 19th, 1858 an enslaved man by the name of Abream Scriven wrote a letter to his wife Dinah Jones which included the passage excerpted above. Scriven had recently been sold to a Louisiana trader “by the name of Peterson”, and was separated from Jones and their children. He explains that at the time of writing the letter he was still en route to New Orleans and did not know the specifics of where he was traveling to; but that he would send word to his family once he had arrived.
The letter from Scriven to his wife is one of hundreds found in Pamela Newkirk’s 2009 anthology Letters from Black America, which contains a collection of moving letters written between Black Americans, spanning from the early 1800s to the 2000s. The letters are from a wealth of sources both known and unknown — including correspondence from WEB DuBois to his daughter; and love notes between Martin Luther King Jr and Coretta Scott King both before and during their marriage. Each letter brings a new perspective into the lives of these historical figures — even those whom we presume to know so much about — and makes them more real, more human, and thus even more awe-inspiring.
While gaining a glimpse into the minds of Black leaders, artists, activists and thinkers is intriguing, the letters that I found most powerful were the ones like that of Abreams; those that were written from and to enslaved people that we often have no other record of — individuals who built this nation, but lived and died in obscurity. It brought to light that even though I may know the facts and figures of antebellum America, I had failed all this time to fully humanize the enslaved; and to understand them as people who yes, were part of a collective struggle, but were also individuals who endured unspeakable pain, experienced the joys of love and the devastation of separation; and who forged bonds and created families… all while understanding that they themselves, their children, and their children’s children would live their entire lives in bondage.
I think about that often now and the pain of it overwhelms me; both because it’s an extremely terrifying thought that can shake you to the core if you dwell on it, and because I know that we as a community and as a country don’t dwell on it enough. We are taught about Black American history in a rote and routinized way: the middle passage begets colonial America, which begets the civil war, which begets reconstruction, which begets Jim Crow ,which begets the civil rights movement, which begets the Black Power movement… and then the textbook chapter ends.
While all of the facts are true, it does a disservice to the people who experienced and lived out their lives in such turmoil, if we look at the course of American history as a long march towards progress that was inevitable. Despite the myriad ways that we as a people continue to live in bondage, the relative freedoms that we enjoy were not written or waiting around to come to fruition simply because “it was time”. Freedom was fought for, most often by people who would never fully get to experience or enjoy it. For many in fact, the idea of it was probably impossible to completely conceive.
I recently went to a panel discussion with a well renowned Nigerian-American author who asserted that “African American history didn’t begin on a slave ship”. Her statement was greeted with raucous applause but for me it gave… pause. I understood what she was intending to say: it can be disempowering to view your culture as deriving from oppression. She was making the case for seeing ourselves as part of a long legacy of greatness that was birthed on the continent before we were considered slaves, and before we were stripped of our humanity. I do agree without a doubt that our story as Black people is rooted in a common community; and that is the power and beauty of the Diaspora — it allows us to share affinity with one another in ways that are beautiful and eery and often inexplicable. But, for most, it is factually inaccurate to say that African American history — or the story of how the majority of Black families came to be and exist in this country — did not begin with slavery.
It’s not just false but it’s also dangerous- and in many ways disheartening- because it suggests that we can gloss over the realities of what slavery was and what it continues to mean for us. It keeps us from sitting in the truth that there were actual people who lived and loved and hurt and died generations over while trapped within that system; and yet still prayed and worked for and ultimately created a way out. Maybe if we fully examine it, we can understand ourselves better, honor the everyday people who endured it, and heal from the remnants of that trauma that surely continues to emerge in our own lives.
Diving into that history and embracing it is not easy and it does not mean that I am proud of a history of enslavement. I am proud, rather, that in the midst of inescapable terror, there were people — my people — who managed to endure; and through faith, ingenuity, and a revolutionary spirit, they dismantled a system that was never created with the intention of expiring. Even moreso, I am grateful that they put their lives on the line to dismantle it without the guarantee that they themselves would personally get to enjoy the fruits of their sacrifice. Thinking about that then shouldn’t disempower us. If anything it gives us a roadmap for taking down the systems that still hold us in bondage. It gives us the keys to keep freeing ourselves.
That false dichotomy that says we can’t be proud of our story without recognizing the pain that’s inherent within it, in many ways encapsulates the feelings that I have towards “Independence Day” and the ways in which I choose to consume and celebrate it. While always bitter, my feelings towards it have shifted from frustration to reflection and it’s become a time where I ask myself: how central is being an American to my identity?
I often fear saying that I am proud to be an American because it makes me feel like a blind patriot who is ignorant of, or is willing to gloss over, the atrocities perpetrated by this nation both on our soil and abroad. I also however, fear dismissing my American-ness, recognizing that citizenship, civil rights and the other freedoms I enjoy were fought for and won by people who expected more and deserved more from a country which they helped to build. Ultimately though, what it boils down to for me is that I was born into a community that endured 400+ years of trauma and has still managed to create a culture that is enduring and painstakingly beautiful. A culture that I love so much, that I know loves me back. A culture I recognize as being both distinctly Black…and distinctly American — the two working in tandem and their definitions relying on one another’s presence. I am still trying to better articulate how I can love this huge ethnic and cultural family that I find myself blessed to be part of, while hating the institutions… and the nation that necessitated its creation in the first place.
Perhaps the answer is easy, but still I seem to have not figured it out. The best I can do this year is to pledge allegiance to the lives of people like Abream Scrivens and Dinah Jones and the millions of others who shared their struggle and lived similar stories. People who were denied liberty, freedom, and justice and yet created the foundation of a nation that would purport itself to be the purveyors of those 3 values and more.
I pledge to fashion a life that is worthy of being their American dream.