Ghost World 1 – Heritage

In all of us there is a hunger, marrow-deep, to know our heritage- to know who we are and where we have come from. Without this enriching knowledge, there is a hollow yearning. No matter what our attainments in life, there is still a vacuum, an emptiness, and the most disquieting loneliness.

– Alex Haley, author of Roots

Kathryn H. Ross

 

For a moment after I realized I was a living breathing person, but before I grasped the full scope of that personhood, I did not know there was a veil between me and the world I was growing up in. What I mean is I had no concept of black.

Now, there are times when I close my eyes and see brown bodies hanging in trees. Light skin to deep dark brown, ropes around their necks. And I watch them knowing it might have been me had it not been for a few hundred years between their births and mine. It might have been me, thin brown body, bruises under my eyes and ashen lips, head hanging stiff from a thick brown rope. The bones in my neck broken, pushing against my skin in grotesque iterations of how they’re supposed to lay, how they’re supposed to stand straight in the absence of the weight bowing me down since I passed through the womb. 

The understanding of my blackness came at a time when there was already a stigma attached to the word and the description in my mind. I cannot say where or when I learned this stigma, or how exactly I attached it to myself. But I do remember reacting to the thought of what and who I am like the sudden drop on a rollercoaster—stomach falling upwards in abrupt surprise—not wholly unpleasant, but not fully welcomed either. 

As I grew and learned of Bar Mitzvahs and Bat Mitzvahs, Quinceañaras and Debuts, I felt an emptiness in my culture and my race. I thought of holidays held close by different cultures and thought of the holidays attributed to blacks that were created from lack or else markers of the end of some racial trauma:

We jump the broom because our marriages meant nothing while we were slaves—families were ripped apart like one might separate a litter of puppies from their mother, children spread across the country, married women raped and forced to breed to create better, stronger slaves—a worthy return on investment. We hold Juneteenth close, clutch it to our chests because it is the day the white man gave us back our personhood, our humanity, yet for years following we were told where to drink, where to walk, where to sit, where to live. We were sprayed by hoses and hydrants, swept away like garbage in the street before rising again on weary legs, hearts pounding with fear. 

There is no question our celebrations and traditions are important and worthy, but I can’t seem to reconcile their origins. We celebrate that we remained human when the world tried its hardest to make us believe that we were not. Is that not something to celebrate? I cry and say it is, of course it is—but I can’t let go of the knowledge that for us there is no celebration just for celebration’s sake. 

Like freedom, all that we hold was given by hands with no right of ownership to begin with. Every piece of beauty, every accomplishment comes from a culture of sorrow, a code of deletion. Pain fuels this beauty, fuels art that contradicts the notion that we are not intelligent, innovative, creative. How many times have I heard the words, The First African American —?

But here I must take pause. Sudden and jarring like the slam of a door or a clap of thunder, I remember being 18 and in college when African American and black were no longer synonymous in my mind. The only brown body in the room, I tried to explain that I am not African American after being labeled as such again and again, after my professor had me say, “Nigger,” for no other reason than I should not be afraid to say it. 

The truth is that my veins carry more white blood than black—the genes all mixed together both forcefully and voluntarily. The blood of creoles in Louisiana, of the French, of the white masters. The truth is that I cannot tell you—ever—where I came from. I cannot tell you who my people were outside of this country. I cannot tell you what African province my ancestors shuffled forth from—driven like animals rather than walking straight-backed and proud. But who could walk proudly into the hull of a ship? Who could hold their head high as they crawled atop the brown body of another, before yet another brown body crawled atop them? 

I remember saying that I am not African American because I have never known Africa. And I remember a white boy, sickly pale with flat, colored eyes, nodding at me proudly, saying that someone finally got it—that African American was only a politically correct phrase used by guilty whites, not truth. I remember looking back at him and seeing the momentary discomfort in his face as our eyes met. I wondered if I was the first African American to have understood this about myself in his eyes; if I was the first African American to figure it out. 

***

I think of the Great Sphinx. The why and when and how of the destroyed nose sits as a supposed historical mystery, but I wonder why there is any debate at all. Is it such a stretch to think that this nose, this outlier of racial evidence, might have been destroyed to hide the truth of the civilization? Brown bodies and broad features erased from history’s memory until it was normal for a young black girl to grow up and believe that the Egyptians, too, were white. I think of a video in the Southern California Natural History Museum recreating what King Tutankhamun might have looked like and my dark eyes accepting his depicted milky skin, thin lips, and a pointed nose as truth. 

I think of how this is part of our culture of sorrow: erasure of the self by the other leading to erasure of the self by the self. How else could they justify the lie that we had sub-human intelligence, sub-human souls? How else could they enslave a people whose brown-bodied brothers and sisters created and solved equations? Who lined the Pyramids to mirror the stars? 

Sometimes when I close my eyes, I see brown bodies hanging in trees. I see brown bodies hanging in trees, heads bowed and chins reaching for chests and she whispers to me—tells me not to eat the strange fruit1)Singer Billie Holiday sings the lines, “Southern trees bear strange fruit, blood on the leaves and blood at the root, black bodies swinging in the southern breeze, strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees” in her 1939 song, “Strange Fruit.”. My mother might have worked in the house and my father in the field and my sister with my mother and myself with my father and where is my God?

I inherit rage, sorrow, deletion, death. I inherit displacement—a blind man walking with the veil like scales over his eyes. The past is obscured, cloaked in a thick pall that has me asking what celebrations might I have inherited from my people. What days, what festivals, what rites of passage are lost in the annals of our murky past?

***

It was not enough to see the lies or the way I swallowed them. It was not enough to feel both shame and pride in my body—the striking length, the beautiful texture of my hair, the selfsame lightness and darkness of my skin, the thick curvature of my lips, the lift of my cheek bones, the slight arc of my brown-black eyes. Who constructed this face? From where did these features come? Who handed my eyes down to my father’s parents, to my father, to me? Who gave my nose, my smile, to my mother’s parents, to my mother, to me?  Who were the brown bodies who lay with other brown bodies to create my grandparents, to create my parents, to create me? Who were the white bodies forcing their way into the brown bodies, into a line that might never have known them had those ships with empty, gaping hulls stayed on their northern shores?

These white bodies loosened the coil in my hair, lightened the hue of my skin, gave me unmerited pride and shame in my body—pride and fear for my body. There is more white blood than black blood in these veins. But there are strands in my DNA, woven with intention, laced with resilience and persistence. There are genetic codes so hardwired that variations of darkened skin and coiled hair will forever persevere through time, shaping faces and ordering cells so that they recall the brown bodies taken from the shore, set to the fields, hung from the trees. 

I am a lost daughter calling out to distant mother, calling out to father God, asking where I ever belonged, asking who I was supposed to be. 

 

References   [ + ]

1. Singer Billie Holiday sings the lines, “Southern trees bear strange fruit, blood on the leaves and blood at the root, black bodies swinging in the southern breeze, strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees” in her 1939 song, “Strange Fruit.”