Blacks and whites in this country live very different lives in many regards. Some aspects of this difference are reported in the news every day. Others barely see the light of day and go unrecognized.
Here's just one example: As a white woman of European descent, I can trace my family history back to the Dutch founding of New Amsterdam. It's really cool to view my ancestors' intersections with important milestones in the country's development. I've learned about geography, history, art, and culture throughout five centuries.
But many—probably the majority—of blacks in America can't do this, and the cause is obvious, even if the effect isn't: centuries of enslavement eradicated family and kinship ties. An enslaved child typically was alienated at birth, without record or documentation, separated from his mother, and often without a father present in his life. Here are just some of the ways slavery could disrupt a black family:
- Women were raped
- Women were forced to bear children
- Marriage was not permitted
- Adult couples could be sold apart
- Parents couldn't name their own children
- Parents might be sold away from their children
- Children might be sold away from their parents
- Children might rarely see their parents if they were assigned work in different areas of the plantation
- The systematic attempts to dehumanize slaves left many so emotionally and physically drained, what an adult could offer a child was diminished
- If family history was retained, it was shared orally; fewer than 250 slave narratives have ever been published.
Such facts were recently brought into the light of day at an unprecedented three-day conference at the NYSU-Buffalo. Kari Winter, professor of transnational studies and director of UB's Institute for Research and Education on Women and Gender, organized the "Workshop for Descendants of Authors of Slave Narratives," which explored participants' ancestral roots through discussions, reflections, and writing exercises.
What a marvelous idea!
Descendants of Dred Scott, Solomon Northrup, Venture Smith, and Moses Gandy, among others, participated in conversations about history, memory, and identity. Some have never experienced a family reunion. Others have reached out to possible relatives, only to be rejected because of racial prejudice. But all expressed pride in their heritage.
In a NY Times article about the event, it was noted that attendees of the conference expressed frustration with modern movies and books that focus only on the atrocities of slavery, while minimizing the stories of enslaved people who struggled against all odds to secure their freedom—stories that overlook the indomitable spirits of all who tried, whether they succeeded or failed:
Lynne M. Jackson, a great-great-granddaughter of Dred Scott, recalled that when she first started her research, she would come across accounts suggesting that Scott . . . had been a pawn of white abolitionists. "It's a demeaning statement, and it's just not true," said Ms. Jackson. . . . "Dred Scott had everything to do with his case."The New York Times
When I began writing about Dred Scott in the late 1990s, I too saw those accounts that characterized Scott as a puppet not only of abolitionists but also of politicians. They just weren't credible, because they were tainted with racial prejudice and because they ignored what we do know about Dred Scott.