December 2 is the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery. This day was dedicated by the United Nations General Assembly in 1986. I thought about how to approach writing about this. Should I give a brief history lesson on the atrocities of slavery? Or perhaps discuss what it means that this day only came about as recently as 1986. What about the human trafficking that actively happens every day in the US and abroad? Would it help to inform you that young children were contracted into slavery right here in Pittsburgh decades after The Emancipation Proclamation by well-known and respected icons of the city? I wanted the topic I chose to have an impact. Often the topic of slavery gets pushed into the corner to collect dust like an ugly antiquated no one wants, despite its infinite effect on society. So I decided to tell you my story.
I was never a slave myself, nor have I experienced the horrors of human trafficking but the enslavement of my family years ago affects me until this very day. My African-American family for the most part is fair skinned and quite a few of my relatives have blond hair and/or blue eyes. What does this have to do with the abolition of slavery? Well on a routine basis I get asked the question “What are you?”
Rude, right? I am a person. But yet that isn’t enough and people demand an answer to their questions. “Is you father white?” “What are you mixed with?”
The first answer I give is “No, my parents are black.”
Usually that answer isn’t satisfying enough and they will proceed to ask “Who is white in your family?”
Then I have to answer “The slave master who raped my distant grandmothers.”
That hard truth abruptly ends the conversation about my genetic makeup. If slavery is abolished why am I still confronting and dealing with it every day? One hundred and fifty years later, I still have to answer for the actions of an entitled slave master. So, when someone likens slavery to ancient history I beg to differ.
Just recently I was researching our family history. Like most African Americans I came to a road block when I got to the era of slavery. “Property” was not documented in the census records and legacies disappear. Needing more answers, I researched the family that was listed as the owner on the slave records of my relatives. A picture appeared and it was a carbon copy of my great grandfather. A white slave owner looked more like him than his own parents. It doesn’t take a genius to put two and two together. But what was most disturbing about this experience was coming to terms with the fact that cherished family traits, big ears and a quirky smile, came from someone who worked and breed us like cattle. We were all so tickled that my last son looked so much like my great grandfather, the resemblance was uncanny. And now from the grave that man owns that too.
I am telling this story for those who have the luxury of reflecting on Slavery once a year or for a chapter in a history book. It is important that everyone understand while institution of slavery is abolished, the grip it has on society can never be rescinded. We must be proactive in disrupting the everlasting impact it has on us all. That can not be done if we resign it to be a relic of the past. I hope this provided insight to those who may have had none.