Healing the Deepest Wound
by G.G. Vandagriff
Undoubtedly, the deepest wound in the spirit of the United States was caused by the enslavement of Africans prior to the Civil War. One of the worst effects of slavery was the dismemberment and in some cases the total obliteration of the family. Even today, African-Americans bear the scars of that time in their heritage. As an extractor for the Church Family History Department, I pore over death records, trying to discern the story behind each one. It is tragic how many African-American death records even as recent as the 1930’s show “no record” where the names of parents should be. Birth dates are often completely unknown.
Knowing this, I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that the greatest boost to the Spirit of Elijah in the Twentieth Century was the book and mini-series Roots. With unquestionable drama, it chronicled the heritage of Alex Haley back to his ancestors in Africa. It affected millions of Americans both black and white, whetting their appetite to find the stories of the forebears.
Alex Haley tells of a story that occurred spontaneously during the filming of Roots. It illustrates the desperation and horrible plight of the Africans when they were forced to give up their identity. Levar Burton, in the lead role was about to be compelled in this way. “When the director announced ‘Action!’ the overseer came out, dressed in a kind of cloak, proud and furious. He looked at the young one hanging up there by his wrists and he said, ‘What’s your name, boy?’
“Levar answered quietly, ‘Kunta.’
“Smirking, the overseer looked over at a tall, anonymous slave in the background who was holding a whip, and this slave walked out into camera range, raised his arm and began . . . Levar took two blows, then a third, which . . . was almost too much to look at.
“Then, again, the overseer asked, ‘What’s your name, boy?’
“Again, now weakly, Levar said, ‘Kunta.’
“After three more blows, and more blood, the thirty-five or so of us just out of camera range were so angry we were ready to charge out there an choke somebody.
“This time Levar, his head nodding to one side, with no strength left even to lift his chin, said in a whisper, ‘Toby, master.’ And the overseer whirled about, proud, arrogant. ‘Louder! Let me hear it again. What’s your name boy?’
“Barely, Levar whispered, ‘Toby, master.’
“[Lou] Gossett, an experienced veteran actor, was supposed to embrace the young slave to comfort him . . . but what happened is something that people who spend their lives around films being made may witness but a few times–when experienced actors or actresses totally forget who they are and become the role they are portraying, letting what’s inside them take over.
“When Levar slumped into Lou Gossett’s lap, Lou’s own body began convulsing. He curled into a near-fetal position, grasping Levar to his own shaking self–and out of Lou’s voice box, through his tears, came a hoarse, guttural cry.
“‘What difference it make what they calls you? You knows who you is, you’s Kunta!’
“He convulsed again. He let out another, even higher-pitched cry: ‘Dey’s gonna be a better day.'”
The Better Day
What was that better day? The day when the African-Americans could be known proudly by their right names, by their right heritage.
Author Dorothy Spruill Redford, an African-American writer and genealogist tells of the power of Roots in her life. Up until the time of its publication she had existed in an identity vacuum. She had passed through stages where she thought success was to be found only in following the “white” path. She had obscured her origins, claiming to be from the West Indies, which was far more respectable than being the descendant of slaves. Then in college, she had done a pendular swing in the other direction and celebrated everything African, renouncing everything in the “white” establishment. Eventually, still unsatisfied, she settled somewhere between the two poles of identity. Then, she says, came Roots, and “. . .it all rushed back, feelings I hadn’t faced in years. Emptiness, anger, confusion, denial–most of all denial.”
As recounted in her heart-warming book, Somerset Homecoming, Dorothy Spruill Redford’s life was forever changed by Alex Haley’s work. Beginning with what she knew, she painstakingly traced her slave ancestors (sometimes through bills of sale) back to a North Carolina plantation called Somerset. Instead of being resentful over their enslavement, she became obsessed with Somerset and anything to do with it. She viewed it as her ancestral home. Not content to find her own ancestors, she traced all the descendants of all the slaves at Somerset and organized a vast reunion that she called the Somerset Homecoming held at Somerset itself.
The event aroused tremendous emotion and an unexpected healing. Families who had been sold apart centuries before were brought together again. Like Dorothy, the slave descendants welcomed Somerset as a tangible piece of their heritage. No longer were they anonymous descendants of some African slave, but they were co-creators of a beautiful plantation. They could envision their ancestors in time and space. Senator Clarence Blount, age sixty-five, was one of the descendants present. He is quoted by Redford: “‘I suppose there is still embarrassment,’ he said, of any reminders of slavery. ‘I’m sure our country is embarrassed. But we don’t feel embarrassment here. Think about the strength it took to build this place. Talk about true grit; talk about the right stuff. They had it–and so do we.'”
Just knowing our heritage, as much of it as possible, is a true homecoming, one that has been denied too long to African-Americans. This makes the recent breakthrough in Black Family History Research called the Freedman Bank Project all the more exciting.
The Freedman Bank collapsed more than a hundred years ago, wiping out the savings of hundreds of former American slaves. But in order to establish accounts at that bank, the African-Americans had to give references establishing family relationships, sometimes even oral histories. The bank thus became the largest repository of “lineage-linked” African-American records known to exist. Painstakingly indexed by inmates of the Utah State Prison, it is now available on CD-Rom to the 8-10 million African-Americans living today who have ancestors who deposited money in that bank.
Former slaves, now living on the other side of the veil, are anxious to have their work done. When we were living in the Dallas Temple District, a project was underway to do proxy work for slaves from several plantations. All that was known about them was their first name and the plantation where they worked. Yet they manifested in no uncertain way to those doing their work that they were thrilled and excited to accept these long awaited ordinances.
All of us are hungry for our heritage. There is a part of us that finds peace in knowing that part of the world from whence our ancestors sprang, in knowing their struggles, in seeing the works of their hands. For some of us it is more difficult than others to find that heritage. But with modern technology and the Spirit of Elijah, even some of the most pedigree-scaring wounds are now being healed. For many, this is the better day.
2005 Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.