A local contribution to the annals of Black History Month

Feb. 06, 2014 @ 10:53 AM

“Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave, I am the dream and the hope of the slave. I rise. I rise. I rise.”
This quote from Maya Angelou helps us remember how closely connected “Black History Month” is to the history and the horrors of slavery.
A headline from The Hollywood Reporter could be read to send the same message:  “Oscar Nominations: ‘12 Years a Slave’ Remains the Film to Beat.”
Building on its success at the Golden Globe awards, the film earned the top award from the London Critics’ Circle last weekend.
More than success at Golden Globe, London Critics, or even the Oscars, the film’s depiction of the unbelievable harsh conditions of slavery has earned it an important place in the history of the Black History annals.
Another work that deserves an important place in these annals is UNC-Chapel Hill Professor Heather Andrea Williams’ book, “Help Me to Find My People: The African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery.”
Williams tells the poignant story of separated families attempting to find each other and reunite, before and after the Civil War.
One of the greatest horrors of slavery was the breakup of families. A husband sold away from his wife, a mother from her child.
Using memories of former slaves, Williams describes the wrenching partings. For instance, Thomas Jones recalled being taken away after being sold to a new owner in distant Wilmington. “I was very much afraid and began to cry, holding on to my mother’s clothes, and begging her to protect me, and not let the man take me away. … Mother wept bitterly and in the midst of her loud sobbings, cried out in broken words, ‘I can’t save you, Tommy; master has sold you, you must go.’ She held me, sobbing and mourning till [the man] came in, snatched me away, hurried me out of the house where I was born, and tore me away from the dear mother who loved me as no other could.”
Another former slave remembered later, “Babies was snatched from their mothers’ breasts and sold to speculators. Children was separated from sisters and brothers and never saw each other again. Course they cry; you think they not cry when they was sold like cattle? I could tell you about it all day, but even then you couldn’t guess the awfulness of it.”
Williams’ descriptions of scenes of mother and children being separated and sold to different owners are heartrending persuasion that the worst part of the horrible American system of slavery was not the backbreaking work. It was the destruction of personhood that accompanied the ever-present possibility of breakup for every enslaved family group.
Williams chronicles efforts of slaves and former slaves, before and after the Civil War, to contact family members. After the war, newspapers were filled with ads like the following published in the “Colored Tennessean” on March 24, 1866:
“Information wanted of our five children, whom we have not seen for four years. Their names are as follows, viz: Josephine, aged 20 years, Celia, aged … They were in Charlotte, N.C., or at Rock Hill when we last heard from them. Any information concerning these children will be thankfully received by their mother.”
Most of these reconnection efforts were unsuccessful, and not all the successful reunification efforts worked out happily.
Williams’ powerful descriptions of the pain of separation and the determined efforts to reunite require us to reflect with humility on this unfortunate chapter in our history, something all of us should be doing, especially during Black History Month.
D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV. Viewers with access to UNC-TV’s digital channel UNC-MX can preview the program on the preceding Friday at 9 p.m. For more information or to view prior programs visit the webpage at www.unctv.org/ncbookwatch. Martin’s regular weekly column appears on the Herald-Sun’s editorial pages on Wednesdays and on line at http://www.heraldsun.com/opinion/opinioncolumnists/martin.