Juneteenth: How can the American Negro's past be used?

Don't sell it. It's invaluable to be a Black American. Instead, hold history.

Juneteenth: How can the American Negro's past be used?
"To accept one's past--one's history--is not the same thing as drowning in it; it is learning how to use it. An invented past can never be used; it cracks and crumbles under the pressure of life like clay in a season of drought." - James Baldwin

When I was younger I used to make up stories about living in other countries and speaking multiple languages. Always scratching at the walls of my history hoping something more eccentric was underneath. If I asked my parents about where I was from or who I was, they’d quickly reply, “You come from slaves and you’re Black.” With no hesitation or change in emotion, “Your black ass comes from slaves.” Thinking back, I’m not sure if I was bothered by the response as much as by the shortness of it. That’s it?! In six words you could sum up my entire existence. I needed at least ten words, hell even a paragraph, to impress the kids at school. Kids whose backgrounds and upbringing filled chapters upon chapters of history books. Books I was forced to ingest on a daily. What would they think of me if I couldn’t fill a sentence? So, my solution to this problem was to make it up.

"Yes, I've been to Korea."

"Yes, I actually have a white great-grandfather. I'm MORE than black."

"My father speaks German when he's angry."

In reality, the most we got out of him was a danken and some counting. But I’d leverage this new history to become "interesting". Then, and only then, I was "someone".

However, the cracks in my lies didn’t take too long to reveal themselves. And as most liars know, once you start with lies, you must keep lying. You tell so many lies that you lose the plot of who you are and why you started lying in the first place.


When I think of that erasure I think about Cudjoe Lewis from Zora Neale Hurston's Barracoon. I think of the black people he'd come in contact with who, just like me, had traded who they are and where they come from for a small, temporary sense of peace and safety. Or even validation from people or systems that never planned on seeing them (us) as nothing more than property. That validation came at the price of one of our most valuable things: our agency. I know something now that I simply didn't know back when I was younger. There's so much beauty in who I am. I do not need to reinvent my past to have a bright future. My future is bright because of my past.

“We Afficans try raise our chillun right. When dey say we ign’nant we go together and build de school house. Den de county send us a teacher. We Afficky men doan wait lak de other colored people till de white folks gittee ready to build us a school. We build one for ourself den astee de county to send us de teacher." - Kossula (Cudjoe Lewis)

Git on Board, Exhibit A in George C. Wolfe's, The Colored Museum dramatizes the trade-offs and cost of crossing the Transatlantic. As Ms. Pat, the flight attendant onboard the Celebrity Slave Ship, explains the rules and regulations of travel, she reassures the enslaved of all they seek to gain by surviving this journey. Everything from dance and music to basketball is theirs if they first stop hearing the drums of history, get comfortable in their shackles, and enjoy the ride. Ms. Pat is trying to convince us that our happiness, safety, care, and respect can be found if we let go of our past (stop hearing the drums) and give in to an invented one.

Well, it's been 158 years since the last enslaved people of Galveston, Texas were freed and I think Ms. Pat was playing a long con.

See, I hear the drums when I think of Black happiness and safety, especially as a descendant of the enslaved. I think of Zangbetos or healing practices of surrounding the sad and hurt with dance until something gives. The drums remind me that I have everything I need. And that doesn't stop or start with money. Long before the invention of the commodity that is this Black body, there was peace within it. When I think of my honest upbringing I recognize how those six words that once stirred such disgust inside of me, are the most powerful thing I have.

Your black ass comes from slaves. - My parents

Okay, okay, okay, how can we, in 2023, in post-COVID society utilize being an American Negro?

Don't sell it. It's invaluable to be a Black American. Instead, hold history. Maya Angelou talks about the beauty of bringing all of herself into every room she walks into and remaining present throughout the process. I'm not a slave, I was enslaved. A slave is someone blank not black, who lacks agency, and has no sense of knowing outside of servitude. That is not who I am naturally. That was once imprinted upon my ancestors. It's not a requirement of my future. Holding history tells me that. It gives us the gift of sight.

When the cast members of Hair, the Musical sing "Our eyes are open, our eyes are open, wide," I hear it as a declaration of what you receive when you keep the drums close and divorce yourself from oppressive systems. They sing, "In this dive we rediscover sensation." As an American Negro our bodies are more than a cog in the wheel of capitalism. Because I carry what I, and my ancestors, have been through I know our bodies are much stronger than that. Our beautiful Black bodies are meant for dancing more than they're meant for laboring.

"When we at de plantation on Sunday we so glad we ain' gottee no work to do. So we dance lak in de Afficky soil." - Kossula (Cudjoe Lewis)

Happy Juneteenth

My favorite tattoos they remind me to dance like it's 1865.