“My people perish for a lack of knowledge,” it seems, is something that anyone can find in almost any religion’s texts anywhere. Heck, depending on perspective, even atheists in general can agree with this statement (of course, the issue would be what constitutes “knowledge”). I read this verse (it’s in Hosea and Isaiah, and versions of it as well as in Jewish texts and the Qur’an) for the first time when I was fifteen in ’85, less than a year after I converted to Christianity. Boy, I had no idea how little I knew about myself, my family and my history when I first read that verse twenty-nine years ago.
In light of the end of Black History Month, I wouldn’t be me without noting how little any of us know about our families, our lineages and our ancestors. But it’s not just true of the millions of us descended from West and Central Africans kidnapped, bound, abused, raped and nearly worked to death to provide Europeans (and Arabs) wealth and comfort. Most of us don’t even know what we think we know about much more recent history and events than surviving the Middle Passage or overcoming Jim Crow.
For me and my family, I knew so little about us that my Mom could’ve told me that Satan had thrown us out of Hell for being too brown to burn and I would’ve accepted it as an appropriate answer. All I really knew of my mother’s side of my family was that they were from Arkansas, that my Uncle Sam (I chuckled sometimes thinking of the irony) was my Mom’s closest sibling, and that they grew up as dirt poor as anyone could get without living in a thatched root hut on less than $1 a day.
I asked for more during those rare moments when my focus wasn’t on high school, getting into college and getting as far away from 616 and Mount Vernon, New York as possible. I ended up finding out about how my Mom’s mother once beat her with the back of a wooden brush for not being ready on time for church, that there were years where her father made only $200 total from cotton farming, and that she was the oldest of twelve kids. She had done some form of work either taking care of her siblings, cooking, cleaning, washing clothes by hand, and hoeing and picking cotton, since she was five or six. Oh yeah, and she played basketball in high school.
On my father’s side, I knew a bit more, if only because Darren and me went with my father to visit the Collins farm in Harrison, Georgia in August ’75. I was five and a half then, but I do remember the fresh smoked ham and bacon, the smell of my grandfather’s Maxwell House coffee, me being too scared to ride a horse, so they put me on a sow (my brother did ride the horse, though). But what people did, how a Black family owned their own land going back to the turn of the twentieth century, I wouldn’t have known to even ask about at not quite six years old.
What I didn’t know until after high school, college, even after earning a Ph.D. in knowing (that’s what a history degree ultimately is) was so much worse than I imagined. To find out at twenty-three that my Mom was a star basketball player in high school. She played center, and led her team to Arkansas’ segregated state quarterfinals in ’65. My Uncle Sam played four sports in high school (basketball, football, baseball and track and field) and was offered college scholarships, but didn’t have the grades to move forward. I learned a year later that my Uncle Paul followed in their footsteps, and played three years at the University of Houston, left early and played for the Houston Rockets in ’82-’83 (not a good year for them, or for me, for that matter) before blowing out a knee and moving into entertainment work.
My father’s family — at least the women of the family — boasted at least three college degrees. Two of my aunts became school teachers. My uncles started businesses in Atlanta and in parts of rural Georgia, working their way well beyond the farm to the work they wanted to do.
I learned all of this by the time I turned thirty-two, just a year and a half before my own son was born. How many different decisions I would’ve made about my life if I had known that one half of my family was full of athletes, and the other half was full of business owners, not to mention three aunts with a college education? I would’ve known to try out for any sport in high school — particularly basketball — and to not be afraid to fail. I would’ve known that I was only the first person in my immediate family to take a go at college beyond a certificate in dietary science (my Mom earned that in the summer of ’75), and not the first one on either side as I once thought.
Most of all, I would’ve known that though I was lonely and played the role of a loner my last years growing up, that I wasn’t alone. There were a whole bunch of people in my lineage, some of whom were alive and well, from whom I could’ve drawn strength, found kinship, felt pride and confidence in, where I wouldn’t have seen myself as an abandoned and abused underdog anymore.
If I’d known all this growing up, I wouldn’t have felt and sometimes feel robbed now, by poverty and parenting, abuse and alcoholism. This is why having knowledge to draw from is so important.