No Longer a Tumbleweed

My husband often uses the analogy of tumbleweeds to describe the importance of history. Tumbleweeds dry out and detach from their roots and stems. They just blow in the wind. It’s hard to find your purpose and more importantly ride out a storm without having roots. In fact, there’s a Malay Proverb that says “A tree with strong roots laughs at storms.”

Years ago I had a unique opportunity to visit east India. While there on a Rotarian sponsored trip I stayed with different families. The first family I stayed with was that of a prominent businessman and his wife who was a teacher. When the driver opened the door, the very first face I saw was a young girl about 10 or 11 with a cocoa complexion. Her smile was warm. Her eyes glowed and she immediately shook my hand. My host introduced her as Rocky, a farm girl they had adopted and brought to live with them to provide her with an education and give her a better life.

Rocky only spoke Hindi and I only speak English. Our communication barrier was no secret, but in a world where complexions matter it was obvious that Rocky was thrilled to see and touch mine. Every time she spoke to me, I smiled and told her how sorry I was that I only speak English. After a few minutes, Rocky’s eyes filled with tears. She hung her head low and walked away silently. My host was kind enough to translate as I am sure I had a look of confusion.

“Rocky was asking you to teach her your secret language,” he said. “What secret language?” I replied. “The language of people that look like you and her in your country. She was hurt because she promised not to tell anyone, but she feels as though you don’t trust her.”

If only Rocky knew that many of my people, people of African descent are like tumbleweeds. We don’t have a secret language. It’s a consolation prize from years of bondage during slavery. We don’t know the language of our ancestors because we don’t know where we are from. It’s a tough conversation and difficult for most people outside of our unique circumstance to understand.

I grew up in small city in upstate New York with one of the largest refugee centers in the nation. I had the privilege of learning about so many different cultures. I had Italian friends whose grandmother’s only spoke Italian and had secret family cannoli recipes. I had Laotian friends whose grandparents only spoke Laotian and had home made temples to worship in their homes. When children grow up around children from different places they learn their geography, their religion and cultural differences. However, most Black families were one generation removed from migrant farming. So when you ask us about our roots, the answer is usually a southern state. That’s it. That’s about the extent of where we can say we are from. We don’t have a language all our own and we don’t have recipes from before our involuntary voyage.

A few months ago my husband bought me an Ancestry DNA test. No, I didn’t run to take it. In fact, it sat on the table for about two weeks. I was curious, but I’d seen several friends do it and come back with a gazillion different ethnic regions and still walk away feeling incomplete. Plus, it requires fasting before you take it and well, I like to graze. I can’t remember when I did it, but I certainly remember the day I got my results; Wednesday October 4, 2017.

I wasn’t sure I’d feel different knowing more about my ancestry. But there’s an unexplainable sense of peace in feeling connected to a people and a land. Even if you don’t know anything about it. My results came back over 30% from Togo, which is a pretty high. So, this is the beginning of a discovery phase for me to learn as much as I can about its’ history, culture and people.

I wish I could find Rocky and tell her that my secret language is more than likely Ewe’ but French will do. I wish I could tell her that my region is much like hers, filled with farmers and huts, but has over 30 miles of coastline on the Gulf of Guinea. I wish I could explain to her that at 42 years old I am just now beginning to take root.

Togo

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A Slave for my Children

I can honestly say that as Chocolate as I am I have never had a complex about my complexion; at least not consciously. But there are certain things I avoid to duck additional ridicule, like Vaseline or being ashy and yes, there are certain situations I avoid in hopes of setting up the inevitable black jokes. For example, I never auditioned for a part in Porgy and Bess in high school on purpose and I try not to recite lines from the Colored Purple and the list goes on. But I did volunteer to be a mother and I am learning that me being ridiculed is a small price to pay for their happiness and personal growth.

Last Sunday was Morgan’s first filming day as an extra on the set of the movie Box Brown. Box Brown is the story of a slave that mailed himself in a box to freedom. Morgan doesn’t have a speaking role but she is pretty psyched about being “in the t.v.” in any respect. My husband and I am thrilled at exposing her to the idea of realizing her dreams and having an opportunity to act out such an important part of American History.

In preparation for her day, we explored wardrobe options and figured if Baby G joined her we could stand on the sidelines and be proud doting parents with camera phones and video cameras. Upon arrival we sign their talent releases and take them to wardrobe and makeup. When I look down at Morgan, she has tears in her eyes and is holding on to me for dear life.

At this moment I pick her up, hold her tight and remind her that she does not have to do this if she doesn’t want to and that me and daddy will gladly pack up her things and roll out if she just says the word. “No, mommy I want to do it, I’m just a little nervous.” The Production Assistant joins in the conversation and tells her everything will be just fine and she is going to do great. She reminds her there is another little girl out there who is also a little nervous and maybe they can help each other. It was a great speech, but Morgan was not convinced.

Just then the wardrobe lady asks me if my husband and me will be extras as well and I quickly remind them that we are just there to observe.  Morgan interjects, “mommy please, let’s all do it together, please.” To add insult to injury the Production Assistant reminds us how much easier it will be for the children to repeat scenes when their parents join the cast.

With no time to think and a teary-eyed princess looking me in my face and a perfect slave momma dress hanging in the wardrobe lady’s arm, I reluctantly agree. I say to myself, there is no way my husband is going to do it, so I will have to suck it up and make it happen for the babies. I change my clothes and grab my babies and head to the cotton field. On the way I am informed that the purpose of the scene is to portray slaves as they are walking onto the plantation. They have been walking for days. They are dehydrated, hungry and fresh out of chains. I have Baby G in one arm and Morgan by the hand.

Before we join the slave march, another assistant stops me and asks me to remove my diamonds. “If it were gold, that would work, but not diamonds,” he says with a smile. I reluctantly smile back and keep reminding myself that this is for the children and hand a man I do not know my wedding rings, and my earrings. I internally whisper, “This is for the children.”

I dig my bare feet into the sandy dirt and proceed to go where directed and I hear on the walkie-talkie that there is one more slave coming and to wait a minute. I get in position and I look up and I see my husband all decked out looking like Kunta Kinte’s big brother with Jesus sandals on and I can’t help but smile. As he joins the slave march he looks at me, grabs Baby G and says, “Man as Black as I am, I know I am going to get joked for this.”

There is little I can say to console him, because I know he’s right. So we look at each other with babies in tow and say out loud, “The things we do for our children.”

So yes, the entire Taylor Family will be in the opening scene of Box Brown during the slave march and I am telling you all right now…”Stick and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.”