By Dr. Kaye Whitehead
Do you know who you are? This is a question that has kept me up at night for the past 13 years. When my son was six, his predominantly White school did a play about Thanksgiving. They sang songs about Columbus’s greatness, the gratitude of the Native Americans, and the surprising discovery and taming of America. As I sat there watching my son participate in an ongoing narrative based and rooted in lies and the erasure of Indigenous people, I experienced a moment of cognitive dissonance. I became acutely aware that my son was the only Black boy on that stage.
I probably should have pulled him from the school, instead, I told myself that it was not the 1950s and that he was not Ruby Bridges or Little Rock Nine. I told myself that we did not live in Alabama or Mississippi, nor did he have to walk through crowds of angry White people to get into the school. Despite what my civil rights activist father had taught me, I believed that equality and justice had arrived. I remember sitting there, clapping and feeling like a fraud. I looked around at the other moms who were wiping tears of joy while breathlessly commenting on how our children were brilliant and talented. During the reception, one of the White moms told her son that their family line traced back to the Mayflower and that when they got home, she would show him the family tree, so that he could know who he was. As I rolled my eyes and began to pack my bags to leave, my son turned to ask me if our family had come on the Mayflower, too. He was sincere and wanted to know our family’s history. Standing at that school, in the middle of the Founder’s Library, drinking tea and eating finger sandwiches, I did not know how to tell him that I did not know.
Dr. Kaye Whitehead (Courtesy Photo)
I did not know how to say that slavery and Whiteness had stolen almost everything from us, especially our names and historical legacy. I did not know how to properly articulate that our people were considered property and were typically listed by gender and not name. I did not know how to tell him that we were the descendants of enslaved people, and that play, where he had spent days practicing and learning the songs and his lines, was a deliberate and intentional erasure and denial of us. I could not say that our people had been enslaved in South Carolina, the first state to secede from the Union, a place where Black bodies were bridges of entitlement for White families to stand on. I could not say any of this, so I said that we came from people who chose to survive.
I want to say that I woke up at that moment and committed myself to challenge the lies and speak the truth, but that is not what happened. I spent the next few years trying to negotiate Whiteness while sending my sons into the belly of the beast of Whiteness every day. It took some time before I could admit that America is rooted in White supremacy and nationalism and then to commit myself to dismantling it. I realized that sending my sons to predominantly White schools and then not working to bring in more families of color helped perpetuate inequality. I was so focused on my sons’ success that I had become an opportunity hoarder, supporting a system that purposely miseducated so many of our children. I failed my son that day by not telling him the truth, but I became determined not to fail the children of my children. I became committed to researching our stories and reclaiming our names.
It took 13 years of research and working with our family’s unofficial genealogists before I could sit down with my sons and tell them that I know who they are, and I know who I am. I showed them our family tree and then said, This is your grandmother’s line: this is who you are. You are the sons of Karsonya and Johnnie and the grandsons of Bonnie Ruth Nix and Carson Eugene Wise Sr. The great-grandson of Dorothy Mae Best Griffith and James Bamberg; the 2nd-great-grandson of Lumisher Best and Hugo Griffith; and, the 3rd-great-grandson of Bannah Dora and Moses Best. You are the 4th-great-grandnephew of Fannie Robinson and Sammy Dickerson, which is the last generation of our family to be born enslaved. You are the 5th-great-grandson of Moses Roberson; and, the 6th-great-grandson of Mary and Zed Roberson. They were speechless when I finished saying their names because they understood the significance of this moment. They know that slavery and Whiteness tried to erase us. They know that the policies, practices, and laws of that time were meant to discard us, dehumanize us, break us, consume and control us. They were designed to bury us and to own us forever. But our family, our ancestors, chose to survive. I started researching our history based on a question from my six-year-old son, and I am grateful that at 19 years old, he finally received his answer.
Do you know who you are? For Black people, this is a question that we must answer, not for ourselves but our children. They must understand that our ancestors were more than property, more than bridges, they were survivors, and they chose to survive for us.
Karsonya Wise Whitehead (email@example.com; Twitter: @kayewhitehead) is the #Blackmommyactivist and an associate professor of communication and African and African American studies at Loyola University Maryland. Recently selected by The Daily Record as One of Maryland’s Top 100 Women, she is the award-winning host of “Today With Dr. Kaye” on WEAA 88.9 FM. She lives in Baltimore City with her husband and their two sons.
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