African Americans have mixed feelings about our past. Some of us shrink away from watching or hearing about things that happened to the ancestors in our past. We avoid the movies, the mini-series, documentaries and the books. Yet, when February comes, we want that history acknowledged. We want to see posters of giant heads of great people, like Frederick Douglass or Harriet Tubman. We want to see television shows about the struggle. We make jokes about why Black History Month is in the shortest month of the year.
But at other times of the year? I hear “I’m tired of seeing movies about [fill in historical period here].”
Or, “It makes me angry”
Or, “Why do we always have to be portrayed as slaves?”
I knew these attitudes were out there when I decided to start reboot four or five of my writing life—I forget which one exactly. Still, I didn’t expect these resistant attitudes to be directed towards my works of fiction. Honestly, I thought it was past time to showcase the ancestors in the posture that they actually existed in, as Christians.
I have seen people with brown skin make complete beelines away from my table at book signings. I know who they are. They are the ones with the ”I’m tired, angry, portrayal…” reasons.
Let’s get a few things straight about my books.
My books feature African Americans after enslavement. By the way, you should put an “en” before the word slavery or any of its variations. We need to begin to alter the language to showcase that those people who were enslaved reached that state through no fault of their own. If we begin shift the language as well as the view then maybe we’ll begin to see the ancestors as they were—survivors and not victims of oppression.
People don’t want to be reminded of unpleasant times. I find that an interesting perspective because when I have to enter the hearts, minds and views of people in the past when I write, they certainly didn’t want to live through unpleasant times either.
But they did. And they lived through the unpleasant times, praying and sacrificing so that you could be where you are today. Every decision, thought and thing they endured was in the hopes of a better day for the future—not for themselves. Whenever there was a hard time happening, you need to know that one of the first things Grandmama did was get down on her knees and pray to God. If you don’t read her history or hear her story, how do you know what she did to get through hard times? How can she help you get through your hard times if you don’t know what she did? Zora Neale Hurston put it best: “You’ve got to go there to know there.”
The historical view on enslaved people is different since you’ve been in school. This is because there have now been several generations of scholars of color who have ensured that the accomplishments of the past are now celebrated instead of buried. I see my stories as heralding these accomplishments of the past. These are the stories to pass down to our children when we tell them: You come from a proud people who stood tall in difficult times and still managed to “make a way out of no way.” If we chose to embrace the long-held view of our history that perpetuates us as victims and not survivors, how will we learn how to survive? Or teach the children how to survive? If we don’t know these lessons, then we forget that Carter G. Woodson started Black History Week in February because that’s when Frederick Douglass was born. We cannot forget the lessons of the past.
Sweet Honey in the Rock sings a song called “We Are” that reminds me about why I write historicals. The chorus says, “We are our grandmother’s prayers. We are our grandfather’s dreamings. We are the breath of the ancestors. We are the spirit of God.” So true. The ancestors prayed for a better day, when they didn’t even know us or get to see the fruitful results of their sacrifices. It’s a shame that there are those who react to that love and sacrifice by choosing to ignore and forget those struggles. I write so that the ones out there who want to remember will remember to claim the victory of God’s sacrifice in the name of their ancestors. So they will pass it on.
In celebration of Black History Month, the first volume of the “Home to Milford College” series, The Preacher’s Promise, will be on sale for $2.99.