Don’t Call Slaves “Immigrants”
The truth requires specificity that is sometimes violent and ugly
You know honey, us colored folks is branches without roots
and that makes things come round in queer ways.
–Zora Neale Hurston
Ben Carson’s comments earlier this month equating immigrants and slaves didn’t surprise me, and not just because the retired neurosurgeon turned HUD Secretary is gaffe-prone. The conflation of immigrants and slaves isn’t new to me. In fifth grade, my teacher Mrs. Sauer (like the taste) assigned our class the task of drawing the flags of the countries our families came from. Old Glory wasn’t allowed; we’d all come from somewhere else, she said. When we brought in our homemade flags, in our otherness, for once, we’d all be the same.
We lived in a rural town on the tip of the Pine Barrens in Southern New Jersey, outside of both an Army and Air Force base. While there were plenty other kids in my neighborhood and classrooms with brown skin like mine, they were often from multiracial families. Their parents were black and German, black and Asian, black and Filipino, but rarely both black. My classmates were already heading to the encyclopedias in the back of our class to look up the flags of Korea, Germany, and the Philippines—the places their military dads were stationed when they fell in love with their moms.
My parents grew up in Oklahoma and Louisiana. Their parents were from Arkansas and Mississippi. I’d been to the farm where my maternal grandpa used to grow soy and cotton and to the immaculate little house surrounded by red clay dirt where my maternal great-grandmother made fresh buttermilk biscuits in a kitchen so clean you could eat off the floor. (Cozied up under her square Formica table, I sometimes did). But I was no Alex Haley. How was I supposed to figure out how my grandparents got to these far-flung parts of the USA? When I asked my dad later that night what country in Africa he thought we came from or if there was some representative flag for the entire continent, he breathed a heavy, frustrated sigh.
“Between the Indian blood and the slave blood, we’ve been here longer than anybody. Who’s more American than us?” He put his feet up on the coffee table, crossed them with a one, two thud at the ankles. That was that.
I knew about the “Indian” blood. That was from my Cherokee great-grandmother on my mom’s side. Maybe it was responsible for her pretty bronze color and my sister’s long, thick hair. But what about this slave blood? We were black, so I wasn’t surprised that some of our ancestors had been slaves, but which ones, and where, exactly, had they come from?
“Between the Indian blood and the slave blood, we’ve been here longer than anybody. Who’s more American than us?”
As I sat on the living room floor deciding which flag to draw, I could see the leopard skin above dad’s head stretched across the paneled wall. My parents had brought it back from Ethiopia, where they’d lived for three years during the reign of Haile Selassie before I was born. Dad was sent there on a mission by the Air Force to help Ethiopians map out their terrain and begin their own airline. It was 1967, and he took the assignment as a way of steering clear of Vietnam. It didn’t quite work. Eventually, he ended up being deployed to the war’s edges, serving first in Thailand, then in Laos. He was gone for two years. I was four when he returned, and I remember my disappointment when he didn’t have war stories, a new accent, or even any souvenirs. The Bronze Star he received for being shot at along with his other commendation medals disappeared into the recesses of some junk drawer. We kids never saw them, and Dad seemed to want it that way.
Ethiopia was different. Years after my family returned from Addis Ababa, the magic of their time there seemed to veil our house like a benign hoodoo. Besides the leopard skin, an enormous monkey skin, black and white pelts sewn together in a circle, alternatively lay on the floor and hung on the wall. A pair of painted black wooden warriors sat on the buffet in the dining room during the day but, I was sure, snuck into my room at night to terrorize or protect me, depending on their mood. The woman’s pointy bare breasts stuck out from above her thin, carved waist like daggers. The male warrior’s spear was so sharp it looked like it could draw blood. I mustered the courage to ask dad if he thought we could be from Ethiopia, but he said he doubted it. Ethiopia was in the east, and slaves were brought from the western coast.
I envied my family for having lived in Africa, the place we came from centuries before, the same way I envied the kids in Mrs. Sauer’s class who seemed certain of where at least one side of their family hailed. I’m nine years younger than my next closest sibling, which, my brother says, makes me seem more like a cousin than a sister. This gap, coupled with my family’s time in Africa without me, seemed to solidify them as a separate entity apart from me. I was the branch without roots.
I watched Dad slice off squares of Cracker Barrel cheese and pop them into his mouth while I made up our history. I figured that since Dad was from Louisiana and Louisiana had once belonged to France, his fair, freckled skin and wavy black curls must be the French blood in him. I painted three vertical, red, white and blue stripes on my paper, a sideways, compressed version of Old Glory, and closed my encyclopedia with a thud of my own. Sorry, Ms. Sauer—it was either the French flag or the Ethiopian one. Either way, I was borrowing history.
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, journalists dubbed flood victims refugees, immigrants poured into New Orleans to help rebuild the city, and the House of Representatives passed a bill with harsh penalties for undocumented people and sanctions on anyone who tried to help them. It didn’t take long for immigration rights rallies to pop up all over the country. Normally, I left the room, turned off the radio or the TV when the subject came up, unless I was alone. But in the spring of 2007 on the eve of more rallies, my neighbor cornered me.
“Are you going to the protests in the city?”
We stood on the uneven sidewalk, buckling from the tree roots trying to break free, waiting for the school bus to deposit our daughters. I said that I was too busy to go to a rally.
“But we’re all immigrants,” she said. “All of us in this country.” I looked away from her and up into the oak trees shading us when I told her, “I’m from here.”
“But where were your parents from?”
I spoke to the grass then, as though its green blades would neutralize my rising red anger. “Oklahoma, Mississippi, New Orleans and briefly from Bakersfield.”
“But where did their parents come from—they weren’t from the islands?”
“No.” I said, looking her right in the face this time. “They were from a continent.”
We both looked down the street with squinted eyes, but the bus still wasn’t coming. I crossed my arms over my chest so my neighbor wouldn’t push further or come any closer, but she didn’t pay attention to my new stance. Instead, she said what always made me yell at the pundits on the airwaves: “Slaves were immigrants too.”
“Immigrant: a person that comes to a country to take up permanent residence. Slave: a person held in servitude as the chattel of another.”
The bus’s blinking amber lights shone down the street and turned red, its zebra-striped crossing arm emerged, and the Plexiglas doors pulsed open to deposit our daughters, bringing the traffic and our conversation to a stop. The woman’s parents grew up here, but her grandparents were immigrants from Korea, I remembered her telling me once. I had been happy for her that she’d been able to visit her ancestral home and asked if she could speak the language. She’d said no.
A thick and heavy bitterness welled up in my throat while my daughter and I raced each other home, and a collection of disappointments nipped at my memory: That time when the arms of America opened to embrace Cuba’s little Elian Gonzalez in one moment, then withdrew them when the boat was from a bit further south, its occupants not light brown, but black. America crossed her arms across her chest and sent the Haitians back. That time when I was nine and Angie Rameriz’s* mom kicked me out of her house for jumping on her bed but let the whiter looking girls stay, even though they’d been jumping on the bed too. That time when Nelson*, whose family was from Ecuador, who dated me before dating my blue-eyed roommate, started calling me black bitch, instructing me to take my affirmative action ass back to New Jersey, insisting that blacks were lazy and didn’t belong in college after drinking too many beers from our dorm’s mini fridge. Over and over again, I gravitated toward the faces with some color in them, thinking they would embrace me. For a little while, we’d get along, but eventually, they would want their distance from me.
Six days after the slaves-are-immigrants-too conversation, I celebrated my 38th birthday. Crocuses were pushing through the ground at the base of the enormous maple in our front yard, but instead of enjoying the spring day outside with my husband and daughters, I was holed up in my office staring at the computer. An essay I had written earlier in the year was finally published—with my maiden name as the byline. I hadn’t seen my “real” name in print in over a decade, when I last worked as a newspaper reporter. Ford: a shallow place in a river or stream allowing one to walk or drive across. Immigrant: a person that comes to a country to take up permanent residence. Slave: a person held in servitude as the chattel of another. Seeing Dionne Ford in print triggered both a thrill and a longing in me first ignited by that borrowed flag.
About a year after Ms. Sauer’s assignment, I finally learned something concrete about both my slave and immigrant ancestors. My grandfather was visiting from New Orleans, and I noticed for the first time how different his skin was from mine. When I asked him if he was white, he laughed that he wasn’t and told me about his grandfather, Colonel Stuart, “an Irish man,” and his grandmother, who “worked” on Stuart’s plantation. I knew enough about American history to understand that black people on plantations in the South at that time weren’t paid workers. I asked my grandfather if his grandmother was a slave, but he didn’t answer my question. Instead, he told me stories about passing for white to make more money delivering groceries in New Orleans. I would later push aside my 12-year-old logic that was guided by history and replace it with my grandfather’s, which was no doubt rooted in shame. Who wants to think of their ancestors as a victim and a perpetrator? Not me, especially since I was grappling with my own victimization at the hands of a family member. But once I started my own family and my oldest daughter referred to herself as white like her father but not at all black like me, I got serious about the colonel and Tempy’s full story.
As I came to learn, Col. W.R. Stuart’s family immigrated to the eastern shores of what would become the United States before the American Revolution. In 1858, he married Elizabeth McCauley, and her family gave the couple a slave named Tempy Burton as a wedding gift. Elizabeth couldn’t have children. But Tempy could, and did have seven of them with her new master, the colonel. My great-grandmother Josephine was their youngest child.
Before Josephine married and became a Ford, she took her mother’s last name. My grandmother Lillie Mae had once told me it was because she didn’t want anything to do with her white father. Usually, it was the other way around, the white part of the family not wanting anything to do with the black ones they’d sired. Josephine, an interracial child of a slave and her master, seemed bold and sure, the way I wanted to be.
Inspired by the sight of my old name, I typed into Google everything I knew about Josephine: her parents’ last names, Burton and Stuart, and where they once lived in Mississippi. Before I could count to even one Mississippi, Google took the factors of my identity equation and presented me with a solid product—the “Col. W. R. Stuart family” picture. Tempy was in the center of the photo. The colonel and Elizabeth were seated behind her. On each side of Tempy were two biracial-looking girls. The one on the left reminded me of my daughters. Tempy’s dark face was illuminated on a diagonal, with tight curls around her head like a halo, a straight mouth, and eyes that gave nothing away. It looked like she was wearing a kerchief reminiscent of the tignons Creole women were forced to wear as a sign of their lower status in Colonial New Orleans. She, Elizabeth, and the two girls looked serious. The colonel was slightly smiling.
“The truth—mine, my family’s, and our country’s—requires specificity that is sometimes violent and ugly.”
The photo was taken in the 1890s, 25 years after slavery ended, and I wondered why Tempy would pose for what amounted to a family portrait with the couple who stole her freedom. Were her eyes sad or stoic? Was there something akin to love between Tempy and the colonel, or were their children just another case of a master raping his slave? What did the colonel’s wife, Elizabeth, the woman Tempy had undoubtedly served for most of her life, feel about it? Could there have existed something other than love or hate between these people, my ancestors and their families, akin to what I feel toward my own country?
Not long after I found the photo, I took my first trip to Ellis Island to chaperone my daughter’s elementary class. I helped her look up her father’s ancestors in the kiosk—one of his grandmothers had arrived there from Ireland in the early 1900s—but I knew there was no point in attempting to look up my own. That’s why I’d avoided visiting, even though I’d lived within an hour drive of the island most of my life. “Huddled masses yearning to breathe free” was not my story. Liberty’s breath was stolen from my great-great-grandmother and her family. I was pleasantly surprised, however, when our National Park Service guide brought my daughter’s group to an exhibit about the forced peopling of America, and my family’s place in our country was finally visible.
I let go of my resentment for Ellis Island and Lady Liberty after that, and eventually, I forgave my neighbor’s clumsy attempt to identify with me as another person of color. Our conversation was probably the push I needed to look once again for my ancestors, leading me to their photo. And I try to forgive myself everyday for so often veering toward comfortable and vague when the truth—mine, my family’s, and our country’s—requires specificity that is sometimes violent and ugly.
For instance: My third great-grandmother Eliza Burton was separated from her daughter Tempy because of slavery. My third great-grandfather William R. Stuart was among the first graduates of Washington College, ascended to President of the Maryland State Senate, and gave his son, my great, great-grandfather, his name. Their descendant–Josephine’s brother—was lynched in Mississippi for something he may have been thinking of doing to a white woman. My family. My country. I love them both and, for this reason, like Baldwin said, I insist on the right to criticize them perpetually. Mostly, what I want from them is the truth. Even or especially if it doesn’t fit the conventional story. Immigrants and slaves are not the same, but they are what made this country and me.
* Names changed to protect.