Slavery’s Impact: What’s Left in the Bag

Part of our mission with Boricua Soul is to highlight the link between the West African Slave trade, Puerto Rican and Southern American food/music culture. Events over the past few years along with starting a family has forced me to think about slavery’s lasting and damaging effect on the United States. I started writing my thoughts on the subject leading up to Father’s Day but it was lost in the shuffle of family and food trucking. The events in Minnesota, Texas and Louisiana caused me to look back at what I wrote and finish my thoughts. The following are the result and I encourage anyone to share their thoughts and ideas of a way forward:

Life in a nutshell is trying to forge your own future with what people have left for you in the past. It’s like the day we are born we are all given a bag. This bag has things inside it before we take our first breath. Right there on the birthing table it is handed to us and we can never get rid of it. For some people, wealth and status were placed in the bag and for others debt or a damaged name. For one child, it’s preordained physical talents or intellect and for another, a genetic defect leaving one vulnerable to health issues. A person’s bag may be any mixture of positive and or negative things but you have no control of what’s in that bag. Past decisions and actions carried out by those that came before you dictate everything in it.

Regardless of race, religion or nationality, every family has its own dynamics and struggles it must face. As I have gotten older, I think about the bag that has been passed down through African American families in this country. Examining my own family and extended family’s demons has generated a lot thought and personal reflection. I often ask myself why so many black families are broken? Why are there so many young black men left to fend for themselves and single mothers faced with the difficult task of teaching young boys to be men? The conclusion I keep coming to relates to what was left in the bag. What many black families face today is exactly what America designed for generations and generations of black families. From the moment the first African slaves arrived, a system of control was put in place to divide families, keep a whole race ignorant and constantly let the head of that family know he was less than a man and could do absolutely nothing to protect or hold his family together. Many black families have seen generations pass with nothing inherited except, pain, violence and stolen dignity.

Many times I have heard people say “slavery ended over 150 years ago and has no effect on today, what about the immigrants who have come to this country with nothing and done well for themselves.” Yes European immigrants did not have much when they reached the United States but they did have their families, their customs, their religions, names and most importantly their history. With all of those things comes a certain level of dignity that cannot be taken regardless of status. All of these things foster identity and pride. Really ask yourself what is a person without a firm grip on those feelings? Even after slavery ended you have generations of families riddled with fear and intimidation punctuated with the narrative that the head of household was powerless and less of a man, he knew it and his family knew it. These feelings are not relics of 151 years ago. My grandparents were born and raised in the Jim Crow south. One generation behind mine was raised by a system that legally oppressed a whole race and told them they were less. Those are a lot of bags laden with shame, fear and anger carried right to our doorsteps. America’s constant battle with the ghost of slavery highlights the notion that nothing comes for free and we as a society are still paying the cost. Yes things have come a long way but after all of these years we are still left with the mess left by years of America’s assumed free labor. Yes we are in a place of possible achievement where a man of African descent can become president and many black families are flourishing but that misrepresents a large part of the population left to scratch and claw their way though, poor schools little opportunity or hope.

To this day I am not sure who my father is. My grandfather stepped in and made sure I had an example of a man and I was fortunate enough to have others pick up the torch and fill in the gaps after he passed. Things cannot be better unless as men, we stand up as a beacon of opportunity to those who may look up to us. For me there is no higher responsibly than being a father to my son. We invited him into this world so if nothing else I owe him courtesy of supplying him with the tools he needs to navigate, succeed and excel in it.

On July 23 2012 we handed our son a little bag and there are things that society has shoved in it .There are things that Serena and her family have put in there and things that me and my side has tucked into little corners. Here is where awareness and acceptance without blame come in because regardless of our past, blame with no action will not fix things. As a father I have a chance to help mend what is broken. After 39 years of life, I am more aware of what my bag has to offer and hinder. This knowledge makes me more aware of what can be found in Devin’s. I am aware of what society will try to tell him who he should be or how he should act because of his skin color. My job as his father is to add things to arm him to either use or combat the things hiding in his bag.

Despite our country’s imperfect past I still believe there are vast opportunities for those who are willing to reach for it and not accept anything less than what they desire. I want my son to be aware of roadblocks ahead but never believe they will keep him from achieving. I feel that one of our countries biggest problems in moving past race issues the its failure to accept and teach its citizens about its real history and impact on today. There are education systems in this country refuse to even teach its students the truth about the reasons why the Civil War was fought even as the truths are written into the Declarations of Independence of many of the Confederate States. I heard someone recently say, “let Yesterday’s pain be today’s strength”. Every family has its past pain and scars but understanding them can help find a better way forward. There are many gaps and unknowns in our family history that Serena and have talked about trying to fill in. We want to fill them in for ourselves and for Devin. Sure, I would like the biggest worry in his life to be waffles or french toast for breakfast as long as possible but eventually people grow to desire information about their past. When I reached that point in life too many questions had no answers and like all parents I want more for him.

When I talk about the baggage we carry I also think about what has been left for us, for this Family of American citizens. Our collective bag is filled with many things that make it the greatest nation on the planet but in our ascent to greatness we have collected a lot of baggage. The baggage left for us is spilling into the streets in the form of blood. There is still a lot of pain and hatred that has not been delt with. It’s not that there is a denial that slavery took place but a refusal to accept its effect on today’s Americans of all races. As I mentioned earlier , history books in some States the subject is a footnote and many talk about the subject but fail to deal with its lasting effect.

My birthday was a couple of days ago and someone wished me a Happy Personal New Year and I started thinking about what I wanted my last year in my 30’s to look like. I know I don’t want it to finish how it started, waking up and hearing 5 cops were murdered in the wake of the murder of black motorist in Minnesota and Louisiana. We collectively have some big problems and I don’t have any big solutions but I do have small actions that I plan to focus on. My hope is that these steps lead to something bigger but I am starting here:

1. Have compassion and understanding. It’s what we are missing from a lot of conversations today. You don’t have to fully understand someone to have compassion for their situation. The mere act of accepting that you don’t understand how someone on the other side is feeling a huge first step.

2. Make a positive impact on as many people as possible, especially young people because they are our only hope. For me this starts at home with my son because he will someday go out into the world and represent us. I hope to take that further and reach more kids in our community.

3. Keep learning: If we had to get by in life only with the things taught from school books we would be ill equipped for life. I learned more about the impact of slavery from books after leaving school then all the years in school combined. In my opinion every American needs to read ” The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism“. This book should be read not so white America is made to feel guilty about a system they did not create but to understand a system that is affecting everyone today. All Americans need to fully understand this institutions impact.

4. Find something positive about each day, wake up with it the next day and change my surrounding for the better.

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