This month I will be writing from the road as I travel the United States’ South and Midwest and Western Ontario, Canada; first at the Brown Family Reunion and then touring with Inland Empire educators and parents on the Black Voice Foundation’s Underground Railroad Field Study Tour. Please join me this summer on the road…
On Independence Day while America was celebrating the anniversary of our country’s independence from Great Britain, I was visiting the gravesites of my ancestors and meditating on the ideas of patriotism and freedom. The day began with my father’s siblings and their families celebrating the life and legacy of Floyd and Essie Brown – their parents and my grandparents. I was on program to present the family history that my father and his research team uncovered over the past year, including the identities of several generations of Brown family ancestors.
I have spent many summers of my childhood in Jones County, North Carolina, the birthplace of my father’s lineage that can be traced back to before the end of the Revolutionary War, marking the independence of the colonies, the reason we celebrate each July 4th. Which returns me to my current search: the quest to find the gravesites of Jane McDaniel, my great, great grandmother and her father Adonijah McDaniel. Jane – the daughter, was buried in the Black cemetery in Hayti with the rest of my Black ancestors, but her father was buried one mile down the road in Trenton’s historically White cemetery between his wife Sophia and his father James. Jane – the daughter was born a slave on the McDaniel farm to her White father, who was also her master and owner.
Slavery has been called the “Peculiar Institution” primarily because of stories like Jane’s and Adonijah’s, one Black the other White, one in perpetual bondage the other free. Connected by blood but separated by the social construct of race. And it’s that social construct that has continued to plague our country today and continues to dominate our national conversation – from law enforcements’ mistreatment of people of color, to hate crimes like the shootings of the church congregants in Charleston, to the debates on the official (or unofficial) uses of the Confederate flag.
It’s probably odd to some of you that I look to a past of bondage as I meditate on the concept of freedom and independence today, but I believe that to truly understand the concept of freedom we must understand the reality of bondage. I recently heard Dr. Clarence Newsome, the president of The Freedom Center in Cincinnati, Ohio say, “freedom has no meaning in isolation.” The issues that we continue to struggle with and debate in our living rooms, on the op-ed pages of our newspapers, on our Sunday morning political shows, and even in our state legislatures will continue to define and redefine our identity as Americans.
The entangled nature of my family tree is a reminder to me of the complexity of those definitions. “We are still a young country,” Dr. Newsome reflected in his remarks, “and we still must mature together as a nation.”