It was Tufts University that brought us to a fuller understanding of ourselves, in a perverse way. Our stories emerge from the trenches where silenced and forgotten pasts are buried. Something as simple as knowing that (one of) my (three) grandfather(s) was an amputee. Or that (one of) my (three known) aunt(s) was born of a secret marriage.
Sylvester – Part I
For me there has always existed a barrier between me and that which made me—slavery has a way of destroying histories if you weren’t aware. Unable to trace my roots, I made home in a blanket term—African American—because I’ve known nothing beyond that. Like a lot of Black people I grew up with, I found myself laying claim to anything that felt like it vaguely made sense. Often I would find that when asked, friends would say they descended from a particular set of groups. Everybody had decided that they were Native American, specifically Cherokee. Like them, I was desperate to belong to something, to somebody, and found myself constructing false histories of my own.
I remember asking my parents at an early age where exactly we came from, as all of my white classmates were able to go back generations upon generations and lay claim to a specific country. They did so with a sense of pride, and being unable to do so myself was embarrassing. About five generations back on either side, the records ended in chains. Closed doors. And I learned it was just something I’d have to accept. I’d made peace with the fact that I’d never truly know where I came from, or from who.
My African American identity has always been rooted in bondage, because to go any further was to grasp at straws, to conjure ghosts. The irony of only being able to begin naming those ghosts since attending a university down the street from a plantation is not lost on me.
It was here, on this site of historical memory, that I gained access to the very information that I thought I’d never know. Tufts allowed me to trace my ancestry back to the plantation my ancestor Dennis was born on, and where his slave owning father Omera Flowers’ family originally came from.
I am attempting to make sense of being from everywhere and nowhere,
To fill in the gaps,
But what does it mean to make space for that which has erased you? My first white ancestor appears all across the archives, his white descendants lay claim to him and are sure to include him in their family trees. I even saw a picture of his headstone in one of them. Through the records people have been able to piece together, I’ve learned that my white Flowers ancestors originally came from Britain. I was able to trace the Flowers family back to France, noting the name change from “De Flore.” And before the De Flore family came to France, they lived in Germany for a few generations. Omera’s white descendants claim all of this history but nowhere do I see them claim his nine Black children. This erasure, this historically imposed silence, is painful. I’m trying to reckon with what I never expected to know, knowing this history will never actually acknowledge me.
I wonder often what my grandfathers would think about me if we ever met. How they think about me in whatever plane they reside in now. My skin’s darker, hair tighter, than all of theirs.
Desmond – Part II
My father’s father came to Boston from Cabo Verde in the late 1980s, his census information says he did so as a white man, over a decade after his wife and children had made the transatlantic voyage. On his homeland of 3,000 people, Brava, he was a post office clerk under the Portuguese colonial government—his side hustles included work as a quasi-public defender, shop-owner, owner of a football (read: soccer) team, and spiritual medium. A staunch defender of the colonial government by the time he was an old man, he was disgusted when independence was achieved alongside Guinea-Bissau, fearing his island nation of mestizos would be ruled by “those Blacks.” Or so his sons tell me.
My mother’s father is white, Portuguese. He met my grandmother while working as a prison guard in Portuguese-occupied Angola. Being a colonist in the 1960s was a good time. He first met my mother when she was in her mid-20s; they got lunch together in Portugal and then never saw each other again. He sends the occasional email to her asking how “his” grandchildren are doing. She doesn’t respond.
My mother’s adopted father, still not much of a father figure, was the first post-independence Angolan Minister of Defense. At 13, her mother’s husband kicked her out of the house. She tells me it was because he resented her light skin—the product of colonial desire and abandonment —living in a Kimbundu community, but grows quiet when recounting it. So she fell into being the housekeeper/permanent babysitter of a family with immense wealth, with that same hue. I look more like him than any grandfather I can claim biological relation to.
While he was fighting a guerilla war to free Angola from colonial domination, the US State Department, likely filled with graduates from our friendly-neighborhood Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, was supplying the Portuguese fascists with bombs which read “Made in America.”
He was the African Marxist to those Portuguese colonialists and collaborators who make up my “blood”—as if such a concept exists. I’ve leaned into parts of myself which are makeshift branches of a family tree. Found comfort in the warm red Angolan dirt and warmer Black faces which make up a quarter of my ancestry. My father said he never could quite understand why I decided to be Black, or associate with “that side” of myself. Why I couldn’t just be mixed, “like the rest of my family,” like my father believes himself to be. He makes me ponder all the things I’ve chosen not to be. All the things that I never could be and that I’m glad I never really wanted.
Sylvester and Desmond
Dreamed of having names our African ancestors would recognize. Dreamed of giving our children names which can’t be broken down into Latin or Gaelic translations. To be Black and to dare to imagine is to breathe life into that which history has attempted to destroy.
To be Black is to be a fugitive. From a history of apocalypse, from Blackness itself. (Or maybe it is fleeing the condition which Blackness has rendered one within). Whiteness is donning the sheriff’s badge. Manning the prison bars. To reject any semblance of the fugitive, or at least attempt to. It’s fragile, easily diluted.
We have come to grips with these histories at an institution built on erasing those it claims to champion. On stolen land developed through stolen labor, we get the opportunity to flesh out our family histories. It was as simple as an ancestry.com or Jstor subscription. And through that we find only the history of those who have given us Christianized names, lightened our skin. You won’t find my African grandmother losing five children in the midst of colonial and neo-colonial occupation in a ProQuest database search. Nor will you find mention of my great grandmother’s fights with the Klan in Alabama. But you could find several family trees with missing branches. It is here that we locate ourselves, attempting to make sense of the silences, to fill the gaps. It’s all for who, for what, exactly?