Rooting in the Past

In her recent column, “Rooting Around in the Past,” (Newsweek, October 28, 2009, p. 24), Raina Kelley reflects on the way media have handled news about Michelle Obama’s mixed racial ancestry.

Thanks to the research of NY Times researcher Megan Smolenyak, her South Carolina slave ancestors and the white father of her great-great-grandfather now stand silhouetted in history’s shadows, revealing an oft-denied but pervasive fact about our American heritage.

In response Raina Kelley asks “Where’s the acknowledgment that such discoveries could unleash strong, ungovernable feelings in the living relatives…?” “Black people know, intellectually, that they come from bondage, but it’s another thing to confront the details of those ties and explore them emotionally.”

Even as the internet age makes it possible to know more and more “facts” about our past, knowing them is not enough to bring about a healing, for there will always be vast voids, where there is not a whisper of our linkage to our origins or other people.

Moreover, cold facts do not provide us with rituals, dramas, and emotional strength to transform our lives. As she reflects on these gaps in her own knowledge, Kelley writes of the traumatized memories of her own lineage, “Though no one was eager to fill in the blanks, silence never erased the damage.”

It is this longing for an often-traumatic memory of connection and the sharp pain that we will never know the lines of linkage binding our humanity together that led to the narrative of Red Clay, Blood River. In writing it I hoped to give voice to a somewhat inchoate sense that in loving and caring for this earth we begin to heal this broken memory and renew these violated bonds.

My thanks to Ms. Kelley for giving voice to the painfulness of memory and our need for healing.