He signed his name with an X
The things you’ll find lurking in the black hole of Black history
Dona Bowens explores the Black holes in her culture – searching for her cousins via the gold nuggets, diamonds and sausages of her ancestry
By the time I was born, my Aunt Mon already had seventy years of living under her belt. When I walked into her nursing home to interview her for my university project, she smiled and greeted me with, “You looking just like my sister Della. She was fat, too.”
Aunt Mon had witnessed everything the 20th century had to offer – The Great War, The Roaring Twenties, The Great Depression, a second world war, Jim Crow and The Civil Rights Movement. She’d earned the right to call me fat. As far as I’m concerned it was a compliment coming from this Black woman, my auntie, who’d known segregation and The Depression. Being stout probably meant you had plenty of plenty.
A sophomore in college, I had come to Aunt Mon to record our family story. I was wrestling with the tape recorder when she admonished me to, “Forget it. Listen.” When the matriarch speaks you snap to. She started with, “I was born on the farm in Rockmart, Georgia…” She was our last living link to slavery and this was 1991 – so don’t believe the hype when people try to tell you that the whole slavery unpleasantness was just so long ago.
I don’t know about the rest of the world, but Americans are some genealogy-tracing mofos. A nation of mostly immigrants trying to figure out through census records, deeds and DNA exactly when they jumped into that proverbial melting pot. Everybody except for Native Americans, who were invaded, and Black Americans, who were imported. My family were imports and yet not given the dignity of an imported bottle of wine. At least with imported wine you know where it comes from, the name and date of its creation. Slaves, not so much. So, there’s a black hole in my personal history that’s nearly impossible to fill.
At best, Black Americans can reach back a century or two. You have to get lucky since Black folks weren’t given names in census records prior to 1870. Aunt Mon was my luck. Mon being short for “Money.” Imagine what hopes her parents had to give her a name like Money. Parents who’d known the brutalities of slavery probably had to give their children names full of hope and ambition. Aunt Mon’s parents were such people and, as she told me about them that evening in Ohio, I wondered what they would have thought of their great-great granddaughter and her university project. Did they imagine when they named Money, that one of their descendants would be at college with her biggest complaint being that she couldn’t afford to go anywhere on spring break? While I would go on to collect a few university degrees, Aunt Mon had a 4th grade education while her father, born into slavery, signed his name with an X.
White Americans are touchy as all get out about slavery. Mention slavery and white Americans get fidgety like they just heard an audible fart during the national anthem. I’ve rarely heard anyone admit that, “Yes, my ancestors owned people,” let alone, “Not only did we own people but my ancestors committed unspeakable acts that now leave me searching for the African half of my family here in the United States of America.” I’m avoiding the “R” word to describe those “unspeakable” acts because, like I said, touchy. And touchy people can be dangerous people.
However, there’s plenty of touchy to go around. Black people are just as snappish about what went on in the slave quarters as white folks. We know full well that our roots are as likely to reach back to England as Angola, but if you acknowledge that, with your light brown skin hanging out for all to see, you risk being declared uppity. Nobody wants that, so explain away your coloration by introducing a Cherokee to the family tree. <insert “eye roll” GIF here>
But Aunt Mon had no such squeamishness when she spoke of “Uncle Glenn,” her father’s all white, half-brother. I remember feeling stunned that she so casually mentioned this white man and bestowed upon him the honorific “Uncle” as if they exchanged Christmas cards and he manned the grill at the family cookout. Well, apparently something like that did happen. White Uncle Glenn visited often, Aunt Mon told me, helping his formally enslaved brother to buy his first car and he even helped his brother to get a good government job delivering the mail even though he couldn’t read. It’s comforting to know that at least that hasn’t changed; getting good government jobs is often about who you know more than what you know. That good government job helped my family go from illiterate to college graduates in three generations.
Now I had a name. Glenn. Thank God white people like to document themselves ad nauseum. While Aunt Mon couldn’t take me any further down the Black side of the family than her paternal grandmother, whom she called “The African”, Google told me that The Big House branch of the family passed the Glenn name from generation to generation. I found that the latest Glenn goes around the world surfing, completely unaware that his cousin (me) has been cyberstalking him for years. Fear of rejection keeps me from introducing myself even though I carry the Big House in my skin.
Someone, maybe me, needs to write a self-help book titled: “How To Reconcile When Your Cousin’s Grandaddy Enslaved His Own Son Who Happens To Be Your Grandaddy.” I’m fiddling with the title. Maybe I should just go with “All The Shit in the Family: How to Flush It.”
I like to imagine Uncle Glenn and my great-great grandfather sitting on the porch, drinking liquor out of Mason jars and reminiscing about how their daddy took a switch to them for one mischief or another. Their shared daddy who fought in a war to keep one of his sons as property. And when that scheme failed, he then helped his formerly enslaved son to buy property of his own in the form of land. Holding all these contradictions in your dome can cause your head to explode. No wonder white America is touchy about those centuries of history and Black Americans dare not mention these entanglements so as not to de-brutalize slavery.
Finally, I wrote an email and pressed the send button. It only took me the better part of a decade to do so. And now I wait…
I refresh and refresh again my Gmail account waiting on that rejection. But this isn’t one of those classic rejections that I’m preparing to slink away from like a mongrel shoved away from the cooking pot. This isn’t an unrequited love or an email sent to ask, “Are you my daddy?” My email says, “Hey, fam! Guess what? We’re fam! You’re from the side of the family that lived in the Big House while I’m from the side that picked the cotton. Oh, Antebellum America. So! How about a family reunion – but no whips and chains this time, ok?”
In the end, my introductory email isn’t sitting in Surfer Glenn’s inbox. I sent my “Guess Who’s Coming to the Family Reunion” email to another white cousin with initials for a name; W.S., who runs an ancestry site in which Uncle Glenn stars as well as my Confederate Grandaddy – the one who caused all my rejection angst because he decided to lead a contradictory life. If I ever met Confederate Grandaddy, I might ask him for some reparations for my mental health.
W.S. runs the family genealogy site as a hobby. I squinted at his picture trying to see a familiarity there. The first thing I’m going to do when I finally meet my long-lost fam in person is to look at their teeth. No matter our varying shades of brown, an unusual percentage of my known family has a pronounced gap in the front teeth. Some of us have forked over thousands to orthodontists to remedy this, while others have had their dentures made with the gap because, “I want to look like myself.” Has the white side of my family also nodded in acceptance when the baby’s choppers came in all spaced out.
The internet being what it is, and thanks to the work of W.S., I clicked myself from Uncle Glenn in 19th century America all the way back to 18th century Germany. Discovering that I have German ancestry blew back my wig. Started checking myself for stereotypes. I’m not efficient or organized but I do love a good sausage and a beer. Now that I think about it, my German ancestry isn’t so far-fetched. This one time, in a Berlin dive bar, I bumped and grinded the night away with the natives to such R&B classics as, “Oops! Upside Your Head.” That’s some deep cut funk, my friends. I remember remarking to my travel partner, “What, these people know about this?”
So, the black hole of my existence fills in a bit. But I’m still unsatisfied. It’s like I found a gold nugget just sitting there on the banks of the river. Didn’t have to work too hard for it, just got lucky. Valuable though it is, I still want to find the diamond that is my African ancestry. That’s going to take some digging and sadly, I just don’t have the tools for that.
If I could, I’d trace my origins all the way back to the Big Bang when each of us was nothing more than a string of DNA. I want to know the creature, with a little piece of me in its cells, that climbed out of the sludge and sucked air for the first time. These types of thoughts buoy me in low moments. Just remind myself that some form of me has managed to survive since the sun was a pup, so I guess I’ll survive my rent being late.
In the meantime, while I wait for what W.S. might have to say, maybe I should get myself to Jettenburg, Germany. When I get off the plane, with a couple of Mason jars full of liquor, I have half a mind to shout, “I’m home, bitches!”
Coda: Since I started writing this, since pressing send 5 days ago, I’ve received a response. Do you want to know what W.S. said? He said, “Hello, Cousin Dona.”
What’s so good about this?
During an age in which people are segregating themselves into smaller and smaller bubbles, this piece reminds us that you can’t always choose your family, and sometimes that’s a good thing. Out of something as abhorrent as slavery comes new familial connections, the bravery to forgive the past, and a willingness to occupy many cultural bubbles.
Meet the writer
Raised in the ‘hood and refined in The Ivy League, Dona E. Bowens is one of those rare individuals who can enjoy a plate of chitlins while pontificating on the work of Stendhal. Before escaping to Barcelona, Dona E. Bowens was born in Akron, Ohio followed by stints in Philly, New Jersey and DC. She is the author of the novel Going Ivy and the short story collection, The Police Woman’s Daughter: Short Stories of Growing Up Under The Watchful Eye of the Law, among other publications. Follow @DonaEBowens.