It’s been a long time since I’ve written something, save for a few lectures here and there. It’s not like I haven’t had ideas. For example, I’ve been playing with the concept of collective memory and the preservation of black culture as a means of survival, or a comparison of Margaret Bonds’s setting of Langston Hughes’s “I, Too” with Childish Gambino’s “This is America” video. (I think I’ll still work on that second one so stay tuned.) But honestly, I just haven’t felt like fleshing them out. In many ways it’s been somewhat of a difficult year, and as a result, I struggled with a fair bit of writer’s block.
Today is Memorial Day, a day that carries so many meanings for us American citizens. Growing up, it was a day that sometimes coincided with my birthday. (Don’t worry, you didn’t miss the Facebook notification – it’s May 31st.) It also seemed to mark the unofficial start of summer. Many businesses were closed (but thankfully not Shop Rite), and if the weather was good, families celebrated the long weekend outdoors with barbecues on the deck.
But on this particular Memorial Day, I found myself wanting to learn about its history. I knew it honored those men and women who lost their lives defending our country’s freedoms. But when did it actually start? The tradition began after Civil War, a war that claimed more lives than any other in American history; a war that pitted the North against the South; a war that freed slaves from centuries of bondage. There’s that word again – freedom. As both history and the present day continue to remind us, freedom remains a precarious privilege for blacks in this country. The multi-faceted and multi-generational forms of what amounts to modern slavery, such as sharecropping, poll tax, Jim Crow, and job and housing discrimination, and those individuals such as Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, whose lives were lost in an unofficial war that continues to wage quietly, and not so quietly, in this country.
I’ve been reading Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns. A poignant, poetic narrative about three individuals who were part of the Great Migration. Through their stories, she reveals just how viciously violent the Deep South remained well into the 20th century, and just how many African Americans, of varying educational and economic backgrounds knew that they had no other choice but to leave it behind. And so they left, in numbers never before seen in this country, effectively uprooting the labor force in the South, and transforming the landscape of Northern cities across the US. Bold and brave, these individuals asserted what seemed like the only right they had left, the freedom of movement.
The further I got into the book, the more I found myself thinking about my father, and his parents who risked their lives so that eventually my sisters and I could enjoy freedoms that they couldn’t have, but envisioned might be possible up North. They gave up their homes and left their families behind for the promises of something better. I’ve always wanted to ask my grandparents about their journey North, but I was too young to know the significance of their migration. When we would visit my father’s parents, I’ll always remember this look in my grandmother’s eyes. She was always quite sick, but her eyes twinkled in a way that suggested she had a story or two to tell. Even then, I knew she carried the weight of unspeakable experiences. But my father’s parents are no longer with us, and so I called my father, also known as Silver Fox, and one of the best storytellers I know around.
It was the 1950s, and my dad was growing up in Yemassee, South Carolina. His parents worked on a large plantation called Green Pond, near the river. The original plantation was owned by a slaveholder by the name of Chisolm, who also had property on Chisolm Island. Chisolm was the slave master of my grandmother’s father. My grandfather, Bernard Jackson was the overseer of the property, while my grandmother, Eloise was the house cook up at the Big House. The land was owned by a wealthy family who made their fortunes in the insurance industry. Their home at Green Pond was a weekend retreat, and they’d spend their leisure time hunting wild boar, deer, and if they were feeling adventurous, alligator. But it was the 1950s, and it was still very much the Jim Crow South, as my father put it. There were little jobs to be had, and Bernard was never paid right. In 1959 an incident occurred at Green Pond that forced Bernard and Eloise to pack up their belongings, and as my father remembers, next thing he knows, they were at the home of Eloise’s mother. She was to have a particularly strong influence on my father, for in spite of the limitations that Jim Crow placed on the Jacksons, my father said he would learn how to find peace, and he credits his grandmother for teaching him that.
The family stayed there for about one year moving North. Bernard’s first job was at a bakery in Carteret, NJ, and it was here that my father first fell in love with desserts. (He would later go on to own his own dessert shop, and while I never had much of a sweet tooth, I will always have room for my dad’s cheesecake.) Bernard then held a job doing production work in a factory, before going into landscaping. “He was an outside man,” my father recalled, so this suited him best. Meanwhile Eloise was working as a housekeeper for a nice Jewish family, who would send my father a box of books every week. And that’s how he developed his love for words and ideas.
Bernard and Eloise had it difficult from the start – Bernard came from a light-skinned family. He was a handsome man who never seemed to look his age. So when he chose Eloise, a powerful woman of a considerably darker complexion, his family shunned him. Despite the difficult circumstances that they would face over the years, they stayed together with a kind of strength I can only begin to grasp. A kind of strength that would guide them to settle miles away from Green Pond, and the lush backwoods of Yemassee. The more I learn, the more questions I have about where I come from, but today, I write with peace knowing just a little bit more about my roots. So on this Memorial Day, I’m honoring Bernard and Eloise, who together with love and courage, migrated North, so that my father and his children, would know a different kind of freedom.