By Lydia Holt
Have you ever heard your common English man or woman boasting that they come from royalty? No. And they actually have a royal family. So why do we feel the need to affirm ourselves, our blackness, our worthiness, with claims that we come from kings and queens? More often than not, accompanied by images of Egyptian pharaohs? (And by the way, Cleopatra was Greek.) Don't get me wrong, I understand the need to remind ourselves that we weren't some slack-jawed, half-human, bottom dwellers, taken from the heart of darkness and thrust into the light of American slavery, but human beings with a rich cultural heritage. I get that. However, most of my ancestors, like most of us Americans that are descended from slaves, came from West Africa, and I doubt very highly that they were royalty.
More than likely, they were ordinary people. My many times great-grandparents—let’s call one of these couples Kwame and Afia—had a house, perhaps even a small compound, where they lived near Kwame’s parents and male siblings in a quiet village. They tended a small garden and had some chickens and maybe even a goat or two. One day all hell breaks loose. Hoodlums from a neighboring village overrun the compound burning down houses, brandishing strange weapons with exploding tips and throwing crudely made rope nets over people as they try to escape. Next thing Afia knows, Kwame has disappeared and is maybe even dead. She's tied to a bunch of other folk, walking through the bush for days on end until they reach the coast.
Can you imagine seeing the ocean for the very first time having spent your entire life living inland? I grew up in North Texas and didn't visit a beach until I was nine or so, but even now, as an adult, I am often awestruck by the power and beauty of the ocean. Afia must have heard the roar of the sea long before she saw it. Who knows if she could fully take in its magnificence, traumatized as she must have been, and who knows what she thought of the white men she saw. She sees the ocean only briefly before being shuttled into the belly of a fortress to wait for days maybe even weeks, huddled together with her fellow captives, sitting in her own feces, urine, and menstrual blood.
My sister and I joke that the only way anyone survived the Middle Passage was through the will to survive and a sense of humor. We picture Afia, shackled to a dead body, cracking jokes with a friend she's made in the cargo hold of the ship, and talking smack about their captors between bouts of agonizing pain and sadness. We all know it didn’t get any better once she reached the Caribbean and then the U.S. A few generations later my ancestors made the treks from the Carolinas (on my mother's side) and Virginia (on my father's side) to the Great State of Texas, and five generations later, here I am in Brooklyn, NY.
I respect and revere my ancestors not because they were chiefs or kings or queens, but because they are my people. They endured more pain and sorrow than I could ever possibly imagine with strength and dignity, and I like to think, cracking a few jokes along the way. To Afia and Kwame, respect!