Cross-posted at Womanist Musings (thanks Renee!)
I grew up in a big city in the Midwestern U.S. The neighborhood that I grew up in was a new development of small bungalows going up in a previously wooded, area, so there were woods to play in all around us, but we were really in the city. It was a very attractive place for those who were buying – young black couples who were recently migrated from the south. My parents both had had rural upbringings in the south, as did most everyone I knew in my neighborhood. We grew up knowing “down home” meant the places our parents, many of them with their southern accents, sayings and folkways intact, had come from. We northern city kids inherited much of that upbringing, although our circumstances were different than our parents.
My parents came north to find work and a life that the segregated south would not easily offer (which is not to say that life in the north was all butterflies and rainbows). My dad came, as hundreds/thousands of others did, to work in the auto plants. If I think about it, practically all of my friends had fathers, uncles, cousins that worked in either in auto or steel manufacturing. These were among the first good jobs – union jobs, too – that opened up to blacks. My mom had come because she had family up north already; an uncle and aunt and their kids – from the same small town in Florida she was from. After my parents met and married, they lived in an apartment near my mother’s relatives for a while. This apartment was in a densely populated, inner city area. When the opportunity came up to move to the new house in the neighborhood described above, where there were lawns and woods all around, they jumped at the chance.
While we lived in that house, our personal family migration story continued. Aunts, uncles, cousins – a whole assortment of relatives streamed through, living with us a couple of weeks, a few months or in one case several years, until they found work and settled into their own homes. That’s what happened in lots of families. The chance to buy a home… to own property was huge.
And although in my childhood memory there was plenty of space to roam, in reality these were tiny little houses on tiny little plots of land, in a corner of the city where our families were allowed to live in relative peace. It was starting out as a black neighborhood. However, in other parts of the city, the white parts, when black people moved in, whites moved out. If they didn’t move out of the city altogether to the suburbs, they moved further west – the white side of town.
A while back, Ding over at BitchPhd wrote a post that talked about the importance of land for black families:
The new Skip Gates special on PBS is full of these stories of passing, diaspora, disappearance and reinvention.
What strikes me about some of these early stories of lost family members reclaimed is how prominent black-owned land figures into them and how crucial the land is to forming early black identity as well as ideas of freedom and citizenship. The program begins with Gates visiting the land his family has owned for 6 generations and passes by a parcel of land his family had owned but had to sell. Since part of their own genealogical story is lost to them, their farm acts like an anchor for their identity. In subsequent conversations with celebrities like Chris Rock, Tina Turner, Morgan Freeman, Don Cheadle or Tom Joyner, Gates reveals that their families had once owned land – 40 acres, 62 acres, 65 acres – donating or selling some of their land to build schools or churches. The revelations about property and land ownership become a source of pride in their family.
What is it that Rock says – If he had known this before, it would have taken away the inevitability that he would be nothing. And property is usually the vehicle for these stories to come to light; it acts like a bracket around early black families: you were property and now you have property.
At the turn of the century blacks owned between 12-15 million acres of land; by the 30s and 40s that number shrinks to just a little over a million. For many of these black families the land is a foundation to build their newly acquired identities as freed people that suddenly disappears, forcing their story to jump, only to be picked up further down the line. What happened? What happened in those intervening years? Did African Americans just suddenly decide, “Hm, you know, owning land sucks. Let’s pick up and go north”? Usually something else happened to make a family, or even a whole black town, disperse.
(Read the whole post here.)
She cites Torn from the Land, an investigation into the loss of black families’ land between the period of reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement:
In an 18-month investigation, The Associated Press documented a pattern in which black Americans were cheated out of their land or driven from it through intimidation, violence and even murder.
In some cases, government officials approved the land-takings; in others, they took part in them. The earliest occurred before the Civil War; others are being litigated today.
Some of the land taken from black families has become a country club in Virginia, oilfields in Mississippi, a baseball spring-training facility in Florida.
The United States has a long history of bitter land disputes, from range wars in the Old West to broken treaties with American Indians. Poor white landowners, too, were sometimes treated unfairly, pressured to sell at rock-bottom prices by railroads and mining companies.
The fate of black landowners has been an overlooked part of this story.
The AP — in an investigation that included interviews with more than 1,000 people and the examination of tens of thousands of public records — documented 107 land-takings in 13 Southern and border states.
In those cases alone, 406 black landowners lost more than 24,000 acres of farm and timberland plus 85 smaller properties, including stores and city lots. Today, virtually all of this property, valued at tens of millions of dollars, is owned by whites or corporations.
Properties taken from blacks were often small — a 40-acre farm, a modest house. But the losses were devastating to families struggling to overcome the legacy of slavery.
Anti-racism education makes the connection between white privilege and generational wealth. This flies in the face of the American myth of “pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps.” In this society, poor people are blamed for their poverty – the reason people are poor, we think, is because they are lazy, or they don’t have good judgment, they have poor morals or they just are not smart. We don’t acknowledge that generational wealth (as one example – there are many others) makes a huge difference in the life of an individual (and therefore a family, and thus a community), and this is absolutely connected to having property. When people have property that they can pass on to their children or other relatives, this makes a difference.
Of course, it is not only about owning land, which is not a universal concept, anyway. When people don’t have to pull up stakes because no one will hire you because of the body you inhabit, this makes a difference. When people move out of neighborhoods that suddenly become “undesirable” this makes a difference.
So it is not only the monetary value of the land. The ability to move freely about is a kind of capital, too. It is knowing that you belong somewhere; that you fit in, that you have an identity and being treated accordingly. It is the ability to not have your very presence be so offensive to people that they want to annihilate you and those who look like, or act like you. And so, while I am reflecting here upon the past, this is not simply a story of the past. People who inhabit bodies that are considered “wrong” are fair game for mistreatment. Some bodies do not matter… not then, not now.
Native peoples, whose identity is closely connected to the land, were murdered or run off land they had inhabited for centuries. Of those who survived, many of their children endured “kill the Indian, save the man” campaigns that were meant to “civilize” them; make them American, make them white… by denying their language, cutting their hair, keeping them away from their communities… so much more. Refusing to abandon their cultures cost them the right to move freely about in wider society. The trauma of this sustained pattern of genocide is evident today.
For my people, the descendants of Africans who were enslaved, there is a different story, but a parallel one. Enslaved people owned no property; they did not even own themselves. Even their children and their partners, (should they be allowed to marry), could be taken away from them in an instant – sold away to someone else. Even our names do not belong to us. There are not many generations that I can count in my family tree; there is no land that I can point to and say, “This is where my people come from.” Several years ago, my daughter and I visited Nigeria – it was my first trip to an African country. While we were there, many people welcomed us, welcomed us “home.” But one man I talked to spoke the truth when he said that he had sorrow for African Americans, because we “do not know where our village is.”
I do not know where my village is. Does it matter? Should it matter? On the surface, perhaps it does not. I prefer to live in a world where I can connect to people beyond the fact of shared bloodline – after all, I am the mother of an adopted child. I have friends whose ties to me run much, much deeper than blood. I want to create a world where people do not align themselves into tribes with boundaries that cannot be breached, whatever those boundaries happen to be. Yet, I cannot help but believe that the combination of this “homelessness” and the reality that my people have been reviled for most of our history in this country feed into a communal psyche that is damaged and goes untreated.
My parents grew up under the system of segregation. They saw the signs that said “colored” and “white.” They learned the corresponding message that they were thought to be so … what? Inhuman? Unclean? Diseased? …that they could not share space – eat… work… watch movies… worship – with white people. What does that do to a people, generation after generation? Yet we are told slavery was a long time ago, segregation is illegal. Get over it. Move on.
I believe this is a wound that has not been healed in the souls of my people. I don’t know that it can be. Last Tuesday, the U.S. House of Representatives passed an official apology for slavery and segregation. Reparations were not mentioned as part of the apology – I believe the resolution would never have made the floor had they been. Many people believe an apology without the offer of restitution is meaningless. Perhaps so. But the acknowledgement that it happened, and it was wrong, and that the repercussions are long-lasting…. is a tiny bit of salve on that wound.