‘Chile,’ We Don’t Even Know the Half!: A Reflection on African American History — The Soul of American History

By: Antipas Harris
Tuesday, February 4th, 2014

bhmFall 2013, I was blessed at the invitation of Archbishop Idem Ikon of Revival Valley Ministries International to travel Nigeria for the first time! The experience was  another life-changing one. In the picture to the lower right, I stood in a beautiful garden just off of the shores of  a river in Cross River.

This could be my ancestor’s home – I don’t know! That very area where I stood, gazing into the beautiful greenery is where, during the late 18th–early 19th centuries, many African people were forced to board slave ships to begin a 6 month (or more) journey to the Americas.

I, also, visited the slave museum that was just a few feet away from where I am standing. To hear the story from the African perspective on those grounds was surreal and heart wrenching. I left thinking (in southern vernacular), “‘Chile,’ we don’t even know the half!” Our ancestors endured greater torture than Hollywood is able to re-imagine, and definitely more than the US History books even seem to try to depict – but they probably couldn’t do it complete justice if they tried.Antipas under tree in Old Calabar

Did you know that approx. 41% (that’s nearly 50%) of African slaves were  Nigerian; Many of them left Calabar (Cross River State) for the Americas. It is moreover, safe to say that I was quite close to ground zero of my ancestors – though I always feel at home in Africa. The culture is rich and revealing. I see myself in the faces of many of my brothers and sisters there. After multiple trips to the African soil, I have come to understand the African American culture better as well, its richness, value, and dignity.black slaves

What strikes me, however, is the limited exposure of the African American story in US History courses. These folks were the original machine that manufactured the economic, cultural and social foundation of this country — I call their significance in history the “soul of American history.” Bishop Richard Allen, founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, eloquently put it this way, “Our ancestors (not of choice) were the first successful cultivators of the wilds of America.”

The problem is that so many of the stories remain absent from contemporary mainstream education and historical, sociological, theological and ideological discourse. There are many reasons for this – to name a few: 1. African Americans have traditionally placed greater emphasis on oral history more than written history. So many of the stories have gotten lost as we assimilated into the dominate culture; 2. With the exception of some key resources and stories, African Americans have not preserved the narrative through the level of upkeep and investment (money and otherwise) into the resources – museums, documentaries, books, etc – that are necessary to keep the narrative on the forefront of our conversations and reflections; 3. Mainstream American History has marginalized the intensity of slavery from the central interests of the nation’s history. Sometimes, the most difficult references are side bar references when they speak volumes to the racist fiber with which the country was assembled — we don’t want those historical fibers to show too boldly. 4. Most of us only deal with the issue of African American history — particularly slave narratives and Jim Crow — during the month of February. This is not only a tragedy but a travesty. We must integrate the Black experience with greater intention if we are to attempt to tell the truth about who our country has been and who we want to become.

Ella Baker said, “One of the things that has to be faced in the process of waiting to change the system, how much we have got to do to find out who we are, where we have come from and where we are going.” Thank God for the few African Americans who jotted down the portions of history that they did. Else, more of it would be lost. The work of people like Frederick Douglass and others help to paint the picture of the often de-emphasized flagrancy of the African American slave narrative.

The dehumanization of slavery was only part of it. A lot of the African American experience during Jim Crow as well as much of the illegal torture in-between and afterwards remain buried in history. The blood of our ancestors moan from the decay of the bush of African lands, scream from the ocean floors of the Atlantic, muzzled in the soils of American cruelty, and stripped from the mainstream narrative in America. More than a year or two of information remain in the soil.

We know more about Middle Eastern archeology from 2000 years ago than we know about 175 or more years of our own history – by “our” I mean American history (the significant segment of the African American experience). Fact is that the African narrative in this country tortures the romanticized “Christian” American history that we rather talk about. No wonder Douglass challenged the so-called claim of a “Christian” nation saying, “Between the Christianity of this land and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference.” Well, Douglass, you should know about Jim Crow!

I grew up after the Civil Rights Movement. Thank God I did! But, as a young college graduate in the late 90s, waiting to go to graduate school, I served as substitute teacher at Manchester High School in Manchester, Georgia. Several students confided in me that because of their inter-racial (black and white) dating preferences; their families were tortured with burning crosses in their yards. Really? In the oncoming 21st century? Thankfully, I did not experience any of that level of torture. But, I do know what it means to be profiled. My brothers and I used to travel the country as a singing group – called A7.

On at least two occasions – one was in Northern Florida and the other in Kentucky – we stopped to gas-up. It was very early in the morning in Kentucky. As we walked into the store, the cashier said, “No! Y’all can’t come in here together!”

Now, each of us was either in college for the first and second time or getting ready to go to college. Despite the ministry; despite the education; despite the healthy family with educated and saved parents, we are black! We could cure ignorance through education; we could shun sin through salvation and commitment to faith and purity; but we can’t cure our dark skin pigmentation; we can’t shun bigotry and racial profiling when the residue of a heinous history remains on the walls of contemporary culture.

‘Chile,’ we don’t know the half of what our ancestors endured!  I have searched for my own genealogy and can only piece it together until the late 1800s – post slavery! The rest vanished like the winds in the Antebellum South. I have mixed heritage but mostly black until early 20th century when two Native American brothers were also sold as servants off the rivers of Georgia – but that is another story for another day. As for my African heritage, Ancestry.com is a great resource, but it can’t recreate birth documents that did not exist. It cannot show pictures there were long destroyed – if ever taken. It cannot tell me who the slave masters were who brutally drug my ancestors across the Atlantic. My African ancestors were also packed on slave ships like animals and treated worse than animals. But, thank God they made it!

I observe my dark skin, hair texture, and fat nose and that of my family.  We have been told and can logically conclude that we are of African descent. But we can’t trace our roots to the motherland. What tribes exist in my blood stream? What king or chief sold my ancestors – if we cant trace his name, can we at least trace the history to the nation? No! Carter G. Woodson, the founder of Black History Month, correctly commented, “Those who have no record of what their forebears have accomplished lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history.”

Thank God for Jesus shedding His blood. Importantly, I know that I belong to Him.

But I will never be able to put together the human story that shaped my heritage – not because of a love story of adoption into families that loved them. Rather, I can only imagine that they were scourged and mistreated. They were forced to plant and pick cotton while the cotton pricked their skin till it dripped with blood and the hot sun fried their dark skin. They planted and harvested crop and fruit with muzzles on their mouths to prohibit them from eating of the harvest. Their punishments were merciless floggings, starvation, and hanging from trees with ropes around their waists, intensifying the torture so that other slaves would fear!

Not to mention Jim Crow. Thank God my great grandfather was not shot dead or lynched! But, I have heard the stories of mystery deaths and disappearances. Thank God my great great grandmother was not killed. She was black and my great great grandfather was white — in Georgia??! Hmmm. Rape case? Not sure! Educated guess? …probably so!

Chile, we don’t know thet half of what our ancestors had to endure. But we have several opportunities: 1. Discuss and discover what we can beyond the worn out (but important) stories and characters from history who we know so well — we all know who they are; 2. Record our contemporary history so that the future will hold the archives of today; 3. Invest more (financially and otherwise) into the existing museums and archives that we do have to ensure the best quality of experience and upkeep — this is a need here in the Americas and at the Slave museums in Africa; 4. We can’t expect others to integrate the African narrative into the mainstream education. We (the African people) need to take up the task, unashamedly; 5. We need to reflect on all of American history at all time without excluding the African American narrative just because we want to be “American” rather than “African American.”

As Morgan Freeman says, “Black History is American History.” Let’s treat it that way for the sake of our unsung [s]heroes, for the sake of posterity; but also, for the sake of discovering the richness of our country — with all of its greatness and horror.

W.E.B. Dubois once said, “One is astonished in the study of history at the recurrence of the idea that evil must be forgotten, distorted, skimmed over. We must not remember that Daniel Webster got drunk but only that he was a splendid constitutional lawyer. We must forget that George Washington was a slave owner . . . and simply remember the things we regard as creditable and inspiring. The difficulty, of course, with this philosophy is that history loses its value as an incentive and example; it paints perfect man and noble nations, but it does not tell the truth.”

‘Chile,’ we don’t even know the half!

The gospel groups and choirs can’t sing past this history; the baptist deacon can’t pray past it; the sanctified folk can’t dance past it; white folks can’t hold their breath long enough in toleration of the February Federal pacifier on “Black History;” black folks can’t have hold enough programs, prayer breakfasts, and eat enough corn bread and collard greens (Soul Food) to truly mourn and celebrate the legacy.

We have to confront history and preserve the joys as well as the enduring horror that have shaped us. These are precious memories when ALL of us pay homage to those lives lost at the hands of cruelty. They planted the seeds for this nation and cultivated the soils upon which today’s harvest is reaped.

Do we really think that Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr, Rosa Parks and others (as important as their stories are) bear the full weight of Black History? Do we really think that having Barack Obama as first African American President places a slab on the degradation of slavery and black folk’s experience under Jim Crow?

It’s time we finally realize that February can’t contain the depth and breath of the untold stories and more of the narrative that we CAN tell.

Marcus Garvey insightfully commented, “The history of a movement, the history of a nation, the history of a race is the guide-post of that movement’s destiny, that nation’s destiny, that race’s destiny.” As a whole, we the people of the United States need to dig deeper, learn, and celebrate the past for a better plunge into the future — a  future that is more complex and diverse than the past. We have yet to correctly and accurately process the past for a more critical, enlightened, and positive outlook on the future. And we need more than one month to do this.

‘Chile,’ we don’t even know the half!

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Antipas Harris
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