Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Stories We Need to Read

A few books from my personal collection

Yesterday, was Alex Haley's birthday. A genealogy blogger mentioned it and from there, some interesting dialogue emerged. The discussions  about the merits of the work of Alex Haley's Roots, took me back to a conversation that I had over 10 years ago.

What came out of that conversation was the fact that for over 150 years, an entire nation had never been presented with the stories of those once enslaved people as human beings with loves, losses, trials, triumphs and basically human needs and conditions. Now, I had started a piece about this some time ago and had never posted it, but in light of the discussion about the merits of "Roots", I am compelled to share some of my thoughts here.  My point is that there is a lesson greater than Roots--and that, for me is the need to put the human face and to insert our own family journey into our history.


"But, I don't read romance novels," I explained to my good friend who was also my genealogy buddy. She had recommended that I read a novel that she had recently enjoyed and suggested that I read it as well. The book was called Topaz, and it was a romance novel by writer Beverly Jenkins.

"Well, it has your people in it," she explained. "It has people from Indian Territory and the main character was a Freedmen, a Black Seminole in fact."

Ok, I admit that she caught my attention with that, and I listened while my friend Argyrie explained to me, why I had to read this book that took place on the western frontier. She pointed out that there were Black US Deputy Marshals, in the novel, and that the plot unfolded in 19th century America, with the main character escorting a group of women bound for a town similar to that of Nicodemus Kansas, the black town on the Kansas frontier. I know a lot about the Black Marshals and have written about them on one of my websites. So, I decided to read it.

Now, I should explain, that I have ancestors from Indian Territory, which is now Oklahoma. My gr. grandparents were Freedmen from the Choctaw Nation, and since 1991, I have continually studied and researched the history of the Freedmen, once enslaved in the Five Civilized Tribes, (Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek and Seminole nations.) So I was curious to see what author Beverly Jenkins would do to my ancestral community in her novel.

Well, I not only enjoyed it, but also, noted that the author, Beverly Jenkins got her history right! Next, I read Night Song, the story of a Black frontier school teacher, a freed woman who had a complicated relationship with a Buffalo Soldier. Her books were classified as "romance" novels, but I read them for their historical content.

And I read book after book---Indigo revealed amazing story of a free woman of color working on the Underground Railroad, and her experiences assisting people to freedom. Then, Vivid exposed me to life for women in the late 19th century who dared to enter the field of medicine when women were not encouraged to do so. And what a history lesson it was, learning about the all black settlements in 19th century Michigan! Then it hit me! I had for the very first time, read a novel that reflected people that I knew, people that I research and people who were my own people!

Three book covers by author Beverly Jenkins

Now, as I child as I was an avid reader, and I had read Jubilee many years ago, and it provided my very first glimpse into the story of people enslaved. It was a sobering book and it was also a poignant and painful book to read.

Jubilee by Margaret Walker was first published in 1966

Then came Roots, by Alex Haley. This too told a painful story beginning in coastal African and ending in in the deep south. But, somehow for me Roots put a human face on people enslaved. I remembered reading Jubilee when I was a teenager, and I recall how sad I felt after reading it. I was enlightened, yes, but sad nevertheless. And I had the same emotion with Roots, even after watching the parts of the mini-series that I could bear to watch.

Cover of Roots by Alex Haley

After hearing  about the historical inaccuracies in Haley's work, the story however, of the ancestral family of Alex Haley stuck with me, because I know that at least for the first time, on film, I saw the enslaved as people with feelings, heartbreak, dreams, though many times deferred. And I know that somewhere in the story of Kizzy, and Chicken George, no matter how much he erred in telling the story--they were still part of my story, too.

And now, here I was three decades later, long after Roots  I finally had new stories that reflected my own people---as human beings facing the challenges of life, without the backdrop of absolute adversity, of American slavery.

For the first time, as I read Ms. Jenkins works, I read stories reflecting people of color facing their lives, without slavery as the one and only backdrop. In fact, the characters presented by Ms. Jenkins were simply what I needed--men and women, like my own ancestors, facing life! And her characters were not victims, and were in charge of their own destinies as people--and I then understood what I had so long needed! So, I realized that as important as facing and embracing history was I also needed the stories of survival and resilience!

And perhaps as story told with Roots it gave the readers a much needed glimpse that there were such stories! So Mr. Haley had put a crack in the wall if nothing else. And once the wall was cracked--our stories have begun to come forth!

I learned that Ms. Jenkins was an avid history buff who liked to write, and she infused true history in to the lives of her fictional characters. And it must still be noted that Alex Haley put a human face and name to people enslaved.

I cannot help but wonder if perhaps because of his story, errors and all, Ms. Jenkins could come forth, years later, and allow her readers to visualize the lives of those once enslaved, who could emerge and who would carve out lives their own lives, in freedom! I know how I felt when I had learned of a writer who went far beyond static photos of people frozen in sepia toned images, and staring back from a plantation estate.

Now as a genealogist trying to tell the stories of my own ancestors, I still appreciate what Alex Haley did. He took the enslaved beyond the one dimensional caricatures of slaves and moved them from the horrid fiction of the 1930s and he let them speak. And the he also encouraged me to find my own story. And as I sought my own story, what a surprise to find some of my own ancestors as slaves in Indian Territory, enslaved once in an Indian tribe,--a still widely unknown aspect of America's story.

Enrollment Card from the Dawes Records reflecting my great grandparents
National Archives Publication M1186. Choctaw Freedman Card No 777

In recent years, I have come to read the works of others who also tell the unique stories that they have to tell. And many of these writers are from varying backgrounds.

I appreciate the work of retired professor Carolyn Schriber. who in her work The Road to Frogmore, described what it was like to work on a post Civil War plantation and how workers fared, as they struggled with exposing freedom to people who had never known it before. Her description of those once enslaved revealed the Freedmen as human beings and not as flat or static caricatures.

As one who explores family history, community history and also stories from the Civil War, I realize that it is critical that we embrace the stories from those who can tell them in an historical context. We need to know how they lived, to be able to truly show the value of what we have discovered.

So, I have come to appreciate the value of historical fiction, and the historical narratives as both being a part of how we view ourselves. And it is also through art that we find that life is reflected, and writing, when done well, is part of the world from which we find the answers to the questions we ask about ourselves.

So the discussions that arose yesterday,  about Alex Haley in social media were stimulating for so many reasons. And as one who dares to attempt to tell the stories of my own ancestors, I am still grateful for the possibilities given to me, by Mr. Haley, telling his story.

And as I tell that story, I shall not be distracted by time or the need to "finish the story" quickly, nor shall I be tempted to "borrow" the words of others. The story, when told, will be my own, and the resources will have to be cited clearly.

But on an even larger level, I hope to see more writers emerge in the genre of historical fiction, simply because we need them.

-I need to see and to read the stories of Freedmen of Indian Territory.
-I want to read details of the lives of Black homesteaders in Nebraska.
-I await the stories of settling down in Nicodemus.
-I look forward to learning what life was like for the Gandy dancers
-I yearn for those stories from the contraband camps.
-And I hope to hear the voices of nurses and matrons from the Civil War.

I know however, that the scenarios from Roots gave us the courage to tell our own stories. And even with the inaccuracies of his story, Alex Haley has earned his place.

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Articles from Social Media


Carolyn Schriber said...

I was deeply moved by your comments, Angela. I always worry about "getting it right" when I write about the Freedmen of South Carolina. I'm starting a new book on the Reconstruction era, so I will continue to struggle with this effort to make the characters "real."
Thanks for the encouragement.

Valerie Elkins said...

Excellent post Angela! Thank you for encouraging us to know, share and cherish our family stories.