This letter is part of our "Letters to Our Ancestors" project. In celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, we've asked members of our community to share their own letters to our forefathers. With these letters, we hope to look back on the progress our community has made and give thanks to those who helped pave the way. You can see them all here.
When I first started gathering together these amazing people to help with this project, I struggled with what would become my own letter to my ancestors. I had worked so hard to keep the parameters of these letters so broad for our varied participants, that when it was time to write my own, I was stumped.
At first, I was planning to write a letter to my great-great-(great?) grandfather. According to family legend, he came here from the West Indies as a free Black man and a carpenter. He would work on plantations as a skilled laborer, building artisan wooden home goods (like intricate cabinets, elaborate dining furniture, etc). It was on one of these jobs, that he met my great-great-(great?) grandmother, who was a slave. He fell in love and struck a deal to build a set of special cabinets for her owner to buy her freedom and marry her. According to legend, they lived happily ever after (or at least as happily as one could in those times in the shaky position of free blacks in the South).
This story has been told to me many times over the years, mainly by my paternal grandmother then later by my Dad and Uncle. It was my first true love story and in making it's place into my heart at an early age, it also helped shape it. It ingrained in me a picture of what enduring Black love looks like. It was going to be the basis of my letter today, but when I sat down to write it, a different love story smacked me in the face. So rather than a letter about that love, I'd like to take a few moments to say a few things about the woman who first told me that story.
My grandmother (Miss Brown to you) was the kind of woman that could sell ice to an Eskimo on a snowy Arctic day. Raised in Macon, Ga, in the 20's and 30's, among many things we can list that in her lifetime she was: a teen mom, a hair dresser, a caterer, a dancer, a breaker of hearts, a light beer aficionado, the occasional numbers player (don't tell) and the maker of the world's best potato salad. She could talk more mess in a single hot combing session with one of her clients than I'm sure any TV pundit could ever dream of. She could put Bill O'Reilly to shame. I once saw her turn a customer's hair blue, but made her laugh so hard about it that they both spent the rest of the afternoon giggling while she fixed it. No hard feelings. There are still legends down South of her stroll and there may even be an old R&B song about her (there are still debates on that one).
She made things happen. She was always in the know and she touched a lot of people on her way through life. To this day, I can't walk down certain blocks in Harlem in the summer without being stopped by someone and hugged and tearily told something funny and beautiful about her... all while they hold my hand.
She raised two men who grew up to be American vets, sci-fi critics, epic storytellers and honestly my two favorite men on the planet. To me, she was and always will be a giant among men and as I grow older, it's her legacy that's given me a different kind of love story; one that's reshaping my heart as we speak. It's a story of loving yourself. Knowing her has taught me (and still is teaching me) that not only is it good to be smart and witty and loving, it's tremendous and it's a thing to cherish in yourself. She taught me how to enjoy my own company, how to find a laugh in everything and then find people who get the joke. These lessons strike me as way better than love stories.
So instead of a letter to those distant lovers, the ones my Grandmother would cluck to me about while eating potato salad, I'm going to salute the storyteller herself. Grandma, your life and your memory is the best kind of love story and one I've grown to cherish more.