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.
To the Ancestors:
With deepest regret, I must inform you of the fate that has come to your sun-kissed sons and daughters of the African Diaspora, your descendants in the two hundred and thirty-six year American enterprise. Despite your audacious ambitions and prayerful petitions for the generations that succeeded you upon these shores, I must now speak to you concerning our present difficulties.
Not that our condition has not markedly improved since the days of your bonds, replete with the horrors of the auction block and the brutality of whips tearing against your flesh. Nothing within our present experience can equate to the terrors of the American slave system that you so courageously endured and fought against. Terrors the European founder of Methodism, John Wesley, called "the vilest that ever saw the sun."
You would be proud of our people's achievement since Lincoln's pen secured our emancipation, de jure, and intensified the war that secured our emancipation, de facto. Our people have risen from chains and cotton fields to the pinnacles of industry, as well as to seats of power all over the world. Yet, despite such laudable achievements, the present struggles of many of our people remain great. The full scope of these struggles is, at once, horrifying and overwhelming.
Our core institutions of family, school, and church are crumbling en masse. While you endured the plight of family dissolution upon the auction block, today, the great majority of our beautiful Black seeds are born outside the nurturing context of marital commitment. Paternal absenteeism has replaced the auction block, ripping apart generations as now many generations have come of age without the knowledge or active presence of their fathers.
Educational pursuits, most notably the pursuit of literacy, were forbidden to you. Secretly, many of you still attained this prize, undaunted by the threat of punishment, or even death. The illegality of literacy has long ceased, yet our schools graduate the illiterate. And all too often it is our Black seeds that fill the ranks. Adding injury to insult, many of the schools you founded to empower future generations have closed their doors, with others perilously close to doing the same. Esteemed colleges and universities that first met in the basement of your churches and were later built into proud institutions are now in jeopardy despite hundreds of thousands, if not millions of our seeds without a college education.
The Black church, once the epicenter of Black cultural, intellectual, and spiritual life, the forerunner in the fight for freedom and justice in America, has been regulated to an irrelevant relic in the eyes of many, perceived as disconnected from and unconcerned about the present sufferings of our people. Once deemed a vehicle of liberation, the church appears to have lost its prophetic zeal and become the "social club" of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s nightmares. As a result, our communities are becoming spiritually bankrupt citadels void of revolutionary power.
Tragically, these crumbling institutions have made way for a Petri dish of scourges now propagating with rapidity among our people. A deadly, incurable, yet wholly preventable disease continues to ravage Black bodies. An entire nation of our beautiful, Black manhood resides behind prison walls. In countless neighborhoods, abject poverty coupled with addiction siphon out the hope of progress. Senseless violence has left many communities as war-torn wastelands.
Not that we have been unassisted in this peril. The vestiges of injustice you faced remain with us today. Daily is our fight against systems informed by systemic racism, although these systems are oft times veiled. Yet, there is an undeniable difference between our struggles. You knew your oppressors well and directly engaged your oppressors towards the cause of liberty. Today, given the fragmentation and in-fighting within our own communities, present even among our most celebrated leaders, we have seemingly become enemies to one another. It appears that we have become co-conspirators in our own oppression.
Perhaps our greatest challenge is our fragmentation along class lines. The victories of the American Civil Rights Movement provided opportunity and access primarily to the Black middle-class. Consequently, Black flight, fleeing from historic Black communities in the inner city and retreating to the suburbs, has stripped these communities of our businesses and resources, leaving behind masses of our brothers and sisters still gripped by the chains of poverty. The poignant provocative which first arose from the lips of Cain now resonates anew; "Am I my brother's keeper?" In recent years, we have appeared to respond in joint refrain, "No!"
Ultimately, I fear that unlike the Children of Israel, whose Biblical narrative of emancipation fortified your strength in your own struggle and who, when crossing over the Jordan River from oppression and poverty towards the Promised Land of equal opportunity and prosperity, secured safe passage for the entire people, we have left some behind. Some of means have broken rank, allowing the gushing waters of denied access and poverty to swallow whole those of lesser means. With deepest regret, I must acknowledge our failure to fully advance the cause of freedom and justice you first began, for after achieving comfort and privilege for the few, we seem to have forgotten the many.
It remains my sincere hope that we shall one day achieve the greatness for which you, our ancestors, fought and died. Please accept my deepest sympathies on the painful loss of so many of your children, past and present. We salute your courageous sacrifices for your people and our entire nation.
And to my oldest known ancestors, John Bell, born 1828 in Kentucky, Keizar Forbes, born 1830 in Alabama, and the Rev. William Leaks, born 1835 in North Carolina, later a founder of Paul Quinn College, each born a slave:
Our family shall endeavor to make you as proud in our generation as you have made us proud in yours!
Eternally grateful, your sun-kissed son,