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.
(The name, Tinko, is the actual name of my ancestor who was sold in Virginia for roughly $300 and his children were eventually sold to a plantation in Stovall, Georgia.)
I write this letter with a sense of joy and a degree of cynicism within my spirit. You are the only ancestor of my family who is documented as being bought for three hundred dollars in the state of Virginia. Your progeny was eventually sold to a plantation in Stovall, Georgia and forced to live a life of servitude until emancipation. To live a life in a foreign land, stripped of all humanity and forced to live with untold brutality, can barely be conceived in the modern mind. I cannot imagine the experience of living as property forced to labor under a racial lie and the theological heresy of biological determinism. I want to share with you in this letter the progress of this nation since the time you walked upon southern soil.
I was joyous when I began to write this letter, as the stories of the abolition and the rise of educational institutions built by our own hands came to the forefront of my consciousness. Glorious towns were erected just outside of Tulsa, Oklahoma and in Eatonville, Florida, where wealth, ownership, and progressive life became the norm. But, as I walked through our history, my heart became troubled, as images of broken dreams, promises, and unmarked graves stood silently next to the images of triumph. After the signing of the "Emancipation Proclamation," our hearts soared with possibility, but reality crushed our dreams as quickly as a summer squall upon the sea. We walked from the south, free from the shackles of the peculiar institution, the most skilled people in our nation: carpenters, horticulturalists, managers, blacksmiths, seamstresses, and teachers. The list goes on; yet, our skills became a threat to the white unskilled labor of the south. Vengeance, not reconciliation, became the political platform of the day, as we sought to etch out a life post-emancipation. We organized, to educate ourselves, build schools, raise our children, and establish our humanity in the face of inhumanity, but at every turn, we met resistance, and, at times, an insane political culture shaped by a poisoned racial imagination. This is not the totality of our history. Much has been achieved in these post-emancipation years, however, what has been achieved has been hard won by named and unnamed men and women of courage.
I wish you could visit Harlem and hear the songs and sounds of artists who took the genius of your contemporaries and created poetic works and literary songs of a new "Negro" renaissance. I wish you could walk the campuses of Tuskegee, Morehouse, Spelman, Howard, and Hampton, and witness ideas blossoming in the mind of the grandchildren of slaves yearning to be men and women. I wish you could witness Marcus Garvey speaking to us as God's children and not "the wretched of the earth," or read the essays of W.E. B. DuBois, as he reflects on life post-reconstruction, or sit in on an organizing meeting with A. Phillip Randolph as "Pullman Porters" claimed their dignity through organized labor. Atlanta, Georgia the citadel of the genteel south produced a prophet named Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who forced the Constitution to repent and America to reflect upon her creed.
I know I am leaving out much more; yet, the triumphs are too vast and tragedies are too numerous to count. I must also share an unbelievable moment in our history. Our current President and First Family are people of African descent! As unlikely as it may sound, democracy and history collided and produced a moment you and our ancestors only dreamed was possible.
There are those who claim we live in a post-racial society and others who claim we still live in a racist society. I say we live in a race-consciousness society, fearful of class and apprehensive about color. We are not post-racial, nor are we solely defined by the social construction of race. We are post-emancipation, but, we are still a pre-promised land nation still looking at the future from the mountain top and not the plain of realized dreams. Gains have been made in this nation, but the beloved community still waits in the harbor of our prophetic imagination. Maybe one day we will reach it but as of now we still dream.
I thank you for your courage this day, and look forward to meeting you one day in our Father's house, when time and space cease to be weights upon our temporal existence.
The Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III
(Descendant of enslaved African named "Tinko")