Essays | History | Housing

Chiasmus

A Narrative of Ascent

Turtel Onli

It’s 1986 and I’m born on the South Side of Chicago. My mother Sharon’s a Chicagoan too—born in 1964…six years into her parents’ northern life. My grandma Pearlie Mae is born in 1942 in a Mississippi Delta town founded by formerly enslaved people. My great-grandmother Wyona’s the first of us to be born in the twentieth century and would be eleven when white women got the vote, forty-five when segregation fell on paper, and fifty-nine when Dr. King was shot. Her mother Trudy was born in 1887 just up the road in the town where WC Handy first heard the Blues. Her mother Lucinda was born in 1862, one year into a war that’d color the conscience and collective memory of a nation. Her mother Martha was born in 1820, part of the generation begging for that slouch toward justice and would be forty-one years old when it began.

It’s been said that Black Americans are wedded to narratives of ascent—”up from slavery,” “up from the American South in the Great Migration,” up from, up from, up from—

…but sitting with history forces me to dig in deep—deep into language too constrained to hold our humanity, deep into philosophies and theologies that sanction terror written into law…and deep into the stories of how that became our cultural inheritance.

Well, It’s 2016 and I live in Cambridge now, with a great chunk of country between where I am and where I’m from. I’m in a part of the country where (let them tell the story) History was invented, where the lore of revolutionaries looms large, and the hooves of Paul Revere’s horse are louder in national memory than Crispus Attucks’ death rattle. What’s Black memory in comparison? What’s there to say about the tin-like ping of Blues theology in the ear of a heaven that gave the pen to the other side? Who am I, more than some modern person, more than just a descendant, than some grandchild of a Great Migration with Chicago in my step and Mississippi pooled in the corners of my mouth like warm milk?

(Sometimes, I feel so ungrateful.)

Sometimes I think that my ancestors were tricked, that weighing time had come and though they’d picked and ached, they were found wanting. Sometimes, I think that they were insufficient in their push, lackluster in their grasp at some kind of justice, that they were naive to assert to an unjust nation that justice wasn’t only its moral mandate but our human birthright.

…and I feel ashamed…of myself.

I run my hands along brick buildings and peer down at folks walking down Brattle Street. I pull back walls in historic buildings on Tory Row and see symbols from the Stamp Act era. I occupy space in what’s known as the cradle of American history now and I’m reeling.

“Whose story is this? Whose books are these? Are these mine? Can’t be—I’m one of forty-two million. I’m from that nation within a nation. A people isn’t borders, it’s shared circumstance.”

Every day, I’m surrounded by the specter of New England’s primacy reminding (always reminding) that they were first. I hear 1630 all the time in Harvard Square and I wonder where my people were, how we lived, how we felt. I wonder about the first of us here in States—about what they desperately needed to hear and would pass away before knowing. I think about my dad’s mother, the one like Lena Horne and think about the men from other countries—the ones with eyes from France and last names from England. I think about overseers and their families in Ireland and their descendants navigating the same Boston streets. And I think to myself:

“How did I ever think I could inherit the gift of (historical) grace without the terrible burden of context?” // How’d I ever think I could document our family history without being undone by it or highly sensitive to it?’ // “How’d I ever think I could have unbridled language for Black humanity in a world so dedicated to binding us up?”

So, I remind myself of the little things…like being able to walk on the sidewalk. I silence the part in me who forgot she can drink out of any water fountain she chooses, the one that forgot she chose the high school she went to. You know, the one who forgot that people just like her fled the South – first in a trickle and then in droves, six million over sixty years, spurred by world wars and a yearning for the warmth of another sun. I think about my relatives and the ones who came before – the ones desperate for that space from Mister Charlie only to have them be met with race riots and immigrants finding their own America in Detroit and Chicago. I think about people that crammed their culture into hatboxes, ones who fingered the frayed edges of the promise of a kinder mistress as they traveled north (with Jazz, Blues, and Gospel in tow). I think about that six million, the six they left behind, and the grandchildren of both waves of that Great Migration wherever we all may be.

…and I think about living in a place that’s chock full of History and devoid of memory. I think about how it’s impossible for a nation to have a conscience if it doesn’t have a memory.

As family historian, I go to my elders to collect their stories now and I ask ’em, I say:

“What made you leave Mississippi? Did you find what you were looking for? Are you disappointed in us? Does it matter that the Chicago you stepped into is the one eatin’ us alive? Are you proud of us for fighting?”

And then I think: “What if what got us here was never meant to keep us?” I wonder if all that Southern sorrow and woe followed us up here. I wonder if we’ll never be rid of it. If we’ll be canaries in coal mines forever.

But the story can’t end with despair, so I try to go with what I know and that’s language. I plant my feet and I dig in deep and I say out loud, I say:

“The lie of our inhumane treatment is old, but the truth of our humanity and right to walk the earth and flourish is much older.” // I say to my elders: “It was hard, forging a grave freedom in a nation that suckled at your breast and grew strong on sociopathy—but you were right” // I say to us: “Thank you for holding a vicious nation to a standard of virtue inconceivable to anyone but us” // “Thank you for creating and passing down language for our humanity so we could stand living in a country whose tongue is decidedly stuck in a vise grip of hateful words.”

I’ll honor it because when the nation needs a reminder (and of course, it always will), we’ll need people with cultural memory to tell the stories.

One of the most heinous lies Black America was ever told was that we were a people without history, that we don’t come from anything, that coming to the States was our saving grace (how sweet but discordant that Transatlantic sound). That’s the lie people use to claim our cultural memory is the stuff of madmen’s imaginations. But Black suffering is matched and surpassed by Black joy and the sight-beyond-sight that makes us relentless in our reach for something better…and our ability to render it into dance, reverie, and language. The spark that gets us from glory to glory is what got us from the hollows of ships to where we are today…and it hasn’t dimmed because we’re on the other side of the Migration.

We still have some ascending to do.

Rayshauna Gray is a Roseland native, and now a historical researcher at Tufts University in Massachusetts, among other ventures. “Chiasmus” originated as a series of tweets, and was published on Gray’s blog, The Ideologue, in October 2016.

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