I’m a 70-year-old black woman, the matriarch of my family; grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles all deceased. We were not communicative. Silence was a strong component of getting along in both sides of my family.

I never asked about family histories. There were no Bibles, nor other artifacts listing marriages, births, christenings or deaths. I knew that my paternal great-grandmother’s parents were slaves and that she was born free; that my father was raised in Kentucky; and that my maternal side of the family migrated to northern Indiana from Nashville.

Recently, working for the U.S. Census in Florida, I was sent to rural Vidalia, Georgia. Driving back roads, I came upon a cotton field, something I had seen only in pictures. My stomach clenched, my heart rate increased and I felt despair. Every time I passed another field, I reacted the same; feelings so disturbing that I finally pulled to the side of the road. “Why am I feeling this way? I have no stories that relate to this – no memories, no personal struggles that have been shared with me.”

Even as I type this I am overcome with anguish: “That could have been my life. Born in a different time, I would have been forced to work and bleed in those fields. If the Civil War had ended with a different victor, my life could have been one of degradation and torture.”

Since childhood I’ve experienced racial discrimination; in housing, employment and education. I fought back using the laws and tools available to me. When none were available or were unsuccessfully wielded, I found ways to move on. I had the “talks” with my children; I’ve ignored taunts; I’ve cried privately when denied opportunities and suppressed anger when I jumped through more hoops than others to achieve goals.

“Get over it” is often a knee-jerk reaction when African-Americans talk about the past and its present ramifications. I didn’t know I even had anything to “get over” until the deep fear that resides in my bones sprang to the fore.

My drive through rural Georgia crystallized my legacy of beliefs. Slavery didn’t go away – it morphed. It became poverty, discrimination in housing and employment, the school-to-prison pipeline and murder by cop; where two-thirds of the citizens of Florida vote “yes” to restore voting rights to returning citizens and the white aristocratic Legislature found its loophole to override the will of the people.

This unknown grief and fear of a past I never lived have shaken me. They made me look at the world differently. Not since my childhood have I walked into a restaurant and thought “Am I welcome here?” I did in Georgia.

When I went into the Jacuzzi at the hotel, my thoughts turned to knowledge that I would have once been banned because people worried that our colored skin would contaminate the water. I remembered thoughts as a teenager wondering why Caucasians worked so hard to tan and attain skin the color of mine when it was so despised on my body.

Are my reactions in part caused by the current climate of hate that is rampant and an environment that becomes more hostile every day? Is it because I have lived through the civil rights movement expecting improvements to continue on an upward path and am seeing a downward trend as bad or worse than when I was a child? I don’t have answers to my own questions. I know only that I am working to heal my heart, to excise the pain and refrain from despair.

Shortly after returning from Georgia, I traveled to Maine visiting family and friends. I attended a concert when the black singer, born and raised in Macon, Georgia, sang a song he wrote about his need to leave Georgia and his ultimate return. The universe closing the loop?

Will the justice we’ve never had be attainable? Difficult, yet with the will, commitment and hard work by people in love and faith, I continue to believe that what I have been striving for all my life, as a civil rights investigator, as a teacher and as a parent, can be accomplished.

I hope that with justice, I will no longer fear the cotton fields.


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