Spiritual Geography (1/3)
In honor of the walk that I will journey on this coming May as a college graduate, I wanted to put down some thoughts that have guided me through my academic career and my life in general.
When it comes to learning, I actively pursue the unknown. Majoring in International Studies and minoring in History gave me a perspective in which I was shaped and shaping my understanding of my identity as a young, Black, woman. Yet, unpacking and repacking the historical histories of the African Diaspora on this side of the globe often leaves me with more questions than answers. My maternal lineage is split between a line that goes back in time to the 1850’s (just as far as many descended from US slavery can go) and a line that is cut short at the turn of the 20th Century. Through my father is a similar, yet equally different scenario: one side is well known, large, and connected in Basseterre, St. Kitts, whereas the line that begins in Georgetown, Guyana is cut off only two generations before my father. These two unknown lineages, one of which I carry directly in my last name, and the other in which I often debate with others and myself, are the ones that have dominated my consciousness. I am constantly asking questions, only slowly down if the answers come at the cost of hurting someone’s feelings or bringing up old traumas.
If you’ll bear with me, I would like to break this down in a series – 1) What I do know, 2) What I don’t know, and 3) What I want to know.
WHAT I DO KNOW
Beginning with my father’s father: Ronald Spencer Agard is a complete mystery to me. The pain of coping with the lost of the only person who would know, my late grandmother Helen, often occupies my thoughts when people ask about my ethnicity. I know that I am a descendant of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, every which way to Sunday. It took different forms in Alabama, St. Kitts, and Guyana; yet it’s spiritually linked. The ancestors that were placed in these three locations for all I know could originate from the same region in West Africa. DNA Testing has made great advances in this area, however I know that there is an emotional cost of what I will find.
The test could explain the oral history I do know; Ronald was referred to as a “coolie,” by my grandmother, which depending on the West Indian nation, indicates mix of Afro-Caribbean and Indian. However, I don’t know whether that “Indian” meant from the actual nation, as many Indian migrants came to Guyana and the other British colonies of the time, or if she meant that he was Amerindian. Essequibo, the region I know Ronald was born in, has a significant Amerindian population. I also know that he spoke fluent Spanish, which apparently came in handy as he repaired boats as a mechanic in the port of Georgetown. In the few black and white photos my father and I have inherited, I see a man with curly hair, slicked down on his head, and who has a lighter complexion (via comparison) to my grandmother. I see that same curly hair on my crown when I decide to put it in a ponytail and in older pictures of my dad prior to his “US Army buzz cut” days. Yet the curls don’t sasitify my ancestral quest, they only confuse me as I visit El Barrio (East Harlem) and am spoken to as if I am an Afro-Latina (which would be amazing, but I can’t confirm or deny).
Even within the context of my last name, I hear whispers of other Agards in Guyana that I am related to. Ancestry.com won’t help because when the British left Guyana and it became independent, the records where not maintained or as well kept. However, until I’m able to go to Guyana and physically go through what remains, my father and I are the last of the Ronald Agard’s descendants. Unless, a twist of fate makes it that Ronald is still alive, and has been looking for us too.
Across the Gulf in Alabama, a similar historical scene is unfolding. My grandmother’s grandmother, the late Doshia Peters Barrow, walked on. Her oral history is one that is heard often: she was part Native American, part Black. At age 6 she was removed from the reservation and sent to live with a local African-American family, the Peters. Until recently, when the light blub in my head turned on, I had assumed that Lula and Jim Peters where my 3rd great grandparents by blood. They were not. The internal struggle to process this was further complicated upon seeing a photo of Doshia and her brother, Swede Peters, in which the two do not appear to be related at all by blood. Acknowledging that although it is not through blood, but through love that I have relatives of Doshia’s siblings still with us helps and encourages me to reach out.
If seeing is believing, then upon visiting my Great-great Aunt Beulah two summers ago, (the last born to Doshia and Mose Barrow) I saw hints of the ancestry that was lost to us. However, understanding that the ways in which Native American ancestry has been used as a way to cleanse the history of slavery in the US South – hauntingly contextualized in the film 12 Years A Slave – many lighter skinned Blacks owe their coloring to the rape of Black female slaves and Black women, and my family tree is not immune to this as far as a I know. My studies at college have challenged me to look at the ways in which histories are inherited, but also the ways in which they may have been altered.
I am in no way calling anyone in my family, especially my grandmother Barbara, a liar. Yet I’m painfully aware that what we believe to be true in hearts may not be accurate. The other side of this historical coin says that there where many unions between Blacks and Native Americans, and that not all tribes have always been receptive to this. The mechanisms in which White supremacy operated in the US South and in the United States in general can be found guilty all around. Colonization saw not only the deaths and rapes of the indigenous populations of the Americas, but of the African slaves who were forced into labor when the former populations were unable to due to disease. No matter which way the ancestry goes, Doshia was sent away as a small child, and I cannot begin to imagine what that is like, not knowing your family.
I may not know all the facts, but I am blessed in that regard, as I can easily contact my immediate family, and my distant relatives thanks to the advent of social media platforms like Facebook. Technology could also end all of this debate, which a simple swab of a cheek – but I’m unable to afford the $100 cost at this time. At the end this spiritual geography of what I do know, knowing that I am love above all this painful history allows me to continue to push forward. Whether I ever find out the name of the ancestor who gave up Doshia, or whether I ever find out what happened to grandfather Ronald Sr.