Below is a list of slaves held by Elijah Ratliff (1787 – 1865) in 1861. Among them is my great great grandfather Graham. I hold on to this history because my grandmother told me stories about him. He is real for me. This is also the farthest back I can go in my black family tree. Although I can link my “Dyer” family name directly to white settlers on the Mayflower and slave owners in the Caribbean, I cannot connect my maternal African roots to anything so lofty…an epic journey, a fledgling nation, kings or other empires or a specific region or tribe. Instead, the most concrete proof of my black ancestors involves me living as the legacy of this country’s deepest shame.
It is easy for the liberal consciousness to wrap its head and resources around the fact that the people at Standing Rock, the Sacred Stones Camp, Red Warrior Camp and the Oceti Sakowin Camp, are protecting water. Water is life. Yet we cannot forget or ignore that they are also fighting for the right to remain connected to their past as well as their living heritage moving forward. Since the beginning of the organized European nation on this continent, the greed inherent in capitalism has fed itself on the erasure of non-white people’s ethnic history. This is an ongoing battle between culture and commerce. It is the real face of the American experiment. It is wholly repugnant.
When I look at this list of names as property connected to my own family, I am reminded how sacred and powerful ancestral memory is and how often it has been the target of the American commercial machine. Tracing family trees has become big business and can be a thrilling way to learn history through a personal lens for some. But for people of color in today’s America, these tenuous connections to ancestors and traditions are even more important. They give a tangible context to the dominant culture’s relentless effort to deny us the status of basic humanity. Ancestral memory is in part what ignites our desire to resist and redefine. Maybe this is what scares some people about “identity”. If the American Indian and native people are any example, the fuel of cultural identity remains more viscous, volatile, alive and more permanent after 500 years of attack than anything that can ever be shaken loose from the ground…and it is already on fire.
1. Big Ellick
37. Little Ellick
67. Big Frank