“Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world.”
“If you teach that nigger how to read the Bible, there will be no keeping him–
It would forever unfit him for the duties of a slave.”
“As to himself, learning would do him no good, but probably, a great deal of harm—making him disconsolate and unhappy.”
“If you learn him now to read, he’ll want to know how to write; and, this accomplished, he’ll be running away with himself.”
–Hugh Auld (Master of Frederick Douglass)
Most slaves never wrote anything down. Not because they didn’t want to, but because they never had access to the means to do so. Slaves, at best, were viewed as chattel by their masters, sub-human, as if a life that was valued by their ability to increase their master’s labor force, and nothing more. A significant majority of the slaves never learned how to read or write, never wrote a story nor a message for their progeny and generations to come. Most slaves were forgotten in a memory only “heaven and earth can remember” (Psalm 19).
Frederick Douglass, however, was different. Originally born enslaved in America, Douglass learned how to read and write and was able to tell his own story as it were, journeying from slavery to freedom. Douglass recalls in his first book, “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass an American Slave”, how before regretting her decision to educate Douglass, his master’s wife, Sophia Auld, subsumed her role as Douglass’s teacher of Bible and English. When his master Hugh began to understand that Douglass could read, and the consequences of such, they quickly removed all reading materials from his surroundings; barring Douglass of his right to tell his own story.
But it was too late. He was a free man of sorts, carried away on the wings of his words, bound to no Pharaoh’s story, but his own.
When looking into my mother’s family history, I have always been bothered by the lack of ancestral records found about my grandfather’s Robertson/McGruder African lineage, in comparison to the robust amount of ancestral records found about my grandmother’s Gibbs/Dove Western-European lineage. As a child I was often troubled by the idea that my ancestors’ ability to tell their story depended on their skin color, and I am still bothered by that premise today, however true it may be. As a young child, I learned to understand, that one of the horrible recurring acts that Man continues to commit against his brother is the sin of taking away their freedom of speech, their voice; denying a person of their universal freedom: Mankind’s right to tell one’s own story.
The only place my ancestors are mentioned? The 1848 last will and testament of my fore-parents’ owner Eleanor McGruder Wynne. Not with glory or inheritance, but rather as transactional property to be handed down to her daughter. This is where my ancestors’ story lies–transactional property. Ned and Maria, my Great-Great-Great-Great grandparents, were slaves in Alabama during the early 1800s, with far too many gaps, and barely any words written about them, there are no stories left to be heard, just names. As her will stated:
“I furthermore give grant and bequeath to my daughter…the following Negro slaves, that is to say, Ned (est. 1790) aged about fifty three years, and Maria wife of Ned aged about forty eight years…Charles son of Maria aged about eighteen…”
Charles McGruder (1822-1899), my great-great-great grandfather, was an American slave. Remember, no black person had rights. He was not an American citizen, but rather property, enslaved to Americans, in Greene County, Alabama.
Growing up the way I did, I was caught up in this story. As a free-thinking citizen of the world, as an American, as a Jew, how could I not be disturbed by the unanswerable questions:
Was that their greatest value? Gone down in history as the subject of transactional property? was that their prized story to tell? And some stories will remain untold, but I still must question: What did they most favor? What sayings and maxims were most expressed and exchanged? What values did they offer to their children? What did they believe in? Were they good parents?
I do not tell you about my family for my own honor but in the name of my ancestors who have been silenced by their oppressors, who were never granted any such opportune time to speak–who were never granted a Passover to celebrate.
I tell you this story, because if didn’t, I would be denying both my African and Jewish heritages, and their call to the generations to remember them.
I tell you this story as a member of the 21st century trying to understand his fore-parents from nearly 250 years ago–not as a historian trying to rewrite something that was never written, but as loyal torchbearer of their legacy.
I tell this this story because “In every generation a person must regard himself as though he personally had gone out of Egypt, as it is said: “And you shall tell your son in that day, saying: ‘It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came forth out of Egypt.’ (Haggadah/Tractate Pesachim, Mishneh 10:5). ”
I tell you this story, as a link, trying to mold itself to the glorious thread of the generations before, not like a blacksmith at his final hour of the day, but as a messenger desperate to impart an idea for the sake of tradition and connection to a family legacy.
I tell you this story as one of their children, six generations later, survivors of their enslavement, living no less, on the hilltops of Monsey, NY.
I tell you this story without much evidence to adequately share, because any such would be an attempt to replace their untold Passover story.
“And Moses said to the nation, remember this day that you left Egypt, from the house of enslavement…you shall tell your children…and when your child comes at a later time asking you ‘what is this?’ you shall tell him with a strong hand God took us out of Egypt, the house of slavery (Exodus 13:8-10).”
It’s hard to truly consider the scene: After 210 years of the enslaved mind, spirit and body, the story of our ancestors was reawakened, the soul’s whisper turned into a wailing cry, and Abraham and Sarah’s dream roared back to life; silence was no longer an option, the story had to be told. “And they cried out (Exodus 2:23).” The cry that peoples have cried for centuries, begging for someone to tell, what would forever remain the untold story–but not them.
Passover, with its many facets, is not just a holiday of experiencing freedom after generations of slavery, it is also the holiday that celebrates the survival of a people’s story, that teaches: In spite of the turbulent forces that surrounded Her, Israel, anew in every generation, Her story will, and must be told.
This idea, in it’s totality, is what Passover is about: breaking through the oppressive shackles of silence and raising your own voice to tell your own story. It was not long ago that it was only the educated and the wealthy that had the luxury of documenting his or her story. But now, history is recorded every moment. Every Tweet, wall post, click or “selfie” is an imprint you make, that now exists not only in storytelling, but in your recorded history, and so, what story will you tell for those who never did, who never could?
How many stories remain untold? How many memoirs and manuscripts remain unfound? Were there more Anne Franks? Were there others? How many millions died in silence without passing on their legacy? How many dreams and great ideas were lost in the fumes of Auschwitz?
I do not know, but I sense, as I am sure you can too, that there are far too many stories that will never be discovered, and so, of what remains, we must record, we must retell, we must remember and rectify, we must celebrate that we can, we must Pass-over again and again, and again and again, for the sake of all who never could.
And so, I am but a youth sent by my ancestors, to relay to us the all powerful message: Stories matter. To know where you come from, and to bear the sign of pride and honor as you continue the legacy of those before you, is important. So Israel, it is your right and expectation as a child, and as the pioneers of this grand idea, to fight to keep the story alive, and to be reminded every year, but one day at a time (omer) to not stand idly by as the stories and legacies of others around the world are being called into question–May it be His Will.
Isaiah is JOC raised in a Lubavitch family in Monsey, NY. Isaiah received his Bachelor’s degree from Binghamton University, as well as a Master’s in social work. Currently Isaiah is expecting to finish his Rabbinical studies at Yeshiva University in the coming school year and works full time as the Madrich Ruchani (Spiritual and Experiential Educator) at Carmel Academy of Greenwich in Greenwich, CT.
Header image courtesy of Pixabay.