An overriding theme in my documentary work is family. I am specifically interested in the oratorical act of passing down family history; as a young girl I sat at the feet of my elders absorbing the stories of family members who had long passed, but whose actions led to my own existence. Recently I travelled, with the women of my maternal family, to Michigan for dinner with our eldest living matriarch, Gladys.
At 97 years old my aunt is able to call all the way back to her childhood in Columbus, Mississippi and share stories with us about growing up, going to school, and the lives of her parents and siblings. Born in 1919 my aunt Gladys was the child of sharecroppers who worked to send their seven children to school. What I found most remarkable is that my aunt looks back at a time we all find to be full of sacrifice and strife and pain with joy. “Those were some good ol’ days,” she laughs, “we had a lot of fun.” That’s not to erase the obvious difficulty of growing up at a time of racial segregation and extreme poverty, but it calls me back to a quote from Nikki Giovanni’s poem, Nikki Rosa, who spoke of her fears of a white biographer taking hold of her story:
“I really hope no white person ever has cause to write about me because they never understand Black love is Black wealth and they’ll probably talk about my hard childhood and never understand that all the while I was quite happy.”
It’s important that we tell our stories, especially the stories of our ancestors.