‘Help Me to Find My People’ a moving work
“Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave, I am the dream and the hope of the slave. I rise. I rise. I rise.”
This quote from Maya Angelou helps us remember how closely connected “Black History Month” is to the history and the horrors of slavery.
A work that deserves an important place in these annals is UNC-Chapel Hill professor Heather Andrea Williams’ book, “Help Me to Find My People: The African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery.”
Williams tells the poignant story of separated families trying to find each other and reunite, before and after the Civil War.
One of the greatest horrors of slavery was the breakup of families. A husband sold away from his wife, a mother from her child.
Using memories of former slaves, Williams describes the wrenching partings. Thomas Jones recalled being taken away after being sold to a new owner in distant Wilmington. “I was very much afraid and began to cry, holding on to my mother’s clothes, and begging her to protect me, and not let the man take me away. … Mother wept bitterly and in the midst of her loud sobbings, cried out in broken words, ‘I can’t save you, Tommy; master has sold you, you must go.’ She held me, sobbing and mourning till (the man) came in, snatched me away, hurried me out of the house where I was born, and tore me away from the dear mother who loved me as no other could.”
Another former slave remembered later, “Babies was snatched from their mothers’ breasts and sold to speculators. Children was separated from sisters and brothers and never saw each other again. Course they cry; you think they not cry when they was sold like cattle? I could tell you about it all day, but even then you couldn’t guess the awfulness of it.”
Williams’ descriptions of scenes of mother and children being separated and sold to different owners are heartrending persuasion that the worst part of the horrible American system of slavery was not the backbreaking work. It was the destruction of personhood that accompanied the ever-present possibility of breakup for every enslaved family group.
Williams’ powerful descriptions of the pain of separation and the determined efforts to reunite require us to reflect with humility on this unfortunate chapter in our history, something all of us should be doing, especially during Black History Month.