Kenneth L. Hardin: I’m my ancestors’ hopes and dreams

Published 12:00 am Sunday, February 26, 2023

“Hey young fella, who are your people? Where’d you grow up? Are you from the West End? What’s ya mama and daddy’s name?” If you grew up anywhere in close proximity to the Black community in the ’60s and ’70s you better have been able to withstand this line of direct questioning.

People used this hood interrogation style back in the day to gauge familiarity, determine possible familial relations, discern whether you should be inhabiting the space you were occupying or whether you were there just to cause trouble. A variation of this query still exists today, but it’s used more to maintain a caste system, justify an elitist attitude or to determine how much respect or disrespect to assign to you. We live in such a judgmental society based on incidental and irrelevant physical characteristics, many people pretend to be other than who they really are, live dual identities, create false personal narratives or withhold information like they’re living in witness protection under an assumed name.

Skinfolk have grown accustomed to having to be bilingual and donning a mask. We wear a temporary face covering and speak with an accent in our professional roles, then take it off and relax our tongues at home around other people who look like us. This isn’t new and I didn’t create the phenomenon. Poet Paul Laurence Dunbar brought it to light back in 1895 when he authored the poem, “We Wear the Mask.” He detailed how skinfolk hide their true feelings and emotions. He eloquently explained how the happy facial expressions people show are done so that others don’t recognize how they really feel. Welcome to my life everyday living as a Black man in America.

Last week, I was talking to a woman at Food Lion. She was close to my age, but doesn’t look like me. The conversation centered around a recent trip she took to Charleston, S.C., where she enjoyed a historical tour of the City Market and former slave auction area. She shared her disdain for how the tour guide engaged in revisionist history, erroneously explaining that no slaves were ever sold in the market. While this may be technically true, no captured Africans were sold inside the Market. Between 1670 and 1808, 1,000 cargoes of enslaved Africans entered the port of Charleston where many were sold on the adjacent streets. Does that somehow make this inhumane act, wrought with depravity, OK and easier to accept? So, are we rationalizing brutality and subjugation to see how much to be comfortable with?

It reminded me of a tour I took with my middle son a few years ago through the Hall House Museum located on South Jackson Street. I was enjoying the tour until we got to the final stop at the slave quarters in the rear of the main house. I’ve long made peace that this part of history is a reality in America. I was more interested in how my ancestors lived only blocks away from where I would eventually be raised. What changed my entire enjoyment level was the ignorant and uninformed words of the young female tour guide, who also looked nothing like me. As she moved from one of the only two rooms of the small shack that stood in contrast to the large multi-room home it labored for, she eagerly pointed to the names of slaves that had been etched on the wall. She beamed with pride as she said that after slavery was abolished many of those names willingly opted to remain on the property and continued working because they were treated so wonderfully when they were enslaved there. As I clutched my pearls, my eyes rolled so far back in my head, they momentarily stuck.

I thought back to the enslaved people in both scenarios and my heart sank. I thought of my ancestors standing on that platform in the Charleston Market area being stripped of their dignity, humanity and everything that was familiar and safe. In an instant, they had no religion, identity, language, culture, or family. I thought about the slaves at the Hall house, who were given freedom but no plan or resources to enjoy or sustain it. They had nowhere else to go. Neither group had options they could utilize so they did what was necessary to survive. My mind drifted to each of them clinging to hope that one day their progeny would fare better than their present situation. I realize I’m my ancestors hope and the physical manifestation of what they closed their eyes and prayed for while in bondage.

My history extends far beyond a cotton field plantation in Clover, S.C. I’ve been denied knowing all of my family history, heritage and lineage, but I do know I am the result of my enslaved ancestors’ wildest dreams.

Kenneth L. (Kenny Hardin) is a member pf the National Association of Black Journalists.