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whitetigress's avatar

African Americans: How does it feel to come from a heritage where there were slaves in your ancestry in the U.S.A.?

Asked by whitetigress (3129 points ) December 1st, 2011

I recently thought, how must it feel to come from slavery? I’ve had many African American friends through my life time and haven’t thought of how it might feel coming from that background.

I don’t mean this to be offensive by any means. So please everyone refrain from silly answers, would just love to hear perspective on the matter.

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28 Answers

ANef_is_Enuf's avatar

I don’t know if your question is specifically directed toward African Americans because that is exclusively your area of interest, or because it seems like the easiest demographic to tap into on a relatively small site like Fluther. So if my response is not relevant to your question, I apologize. However, I am aware of slavery in my own family history, as my grandparents both lived to (vaguely) tell about it.

“Eastern workers were primarily from “Reichskommissariat Ukraine”. They were marked with a sign OST (“East”) and were subject to even harsher conditions than the civilian workers. They were forced to live in special camps that were fenced with barbed wire and under guard, and were particularly exposed to the arbitrariness of the Gestapo and the commercial industrial plant guards. At the end of the war 5.5 million Ostarbeiters were returned to the USSR.”

My grandfather hardly ever spoke about his experience in Germany before he died, and my grandmother is still reluctant to talk about it. They gave us bits and pieces over the years, but you can see in their faces that the stories are just too painful to repeat. I know that my grandmother, who was 15/16 years old at the time, was repeatedly raped and beaten. Any research that I’ve done regarding the conditions and stories of people in my grandparents’ situation seems to often downplay the severity of the firsthand accounts that I have heard. My “aunt” (who is not really my aunt, rather a friend that my grandmother made while in a Displaced Persons camp) was more open about what happened, and once told me a story about how people became so hungry that they resorted to cannibalism, and started eating dead babies and children within the camp. Some years later, this “aunt” would be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and spend months dwelling on the cannibalism and other atrocities that she witnessed in the forced labor camps in Germany. It was pretty traumatic, all around.

I don’t mean to imply that the circumstances that my family endured are comparable to the history of African-American slavery, but I am the descendant of people who were literally kidnapped and forced into slave labor, and my life has been touched by these stories on a very personal level.

Moegitto's avatar

To each his own, I’m African-American. But according to DNA trackers, your actual ancestry doesn’t really go back farther than 3 generations (including yours as number 1). So basically my great grandmother is my last direct biological reference, and she wasn’t a slave. In my impression, I was born in Washington DC to two american born parents and all of us have a blue social security cards, so I don’t really consider myself as much “African-American” as I do “Black”. I’m as much as an American as the white guy sitting in class next to me. I also served in the military for 9 years. I understand the importance of knowing about my races past struggles, but in all honesty, why should I care so much about EVERYONES past more so than I care about my own future? When we come together as a country, then maybe we can have a big boy sit down and discuss the politics of slavery in a distinguished manner, but even today still, racism is highly rampant on both sides. Also both sides do nothing to show that either one is trying to show the other side that actually wish to make up. There’s still racial killings in the south, rich white kids think it’s funny to go around “black face” on halloween, white people still get robbed or killed when going down the wrong streets in certain cities. All this while half of the world looks at us and laughs. I truly hate questions like these (no offense to you whitetigress) because it forces a central thought point.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

@Moegitto “But according to DNA trackers, your actual ancestry doesn’t really go back farther than 3 generations (including yours as number 1” – can you elaborate?

Blondesjon's avatar

isn’t this question akin asking a homosexual male what it feels like to have a penis in his butt?

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

@Blondesjon How so? Generally speaking, gay men know what it feels like to have a penis up their butt but most contemporary black people don’t know what it feels like to be slaves (unless they’re slaves since slavery is still very common in certain regions).

Blackberry's avatar

I’m indifferent, as I have no interest in knowing where I came from. But, if we’re talking about the plentiful atrocities America has bestowed upon its citizens, that’s something different.

JLeslie's avatar

I am not sure you only want African Americans to answer? Maybe only people who actually live in the countries their ancestors lived these atrocities? My people were enslaved, murdered, tortured. Growing up Jewish my reality was people will hate you just for being born. When I was in a temple I figured if anyone wanted to kill a bunch of us, that was a good place to get many Jews at once. But, I didn’t really think that way until I was in my early teens, my young childhood was free of any of these thoughts. When I married my husband and took his last name, a name that is very obviously Jewish, especially in the Middle East, I figured if I was ever on a hijacked plane I am one of the first dead. I was married in the early 90’s way before 9/11. I believed and believe that anything can happen anywhere. If Germany can turn against its own citizens and systematically round them up and kill them, any country can.

Now, I have never really encountered antisemitism specifically directed a me. Sure there have been things around me, swastikas were drawn on some dorm doors when I was at college, and the KKK has marched in towns I have lived. We know of bombs being set off at synogogues, and the shooting at the Holocaust museum in DC, etc. But, overall I feel safe in America, and free, and grateful to live in a country that values freedom of religion, and that is very diverse. Also, Christians seem to be particularly fond of the Jews this time in history in America, so that’s good for now.

I think for most Jewish Americans we feel very American, and focus on that identity and our religion, and don’t dwell on the fact our ancestors were persecuted. My family is not from Germany, but they were from Russia and Latvia, and those countries were horrible to Jewish people also during the Pogroms, and other times. Plus, I identify with all Jews. Every Passover we tell the story of being freed from slavery in Egypt, so from a young age we learn this is part of our history.

Moegitto's avatar

Jleslie speaks tons of truth and she knows alot of the same information I know because we’re from the same place. Being born a into a certain forced (you have no control) situation, I really have no care about my “ancestors” past as much as I do my own past. Like I already said, the color of MY skin is enough of a reason for some people to try to kill me, but I hold no hostilities against a race because a few of them hate my race. Been in the military for 9 years and “I” had only 2 cases related to anything racist. I actually had some white friends that would always bombard me with questions, not because they were ignorant, but because thy simply didn’t know. Washington DC has a VERY mixed culture, so I’m not used to the “Whites vs Blacks vs Mexicans” thing.

@Simone_De_Beauvoir Sorry. took a nap, diabetic and all. They say that your DNA is actually deluded, like adding water to soda. The genes that make your ancestors get mixed with someone else’s and then you get a new strand with 80% compatibility. Then it goes until your left with DNA traces. That’s why you can’t just get a blood test to see if your related to someone famous, you actually have to be in the same family registry. I seriously learned this through my own myriad of WTF because of my family telling my stupid stuff as a kid and me believing it. I had to learn that I couldn’t get a blood test to see if I was relate to President Andrew Taylor, lol.

bkcunningham's avatar

I don’t think mitochondrial DNA becomes diluted, @Moegitto. Anyone?

bea2345's avatar

Dear @whitetigress, I am not a U.S. resident or citizen, I am a black West Indian, but perhaps this might give you some perspective. I grew up in a British colony and was an adult when independence came. My family was middle class and poor. Education for all of us was so important that most of my parents’ incomes were spent on putting the five of us through school. My sister and I went to an Anglican high school where history was chiefly the history of Great Britain – we learned about 1066, the Princes in the Tower, about Henry VIII; but almost nothing after the sixteenth century. Geography consisted of the exports of Canada, Australia, Africa and India. It was not until I became a registry clerk in the Government service, responsible for receiving and sending official mail, that I actually learned the names of the capitals of the West Indian countries.

What this means is that my education included almost nothing about the West Indies or the New World. It was not until I reached the University of the West Indies in Jamaica (1967) that I learned something of my region’s history. I had never heard of black slavery or of emancipation. Learning about the horror of the middle passage was an intensely personal experience. I vividly remember the silence in Lecture Theatre I when Clive Thomas gave us an introduction to the history of the slave trade. Roy Augier’s sessions were always crammed. We had few textbooks: they were being written by our teachers even as they taught us.

At home for Christmas, my mother did not believe me when I told her about it. My father was more accepting, probably because he worked on a cargo ship in the Gulf for a few years and so had some first-had experience of being black in places like New Orleans. I was thoroughly indoctrinated into the desirability of the British way of life, the rightness of Empire and white domination.

These early impressions were, and still are, very powerful. The media reinforce the notion of white leadership, notwithstanding the developments in China and India, for example. Nevertheless, up to this day, reading about the middle passage still engenders fear, outrage and anger in me, although it happened a long time ago. Hearing about the atrocities in Rwanda frightened me in a way that reading about the Holocaust did not. The failure of the United Nations and of the United States in the Rwanda affair was an object lesson in the status of blacks in this modern world. Always I am reminded that it can happen again.

JLeslie's avatar

@bea2345 Do you believe it would have been better to know about the slave trade at a young age? There is some discussion about this in America, about whether to teavh about slavery and segregation to young children. Many blacks argue it is white people trying to bury the past, hide it, because they are ashamed of it. But, I think there is something to be said for young children to live the beginning of their life free from the reality of such things. I think it should be taught, but not until the middle school years. I don’t see much point in a 7 year old black child knowing or thinking they are or were perceived as inferior by some people.

perspicacious's avatar

Every ethnic group has slavery in their heritage.

JLeslie's avatar

@perspicacious Does every ethnic group mean every one?

perspicacious's avatar

No, it means every ethnic group. Every one has one or a combination of them.

JLeslie's avatar

@perspicacious What I am trying to figure out is if you are including all groups? White people, all races, etc.

whitetigress's avatar

@bkcunningham I agree, mtDNA is traceable all the way to the “African Eve.” So, from what I remember from Anthropology it cannot dilute 100%, ever. (Just for anyone curious mtDNA is passed on from every daughter to her children but can only be passed down to the next generation by mother)

Moegitto's avatar

@bkcunningham http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haplogroup

The only thing that can prove is where your ancestors came from, but not who they were.

Also “While comparing 12-marker tests does not provide enough information to be genealogically relevant, 12 marker Y-chromosome tests can predict one’s paternal ancient ancestry or haplogroup. For family history purposes, comparing participants with a 12-marker test cannot sufficiently narrow the range of generations for estimating their Most Recent Common Ancestor (MRCA.) The closest range a perfect 12 out of 12 match yields is 14 generations at a 50% probability.A 12-marker test can, however, be effective in predicting your Paternal Haplogroup. And for some haplogroups, even predict a sub-group (sub-clade) such as a “J2” or “R1b”.”

cazzie's avatar

I don’t really care about DNA when it comes to tracing ancestral roots and think it has very little to do about a person’s cultural identity. If someone can trace their ancestry back, (like my brother in law did) and find an interesting cultural link, it matters not how many gene markers he shares with the people, but more with the fact that he knows he descended from them and finds that interesting. He was born in Scotland and we know it’s a cardinal sin to dilute a good Scotch.

Facade's avatar

It sucks to know that I live in a place where, not too long ago, people who looked like me were considered property to be owned, but what’s worse is that some people relish those days. I don’t think about it much, but I still get nervous by the guy in full Nazi getup who likes to walk up and down one of the streets by my apartment, and people who proudly put up confederate flags…
It breaks my heart to know that my mother grew up picking cotton and cleaning houses for wealthy White people, while her family was extremely poor. The town she grew up in (Andersonville, GA) is still very segregated; I don’t visit there often.

cazzie's avatar

Thank you, @Facade. It really was NOT that long ago, and even less in the past was the influence WW2 brought. Not just the encampment of the jews by the nazis but lets not forget the Japanese Americans that were put in camps in the US. This shit happens. It was during MY parent’s lifetime and I am only in my early 40’s with a 7 year old son and you can be sure that, as he grows older, I will be giving him a true sense of history about the world his grandparents grew up in. It is our obligation as teachers and parents to relate these stories to the next generation so they can see the world and their fellow man with eyes wide open and make the choices that MUST be made for the betterment of mankind. Without that sense, we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past and relive the autonomic roles written for us by lessons unlearned. Keep the lessons learned and pass the wisdom down.

cazzie's avatar

I wrote that tipsy, btw… that is me, writing with a few beers in me. Is that OK?

bea2345's avatar

@JLeslie, I think @Facade‘s remarks, which she “wrote that tipsy” – could not resist that quote – but were right on target. There are some things that everybody must learn, even children. The idea is not to promote racism; on the contrary. Children have to be taught to have, and maintain, self respect and not “relive the autonomic roles” created by our history. The way is hardest for the poor and/or marginalized, as too many are but each and every one of us has to try – think of the parable of the talents. In this connection, good governance is essential to the provision of equality of opportunity, of access to information. And it begins with the education of the youth.

JLeslie's avatar

@bea2345 But, at what age?

@Facade What do you think? What age do you think it is appropriate to teach children in America about slavery and segregation, or for parents to start telling stories about the past, and how it relates to your race? White and black? Do you think telling very young black children they were enslaved, hated, regarded as inferior can affect their self esteem? That they take on the identity possibly with the information? Because once told they start to realize when maybe someone does treat them differently, or they make too much of an incident where they have a bad interaction with a white person, when it might have nothing to do with race? If young children, elementary age, have no clue, I think they live in the world like they are equal to everyone.

I liked your answer by the way, what you said about people relishing those days really hit me.

Facade's avatar

I don’t think children should be sheltered from certain parts of life and history just because they’re of an uncomfortable nature. But, I do think that kids should be introduced to it gradually. Like, if a 10 year old is told about slavery, it would be very basic and without many details, but as the child gets older more details are added in. So you could tell the ten year old that slaves were brought to the US on boats, and you could tell the 14 or 15 year old about the conditions the slaves were in on the boats (sanitation, illness, etc.). I think doing it that way with all topics like war, genocide, etc. would be honest and appropriate.

bea2345's avatar

@JLeslie – I think that I should have been taught from babyhood. I would not have absorbed quite so completely the myth of King and Empire. Had my early education included some component of the truth, it would have made clear why, notwithstanding the myth, I had some sense that we, all non whites, were being cheated. The Empire was one big business enterprise intended for the enriching of Great Britain. The slave trade helped finance the Industrial Revolution. Emancipation was not a gift of a generous master; it was the bankrupt policy of an owner who had draft animals that he could no longer feed or sell at any price.

It is my belief that race relations would not be so bitter, so unforgiving and so lasting, had we had not forgotten the facts.. We, meaning everybody, both colonizer and colonized. Blacks (and other races) absorbed the lie that people of African descent were somehow retarded and the only way to progress was to become “white.” I do not exaggerate. Read “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison. However, it must be said that the West Indian experience was different from that of the American blacks. In Trinidad, for example, the plantation system never really took root, because it lasted less than 300 years. By Emancipation (1838) there was a well established black peasantry and a growing black middle class. It is recorded that Governor Woodford passed a law that all free coloured persons had to carry a light at night and observe a curfew. He felt that they were too independent and not subservient enough. It was not until I visited the U.S. in 1961 that I learned something about racism. And about myself. The experience was salutary.

As @Facade says, the teaching should be graded to the age and understanding of the class. But it should begin early. In kindergarten, one learns the songs and rhymes the slaves sang; the stories they told each other. Later on, the work is fleshed out with the historical facts: the middle passage, the triangular trade and so on. If it were properly done, an adult West Indian would also know that some African rulers were very eager to provide slaves for the trade. And so on.

JLeslie's avatar

@bea2345 I want to make sure I understand the history and current situation in Trinidad, are you saying that now all races are at all levels? That race is not a matter anymore? I know people from Trinidad, some of the nicest people I have ever met. I have a friend, he is the blackest man I know, and I mean his skin color, very dark, where most American blacks are not that dark. He is from one of the islands, I cannot remember which right now, emigrated to America in his young teens. His wife is white, I know several of his friends from his country, mixed bag of races, and race seems to be a non-issue completely. He is also one of the most successful people I know. He was educated at MIT (very well respected and presitigous University in the US), has a very high level job at a biomedical company.

I took my husband to the Civil Rights museum last year here in Memphis. His response when we had lunch afterwards, was basically how can that happen? He was raised in Mexico, and it doesn’t register for him to segregate based on race. He had an absense of knowledge of what had happened, and so he had no feelings either way about black people or any people, he was the most non discriminating person I had ever known, with no stereotypes in his head, because he had not grown up here to hear any. However, after living in the south he has developed stereotypes, and he feels dissappointed he can even think that way, because it is not really where he lives in his mind, and still he would always treat each person as an individual of course. Know that the whole time we lived in FL we had black friends, we have always had a very diverse group of friends.

I don’t think race relations in America is a problem because the past is forgotten, I think it is a problem because of cultural clashes more than anything.

Don’t get me wrong, I think we have to teach the history, and I take seriously what both you and @Facade said about when and how to teach it. I am still thinking about it. I find the topic very interesting; the topic of race relations, racism, and minority issues in America.

bea2345's avatar

It is not that race is a non-issue, as it is considered a less important issue than most. At election time, race often comes to the fore, especially in Guyana and Trinidad but most of the time we rub along fairly peacefully (that’s one of the advantages of being small). Since in these two countries, the black/East Indian populations make up the overwhelming majority, segregation by race makes little sense. Stresses occur between economic classes, rather than ethnic groups.

JLeslie's avatar

@bea2345 I see. I actually think in the US it is more about socio-economic classes than race, but the classes are somewhat divided by race. It’s tricky and convaluted in the US.

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