When I was a little girl my grandmother told me about how my family came to Augusta, Georgia. Her parents were sharecroppers in Warrenton, Georgia. At the time, it was illegal to quit and you could be killed for doing so.
It was in the early 1940s. The Klan was alive and well. But my great grandparents, Flossie and George, had a plan. In the middle of the night Flossie packed up the children and fled in a buggy. My grandmother was 4 years old at the time of the escape.
Afterwards, the overseer came knocking on the door asking, “Where are they?” George gave a convincing response declaring, “My wife left me and took the children.” He later quietly escaped, reuniting with his family in Augusta to build a new life for themselves.
This was my first personal Black history lesson.
They escaped about 20 years before Martin Luther King Jr. discovered there were people living in Albany, Georgia, who had never seen a dollar bill. Hangings were real, escaping was necessary, money was scarce.
Flossie and George are not people from an imaginary story.
I remember sitting on Flossie’s lap in a rocking chair. Sometimes she would chew her snuff and spit into an old can. She’d say in defiance, ” I chew my snuff and he don’t like it. But I chews it anyway.” At five years old I’d smile at her mischief…my first lesson in feminism.
Meanwhile, George would check my mouth for missing teeth. He’d then demand that my parents and the toothfairy, “Give this baby her money! Make sure they give you your money!” I’d smile at his concern…my first lesson on economics.
Anyone that reads Ta-Nehisi Coates’ latest masterpiece on The Atlantic will realize that it goes beyond the traditional conversation about reparations. It’s a beautifully woven story that works towards dismantling collective amnesia.
Conversations about reparations, entitlements, and the public welfare are often scoffed over and quickly dubbed as unfounded, unrealistic and unnecessary. Then rhetoric such as Paul Ryan’s, “culture of laziness” and Rick Santorum‘s “I don’t want to make
black blah people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money,” is quickly inserted as an effort to switch focus from the root causes of poverty in America.
Again and again we meet in battle the advocates of collective amnesia, that seek to not only ignore history but also change it.
Us descendants of the unpaid, indebted labor force are often told the past is irrelevant. Our attempts at coherent discourse are subdued as the world flashes before us and we see the handwriting on the wall. We’re told that remembering is “divisive”, this history is “non-existent”, and that most all “nobody owes us anything.”
It’s not really about owing. It’s about fixing and creating a country that is no longer mired in disparity or profitable through disenfranchisement. Recognizing that many of the current policies towards wages, education, healthcare, and housing are guided by a historically racist, classist, sexist discriminatory framework.
For me, that’s the most important aspect of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ piece…remembering and using this memory to guide us towards are more just nation.
This is why I’ll never forget the escape of Flossie and George.
Jessica Ann Mitchell