Columnist Tolley Jones: Claiming ownership

Published: 01-19-2023 11:16 AM

Two hundred and twenty-two years, seven months, and seven days ago, my ancestor Lucia, an enslaved woman and mother of two small girls, decided to risk capture, beatings, death, and being sold away from her children to escape her enslaver — her abuser — and to risk everything for the potential of a better life. She decided that the torture of her enslavement and the inevitability of her children’s continued suffering was intolerable and that she was not going to passively accept her assigned role.

Her genes were strong — either she or her parents survived the Middle Passage, a nightmare of disease, terror, inhumanity and death. She survived repeated rape. She survived whatever severe punishment was likely meted out to her when she was recaptured in her first attempt to flee with her 6-month-old firstborn. She survived the daily, constant degradation, privation, and trauma of enslavement, and instead of accepting inflicted misery as her permanent destiny, she plotted. She planned. She waited, and watched, and made her next move when the time was right.

She made it to freedom. Never again would she be forced to live for the benefit of someone else. Never again would she be forced to cook, clean, serve, and entertain anyone against her will. Never again would her body belong to someone else. Never again would her or her children’s futures depend on the whims and retaliations of a man who viewed them as possessions and satellites to his own demands and wishes.

Lucia’s grandson, John, was born free and lived free in Pennsylvania until he died of typhoid fever in 1854. There is a picture of him, looking just like my Uncle David (my mother’s brother,), and holding a baby who might be my great-great-great grandmother Rachel (named after his mother, who was born into slavery but died free.) Lucia’s fourth great-grandchild was my grandmother, Esther.

Grandma was born in 1927 and was 6 years old when the Great Depression began. She and my grandfather raised five children who were all, at one point, all under the age of 5. These facts contributed to why at every family get-together she constantly monitored the whereabouts of her children, “Where’s Patty? Where’s Charles?” even though her children were middle-aged and were not likely to wander off. Her traumas, both experienced and inherited, explains why she was sparing with affection, guarded. She and my grandfather coped with alcohol, stoicism, and grit. Their children were at various points debutantes, college students, police officers, entrepreneurs, musicians, artists, wives, husbands, and parents. All of them were flawed, beautiful, at times ugly, all of them products of generational trauma. Every one of them struggled, their souls in agony.

The only one of my grandmother’s children still alive is my mother. Her inherited trauma was overrun and reseeded by my father’s vast and profound trauma, descended from a long line of strong, yet fractured people scrabbling with desperate, broken fingernails to claw a place a little higher for their own children. His trauma filled our house, dictated every facet of my childhood, and became the albatross that my mother nurtures to this day.

My parents and the ancestors before them propped up their children with stained and torn sacks full of tears and pain and massive boulders that dig straps into shoulders, and pull backwards with the strength of the hands of Lucia’s enslaver pulling our entire line back to where he thinks we belong.

I, too, have suffered. I have added bricks and pieces of my flayed flesh into those sacks beneath me. I have added flasks of tears and hunks of wormwood and nightmares and heartache.

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But I do not accept the albatross. I cut the straps on the sacks I was given and used the strength of the love woven into their very fabric to continue to climb … up and up and up. This year is for reweaving those sacks into a warm tent for me and my children to collect light, laughter, and peace — a place just like Lucia fought to give us.

Tolley M. Jones lives in Easthampton. ]]>