More and more Americans are connecting with their heritage. It’s why we are willing to spend hundreds of dollars on ancestry websites, which tell us our exact ethnic makeup down to the percentage. While this is informative and can be done from the comfort of our home, it also reinforces the idea that our ancestors are so far removed from us that our only hope of knowing anything about them is through a company.
As I recently learned, a much more transformative way to connect with our heritage is through visiting places which hold a wealth of history.
My story of connection started with USF’s Black Living Learning Community, which is a part of Black Achievement Success and Engagement, an initiative at USF which supports and empowers black-identifying students. In the living learning community, myself and 26 other black students live in Toler Hall and attend one class a semester together.
During winter break, our community had the chance to go on the Black Heritage Immersion Trip.
The trip, a 10-day tour of the Southern U.S., passed through cities deeply rooted in black history. I experienced a wide range of emotions while on this trip, which brought me far closer to my people than any DNA test, historical document, picture or film ever could.
Sorrow was almost impossible to avoid on this trip.
I felt it at Congo Square in New Orleans, where slaves reveled on their day off on Sundays from inhumane labor, only to feel the crushing blow of returning to being treated as property by the time night fell. I felt it when I stared at the inhumane living conditions which my enslaved ancestors endured on the Whitney Plantation in Wallace, Louisiana.
Juxtapose that with the opulence and luxury of the “Big House,” which was built with their labor.
I stood in the same small, dark and cold basement which many escaped slaves had stood in at the Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum in Memphis, Tennessee. While there, I could not help but imagine their feelings of accomplishment, relief and hope when they arrived, and how this must have conflicted with their feelings of exhaustion, anxiety and fear about the next steps of their journey to freedom.
Despite the sorrow, I was also able to experience the kind of unfiltered black joy on the trip that was cultivated at juke joints, black-owned and operated clubs which are prominent in the Southeast U.S. I felt it when my classmates and I let loose as we enjoyed food, music and dancing together one night in New Orleans. Seeing a room full of black people smiling with excitement in their eyes and no stress in their movements was one of the most beautiful experiences I have ever had, and one I will not soon forget.
I felt conflicting emotions; the joy I experienced did not make me immune to fear during various stages of the trip.
I was terrified by the seemingly endless rows of markers commemorating lives lost to lynchings at The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. I was shaken even more when I realized that the value of black life throughout this nation is still as low now as it was then, as shown by the prominence of extrajudicial police terrorism which has taken the lives of countless unarmed black people.
Contrasting the love I felt at 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, was the eerie similarity of the church’s bombing in 1963 and the fatal shooting at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015. Both crimes were driven by racism and hate and show that we, as black people, are still facing the same risk to our lives 50 years later, even in our sacred spaces.
In Merigold, Mississippi, I was again heartbroken to learn that Po’ Monkey’s, one of the last standing juke joints in the country, is scheduled to be demolished in a couple of months. This was a place where black people felt free to express themselves, to move their bodies, to talk and sing however they saw fit — a precious haven in times when they could be murdered for a prolonged glance at the wrong person or a misstep in the outside world.
Hearing about the fate of Po’ Monkey’s led me to an epiphany.
I realized that our sacred spaces and their historical significance are by no means permanent. It is up to those of us who recognize the historical merits of such places to fight for their survival. The historical importance of a place should hold as much weight as its practical value. Our history matters and plays an important role in both inspiring the next generation to fight for change and in uplifting and affirming the actions and values of our ancestors.
The emotional progression I experienced on the Black Heritage trip was a result of trying to understand, struggle with and ultimately accept the lessons which I was learning from visiting these sacred, ancestral places. Experiencing those emotions and learning about the actions of my predecessors in those spaces has brought me closer to them than I could have imagined. It has provided to me a much deeper understanding of my black heritage and it has inspired me to keep working towards change in the black community, both in and around USF, my hometown of New Orleans and hopefully, one day, across the country.