Growing up, African American history was part of my life in many ways. Coming of age in Waverly Virginia, a rural town that sits between Richmond and Suffolk known as ‘peanut country,’ I experienced pre and post Civil Rights conditions of the 1950s through 1970s of a segregated environment. The extended family provided a root connection by visiting relatives who shared narratives of persevering through Jim Crow journey. My grandfather took me and other children to the cemetery on Memorial Day to honor the ancestral souls. Teachers occasionally recited the works of some of the Harlem Renaissance poets in my classrooms. Our Baptist faith wrapped me in the lessons of hope and freedom. Key moments in black history took place as I grew up during the 1960s, right in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, along with significant debates on race and place. I remember the assassination of John F. Kennedy and its impact because of the shocked, fearful look on my third grade teacher’s face as she shared the grim news with the class. I personalized this atrocity and wondered, Why are they after us?
Clarity on this Movement was evident to my then thirteen-year-old mind by the time Dr. King was killed in 1968. His assassination was definitely about black people and our rights, particularly of poor ones like us. Later that year, Bobby Kennedy fell. Yet the country started a new chapter of change with legislation directed toward a new phase of equality. The following academic year, integration became official so black and white came together to learn. But not without challenge.
These experiences grounded me in this good and bad. As an adult I took my cultural education to another level, by reading books and attending art events. I watched Alex Haley’s “Root’ as a college student and was deeply moved. Then the big two: I went to Senegal, the Gambia, Togo, Ivory Coast and Ghana in the late 1990s and did the DNA test for my African ancestry in 2009, seeking connection to my history beyond the books! The photo with this story is of me at the Door of No Return Slave Castle, Goree Island off the coast of Dakar Senegal. In the Gambia my tour went to the village where Kunta Kinte was born. I’ve visited the slavery exhibits at Williamsburg, Mount Vernon, and Monticello. My motto is ‘ if my ancestors got through that, I can surely get through the trials of today’ as I draw strength from their hallowed story. All has been very affirming and led me to also write and speak on diversity as well as publish books geared toward African American success. God’s Providence has prevailed and I revel in our progress as a people.