To Own a Legacy
Like a snowball rolling downhill, I am tumbling nonstop, searching for a definitive connection between memories and places and the formation of human identity. I’ve written a bit about this concept in a previous post titled Memory and Intangibility however, for the sake of your time spent reading this, I will fast-forward and pick up from where I ended there.
Last year, The New York Times Magazine published The 1619 Project, an interesting re-contextualizaion of American History, which included an audio docuseries that aimed to reframe the general understanding of America’s legacy of American slavery. The series revisits well known topics but discusses America’s motivations for slavery and provides lesser known insight into slavery’s direct impact on the development crucial American systems like capitalism, international financing, and healthcare. Having recently completed the series I found an illuminating connection to seemingly unrelated concepts I’ve been researching and my efforts to find an existing connection between memories, places, and identity were affirmed.
In part two of the fifth episode of the 1619 Project podcast series a Mississippi sugarcane farmer, Wenceslaus ‘June’ Provost Jr., is being interviewed about an ongoing lending discrimination case wherein he suffered the heartbreaking loss of his family’s generational sugarcane farm. In the interview, June is grieving the loss of his family’s multigenerational legacy, and his late father who passed the land down to him. He makes note of a sharp and recurring point of grief for him; His family’s farm is only 50 yards away from the home in which he resides.
“I get up every single morning and the first thing I see is my home… You know, I lost the home in September of last year, they have yet to cut the grass – fence is like falling down… I’ve gotta relive that everyday. Every single day…”– June Provost Jr., “The Land of Our Father’s, Part 2”, The 1619 Project, The New York Times, Oct. 11, 2019.
Hearing this, I couldn’t help but think of the concepts in my art practice and how I’ve been collecting research on the psychological formation of identity by place and memory. In doing so, I am making it a point to revisit the personal properties, homes and places that landmarked memorable experiences for me and that contributed greatly to who I have come to identify myself as.
Using virtual maps online, I searched for my paternal grandparent’s home in Alexander City, AL, a place where my sister and I would spend our summer breaks from school. My grandparents owned a trailer on about 15 – 20 acres of land upon which he farmed corn, green beans, okra and other foods. Thus, spending the summer in “Alex-City ” really meant I was working on the farm. As I searched for the land on Google, I had no address and the only directions I could remember were fragmented memories of a dirt road, hella pine trees and a long unpaved, gravel driveway. Without a physical address, I struggled to locate the land using maps. I called my Dad to help me out and after we located it, I told him that I had planned on revisiting the property for a film project. It was then that I found out the property no longer remained in the family. Needless to say, I was shocked.
I struggled to articulate this concept so much that I had almost written it off as a dead end, believing that perhaps I had been reaching a bit too far out from reality. But this is reality. Listening to the final episode of the 1619 project, hearing the crumble in June’s voice as he tearfully expressed his grief for the loss of his family’s home, I understood all too well what he was going through. It is an erasure of legacy, memory, and the physical markers of our identities; A remarkable trauma that can only be understood by experience.
“I wouldn’t wish that on anybody…”– June Provost
It is common in the western world to view our homes as external objects to be bought and sold, traded and abandoned at will. We consider a home as a capitalistic investment meant to serve us physically and economically. But what of the spiritual contribution of a home? They are the family members that often outlive us. Their walls held our secrets, and muffled our cries in the night. Their floors carried our aunts and uncles as babes as they stumbled to take their first steps. Their windows carried our boisterous laughter in the winds. Our homes are the vessels of our legacies, both recording and containing the information that we use to show who and how we see ourselves to be in the world.
It is a troubling experience to have the places that shape our identities stripped from us crumble in our hands, an experience that African Americans experience all too commonly. I appreciate The New York Times for publishing The 1619 project, and that the project is open ended, allowing and encouraging its audience to collaborate in the research by sending in their own archives and materials. I hope that this project becomes a resource of education and solidarity for the black community to inform ourselves collectively on what our history actually entailed.
If you have yet to listen to The 1619 Project, I encourage you to do so. The information is listed below.
Stay resilient friends,