2019 will be a fascinating journey for me. It has started with a bang. I have spent the first part of January reading books that take me deep into the jungles of the African continent. I read the story of one of the last people brought to the United States on a slave ship. He spoke of what his life was like before being captured. He spoke of his family and their customs, the rituals to become a man and get married.
More important, he spoke of the process of being captured to be a slave and what it was like watching everyone he loved being murdered. Like the author of the book, for many years I thought that the Europeans had seized the Africans from their native homes. But in Barracoon by Zora Neal Hurston, the old African man told a different story.
He spoke of other African tribes who ruthlessly killed entire villages just to capture the young and strong people to sell to the Europeans. These killers left their regular way of life, which was farming, to become slavers. Motivated by greed, they created soldiers that could terrorize and take out a whole village. These soldiers were paid by the number of heads they brought back. The skulls were collected as a prize by their king.
It made me think. As these greedy people sold off all of their strength for material wealth, they were not prepared to fight the colonization that would overtake and suppress them. It reminds me that the greedy people today won’t get away with their evil deeds. They are just getting prepared to be undone by something more evil than themselves.
Another book took me into a different part of the continent. I loved reading how Nelson Mandela’s father was the family historian. He could recount the family’s history for hundreds of years, yet he could read or write. Our history was repeated by word of mouth through the generations.
It reminded me of my own family who would sit and tell stories of the way it used to be. Even today I question older relatives to the point of annoyance because I want to know more. I want to know what it was like and what they did. But I am finding that some of the secrets older people tried to keep, are coming to light.
But this part of the journey makes me appreciate a history told orally and through art, like masks and other sculpture. It tells us what is beautiful. What is powerful. What is important. The thing I appreciate about African Art is that it finds beauty in the work. It is not an exact replica of someone or something. It just is.
We need to do the same. We need to tell our children the stories orally of our family. We need to create art that represents what legacy we leave behind. Many of the previous generations of my family were poor and undereducated. They did not think they were leaving much behind, but the truth is they left a lot.
I love the story Nelson tells of the first pair of pants he wore. They were not a brand new pair fresh from the tailor. They were an old pair of his father’s pants. His father cut them off so they would fit, and used a rope around the waist to hold them up. Nelson said it was one of the proudest moments of his life.
Think about what legacy you are leaving your family. What kind of objects are you making to represent it? Do your children know your family’s story? Do you? Remember when you carve out your part of your family history, it does not have to look like someone else’s. Like the African mask, it only represents what you want it to.