“Are we the Gatekeepers of the Great Negro Library?”
“The Negro Library. Are we the Gatekeepers?”
“Malaka, what are you talking about???”
“Oh, God. No! I’m gone again…”
Whoosh! Off I went to the next corner of space.
I may – or if I actually had some shame – may have not told you about the time that I got completely cannabis blasted with my uncle and cousins on April 20th, 2019. I don’t do recreational drugs. I drink a glass of wine occasionally and fall asleep right afterward. So why I thought I could consume a whole edible all by myself and keep up with seasoned Herb Heads is anyone’s best guess. One day I may tell you all about the inter-dimensional trip I took that night, but those details aren’t important for this story. The import is the utility that the weed served that fateful evening: which was to unlock a memory that had been buried deep in my psyche for many years.
“The Great Negro Library” was encased in a cavern, protected by a great stone door. A massive volume of knowledge emanated a light so bright and blinding that it shot through the frame of the gateway. The glow was both tempting and terrifying. Naturally, someone would have to oversee access to this information. Had the Ancients entrusted this task to my weed-smoking, Lays chips eating family? They must have. Why else would this vision have been revealed unto me? When I finally came off my high (three days later), I pieced together the puzzle. “The Great Negro Library” was actually my grandfather’s basement and the “massive volume of knowledge” was an A4 sized piece of paper that he had stored with his important documents. I remember seeing it when I was young and asking him about the duck egg blue paper with pretty angels hovering in the corner.
“Don’t touch it,” Papa Sam said then. “I’ll tell you about that later.”
Sadly, my grandfather passed away just a few short years later – not long after my 8th birthday – so I never got a chance to ask him about the pretty paper. But I could ask his son – my uncle with the treats – if he knew anything about it.
“Yeah! I know what you’re talking about. That’s our family tree. Come on by and I’ll show it to you.”
And that’s how the journey of discovery of my roots began.
I’ve developed an interest in origin stories in recent years and have always had an affinity for history. However, that interest has not extended to my personal history until now. I suppose this new curiosity is driven by the newer sense of mortality that guides my thoughts and actions. Like, I’m going to die one day – I’ve always known that – but with every ache and pain I wake up with, I realize that appointed time is closer than I previously considered. This causes one to ask themselves existential questions and to query whether one’s forebears asked themselves similar questions. You may have seen the new adage, “I am my ancestor’s wildest dreams” expressed on t-shirts and different social media platforms. I have quoted it myself on numerous occasions, but as I’ve done digging into my background I have to wonder how accurate that statement is. One user on Twitter retorted to the sentiment this way:
“Sure you are: Overweight, sedentary wasting your life away on a PS4 and in debt.”
It takes a great deal of hubris to assume intimate knowledge of the dreams, hopes and aspirations of a person you’ve never met, whose reality is so foreign to you that even their name is a mystery. The realization of the depths of such ignorance ought to be humbling. That’s why I approached my search with humility, and why I believe I was rewarded with a trove of information and goodwill that I can only attribute to the benevolence of those unknown – and at long last, named – ancestors.
My search began with a supplication.
“God: If I can just find my grandfather’s grandmother, I will be satisfied.”
My grandfather’s grandmother’s name was Peachie.
All I’ve ever known about my mother’s people is that they came from a place called Davistown and that it was in Kentucky. I had heard about Davistown when I was little and thought it was cool that my Papa Sam -Samuel Davis – had a small city named after him. Turns out it was a mere coincidence. I began my search with the details from his birth certificate which was registered in Lancaster in Garrard County, Kentucky. If I could find his mother and her marriage records, then I could begin weaving a thread, I reasoned. Explaining the nature of my search, the kind clerk who took my call told me that he had no record of a Virginia Dunn who was married to a Sam Davis.
“I have a marriage bond for Peachie Dunn, though. She was married in 1875.”
My grandfather was born in 1922, so there was no way that this Dunn woman was his mother. I explained this to him, asked a few more questions, thanked him for his assistance and hung up the phone, defeated. A few days later, I called my uncle and informed him about my progress, failing to mention Peachie. Could he give me any details from the family that he has?
“Yeah,” he said. “I can’t make out too many names, but I see Samuel Davis and som’n about a peach.”
“Peachie???” My heart felt like it was going to burst through my rib cage. It couldn’t be. Had I actually found her?
“Could be. Bring a magnifying glass when you come.”
“I’ll be there in four days.”
I didn’t have much time left in Ohio. The only reason I’m here in the US at all is to pick up my daughter who’s been stuck here since the borders closed last year and the majority of my time has been spent gathering documents for her South African visa. I needed to get to Kentucky as soon as possible. When would I have this opportunity again? Fortunately, the drive from Springfield, OH to Lancaster,KY is a short 3 hour soca party drive away. For the first time in my life as I drove over the Ohio River, I appreciated the gumption it must’ve taken my grandfather and his six siblings to move from rural Kentucky to a city as large and bustling as Cincinnati and then for some onto Columbus and Detroit.
The emotions I battled the morning I prepared for my departure were nearly overwhelming. Peachie, I had discovered by then, was born in 1854 which means she was barely older than my youngest child when the Civil War ended as was emancipated from slavery. Had she been trafficked from some other part of the country or was she born in Kentucky? Had she had people ripped from her in her childhood? How did she feel when she realized that she was free? Why did my heart race at the thought of going to a place that represented both bondage and liberation, prison and home for my ancestor? She had been born in Garrard but never left. It would be too much to ask to get answers for these questions, but Peachie and God had positioned an angel for me in Lancaster. Her name is K*.
K* is not just a clerk in the county clerk’s office, she is a historian in her own right and a woman in possession of so much generosity that it buoys even the saddest spirit. She guided me through the office’s archival system, talked with me at length about her own life and interests, enquired about mine and gave me the keys to unlock the safe that harbored information about my family that filled me with more pride than I could’ve hoped to hold. I discovered that not long after emancipation, my great x3 uncles bought 10 acres of land in Davistown. My 4th great grandfather was on the board of trustees for the Davistown Baptist church. They were property owners and respected by the community. Their descendants went on to fight in wars in defence of a country that would not give them full citizenship until long past its due, would travel the world and become healthcare professionals, mathematicians, serial entrepreneurs, swindlers, authors, bums and bullshitters. (#Balance)
K* and I have kept up communication and she has even deigned to call me a friend. This is not a title I accept lightly and am honored that she considers me such.
You can of course imagine the depths of my gratitude for the discoveries I’ve made and with such relative ease. I could feel Peachie guiding me through the process and am unsure how to express my thanks except to say “thank you”. However, when you’ve been given much, it’s only natural to explore how much more you might be able to get.
“Okay, God. If I could just find Peachie’s mother and father…THEN I would be satisfied.”
When I have more information about them, I will tell you about Mary and Nelson Dunn. (((SCREAMS INFINITELY)))
I don’t know if my life as I’m living it represents my ancestors’ wildest dreams, but I hope that it is one that they are proud of, that my accomplishments are worthy of their numerous sacrifices, and that long after I’ve left this earth my descendants will find me as fascinating and complicated and worthy of inquiry as I have found them.