Insight News

Feb 06th

12 Years a Slave reflections: American slavery as close as three generations

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lizzie-harrisonI saw 12 Years a Slave for the 2nd time Saturday. When I came home, the family photograph on the dining room mantle caught my eye. I was 4 years old in this 1951 photo. I sat at the feet of Big Mama, our grandmother, Martha Nall. To my right were my cousins Bernard, his twin brother, Burnele, and their brother Robert. To my left were my sister Kathleen, cousin William, and Bernard, Burnele and Robert’s older brother, Lonnie. Lonnie is seated in front of his dad, Mr. Powell, the patriarch of our extended family. We were in the Powell house, a huge brownstone, that was also home for my grandmother and grandfather and aunts who lived with them in the building’s 2nd story apartment. My sister and new baby brother Raymond Lee, and our mom and dad lived in the three room efficiency on the third floor.

Mr. Powell is holding his only daughter and last child, Teola, who we called Baby Sister. Teola would eventually inherit and reside in the brownstone at 2801 Brooklyn Avenue. An entrepreneur at heart, Baby Sister created a successful home based graphic design and printing enterprise that enabled the eventual acquisition of most of the houses on the block. Next to my uncle Mr. Powell and Baby Sister is my Aunt Teola, we call her Mrs. Powell. She is the epitome of elegance and class. At the other end of the sectional divan is Aunt Della. Aunt Della was mentally ill. Some years later, I watched her spill out of a rocking chair and die in a pool of vomit. She lived on the 2nd floor with Big Mama & Dad, our grandfather, Elder Lee Nall, a retired railroad worker and now pastor of our family church, Prayer Temple Church of God In Christ. Next to Aunt Della, my mom holds my 4 month old brother, Ray. Between my mom, Maxine McFarlane, and her mom, Big Mama, sits regally bespectacled, Lizzie Harrison, Big Mama’s mother, my mother’s grandmother, and my great grandmother. Lizzie Harrison is 92 years old. She dies at 101 in 1959.

She was born a slave.

Slavery is not that far away. Think about it: A woman who was born into slavery, whose parents were considered white people’s property, touched me, loved me.

This photo reminds me that the past that she and her forbearers endured, cannot, must not be forgotten. It doesn’t go away. I stand in it, on it. It is the source of the future I am creating in this eternal moment.

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