I am the great granddaughter of slaves from Alabama. I can’t imagine how horrible their lives must have been. I have no idea how long ago my earlier ancestors were captured in Africa and shipped to America in chains, their lives suddenly turned into nightmares.
My great grandparents were deprived of the “unalienable rights” of “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness” proclaimed in America’s Declaration of Independence – a document that says “all men are created equal.” The ugliness and injustice of their slavery made a mockery of the beautiful words of the great Declaration.
I thank God that the immoral, sinful institution of slavery is long gone. It was a cancer of the soul of our great country. But it’s good to be reminded sometimes just how bad things were in the past, so that we can fully appreciate our lives today.
We have a lot to appreciate today – even though sometimes many of us forget that. America is the greatest nation on Earth. And while racism has not disappeared, America is our home. What house can stand if its inhabitants are divided?
Recently my family and I visited one of the stations along the underground railroad outside of Philadelphia to retrace the steps of escaped slaves.
The underground railroad wasn’t actually a railroad. It was a series of safe houses – “stations” they were called – that provided refuge to escaped slaves from the South risking their lives to seek the freedom that was their God-given human right. They often traveled at night and on foot – never knowing if they would be captured and enslaved once again.
Imagine, if you can, stepping into the shoes of an escaped slave – if they had shoes, that is. Imagine summoning up the courage to walk up the back steps of one of those safe houses.
Trembling, you knock on the door. Fear and hope fill your racing heart. When the person on the other side opens the door you wrestle the passwords from your lips: “A friend of a friend sent me.”
You hope beyond hope that the person opening the door is truly a friend, and that the door will be another step on your road to freedom. You hope the person will provide you with refuge – and not a whip, or chains, or a bullet.
While at the safe house, we had the opportunity to read some of the stories of the escaped slaves recorded by William Still, one of the founders of the underground railroad.
One of the stories hit a chord with me because it was about a mother I could readily identify with. The woman was named Betsy, a slave who fled to freedom because her baby boy almost died one day while she was laboring in the field of her master. Think about that word – her master. Someone who owned her as if she was a dog instead of a human being.
It’s a daunting thing to consider that truly was a reality for many who looked very much like me and my two beautiful black babies. I don’t know what this feels like. Not one black American alive today knows what this feels like.
Betsy wanted the freedom to care for her baby and she wanted her son to grow up in freedom, instead of worrying that he would be taken from her and sold to the highest bidder at an auction. This brave woman, in her heart, wanted what I and every mother wants – the best for our children.
So what does this all have to do with today – particularly for the lives of black Americans?
Betsy was a slave. Her whole environment told her she was not even human. She had no rights. At any moment, her master could radically change her situation and she would be able to do nothing about it. Yet, she was not helpless. She would not succumb to “white privilege.” She and her posterity would be free.
As we look at the culture around us today, the agitation is palpable. We see this growing intensity behind the narrative that black lives are in danger, that black people are victims and that white privilege is the culprit. Innocent lives are being lost, blood is being spilled and opportunities are being wasted.
There may be those in very high places who are constantly telling you that you’re a victim, that it’s someone else’s fault, that you can’t achieve this or that because the odds are stacked against you. Ignore them.
My message to my fellow black Americans is simple: There may be those in very high places who are constantly telling you that you’re a victim, that it’s someone else’s fault, that you can’t achieve this or that because the odds are stacked against you. Ignore them.
We are not slaves! We are free! I am not a victim, my children are not victims, and all black people are no longer victims. We are smart, talented, hardworking and have the same legal rights as all other Americans.
We have received a great inheritance from our strong and proud ancestors. We are victors. You have not been fatally wounded. Remember that.
If Betsy could succeed, you can succeed. Learn from our shared history of struggle, study hard and work hard and write a story of triumph over adversity that your grandchildren and great grandchildren will be proud to read.
You can be more than your environment. Just believe. And may God bless America, where the beautiful ideals of the Declaration of Independence are belatedly but finally accepted and embraced by our great nation.