American History

great grandma’s mantle

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There is one thing I wish I had kept when my great grandmother passed away: her poster of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and the Kennedy Brothers. None of them were perfect men, but all of them have so much to teach us. On the day many of us honor King, I think of them, but also her.

She never drove. Indeed, I remember taking a bus with her from the Sugar Shack, a boarding house for men that she managed on Grand Avenue in Miami’s Coconut Grove community. It was a two story house raised off of the ground the way Bahamians built them to keep the air flowing underneath, cooling the structure. I used to sit on the second floor veranda and watch the world go by.

Sometimes, as I have written elsewhere, she would take me downtown on a bus, one that passed right passed the Sugar Shack. We’d sit at a lunch counter at Woolworth’s and share a burger. I don’t recall her saying anything much about those trips. It was the late 1960s and early 1970s, a time when much might have still been in the memory of a woman of African and Native American descent who spent most of her life in Mississippi. In her memory and that of King and the Kennedys I write today. Still so much work to do to aid social progress. The everyday microaggressions and the news headlines suggest as much.

I am reminded now of California, an enslaved woman who hung amalgamation prints on her cabin wall, angering the plantation manager so much, he wrote her master saying California has got this idea in her head that she is “free.” How the act of simply hanging something on a wall could get her to this firmer place is on my mind today and this week as my grad students and I turn to California via the research of the late historian Stephanie M.H. Camp and the travels of Lauren Elkin. Whether standing still or moving through space, the marginalized across time can, indeed, understand that despite all things manifesting to the contrary, we are free.

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