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The blues are as old as misery. If she were a woman that would be her name “Miss Ery.” Shakespeare knew the blues when he said, “That friend who toils, and seeks for gain, and follows but for form, will pack when it begins to rain and leave you in the storm.” One of my mother’s favorite quotes, she knew the blues too, and introduced me to them at an early age. My dad would play nothing but the blues on a road trip, from L.A. to Nevada so if you wanted to listen to something else you’d better hide the B.B. King tape. The blues is the one form of secular music my dad would allow, and as omnipotent as they are I’m certain Jesus Christ must have known them too. For he sang them on calvary when he cried out, “My God, my god why hath thou forsaken me?” The blues is any human tragedy or painful situation that once suffered strengthens us and if it does’nt kill us gives us reason to look back, laugh about it, carry on, and continue living. The blues was the forbear for all genres of music. It was sister to the spiritual and reared in the same cotton fields where my ancestors labored without pay from sun up to sun down. It was a language spoken to the other slaves in code that the harvest was ripe for either insurrection or escape. “We gonna steal away, steal away, ’cause we ain’t got long to stay here.” If only I could have been an adult in those hot, dog days of summer, in the back woods of some smoke-filled juke joint dancing in cadence over the cedar wood floors, to the wails of the blues as she gave birth to jazz. In the era when, artist composed and sang by heart, they didn’t sample, or voice-over their work. I would love to have been alive then, in those days before synthesizers and amplifiers, when the best amp was the vocal cord and the primary instrument was the heart.
What I’d give to witness the lilting early voice of Billie Holliday, accompanied by the Prez, in the 1930’s or Muddy Waters, and Etta James. How exciting it must have been to have been present in 1944 when Norman Granz promoted his first concert at the Philharmonic Auditorium in Los Angeles. I would have been in my element, true daddies girl I am, bobbing my head and tapping my feet, just like in the days of those old chevy road trips to Vegas, to the tunes of Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, or Count Basie, but in person. The blues may be as old as misery, but they are as comical as slapstick. As my mom would say, “Child, you gotta laugh to keep from crying.” The blues are a comic reflection of our most intimate vulnerabilities, it is the joyous residual, rush of adrenaline which accompanies triumph over despair, as Lady Day sang it is our way of laughing at life. ~victori
Umoja (United) written 1992 revised.
Could it be you’ve heard of me,
though we’ve never chanced to meet?
or maybe, we shared a common ancestor,
amid the Saharan heat.
My ancestors were Fulani,
Yoruba and Oyo,
Our cousins were Ashanti,
Hausa and Sokoto,
I am the Mansa’s daughter,
the griot from Segu,
Could it be we’ve met before,
somewhere in Timbuctoo?
My mother? An Angolan warrior,
who fought the Portuguese,
in Queen Nzingha’s army,
bringing white men to their knees,
My father was a nobleman,
a scholar at Jenne;
before the transatlantic voyage,
departed from Goree.
They churched us with Jesus,
in the belly of ‘the Whale’,
then sold us into slavery,
and delivered us straight to hell,
Could be that you know me?
think you’ve seen my face before,
because they separated our family,
as soon as we reached the shore,
divided us by dozens,
and auctioned us on the block,
separated us from our cousins,
so we’d forget our talk,
customs, and our mores,
sold my brother to a planter,
sold my mother to a city store,
kept my sister in the big house,
and forced her to become Massa’s whore.
with no regard to his spouse,
then sold her mixed race children,
prior to the Civil war.
Now I think you know me,
or shall I print another page?
Now you know my history,
and pain, that doesn’t die with age,
I thought slavery ended,
in the year of jubilee,
instead I found my love offended,
tarred and feathered,
strung from a tree,
even after two Civil Rights bills,
we still ain’t free,
I know now you know me,
but I don’t want your apologies,
sympathy or blame,
this is about my ancestry,
and the need to know my own damn name!
give me back my family,
so my descendancy I can claim,
I know you know me, at least now you do,
Allow me to introduce myself,
for brother I am you!
Lebila’s husband our distant maternal father fished in Lake Chad and conducted trade and commerce along the Niger River. He was a farmer. Lebila an L3b1a haplogroup may have cultivated rice along the marshes surrounding Lake Chad. African rice has been cultivated for more than 3500 years, but maybe she and our distant maternal father we will call Eliba may have introduced the Asian species of rice to the West, which was introduced to East Africa by the Chinese and spread westward. Other crops that were cultivated were yams, cassava, and millet. Lebila and Eliba lived relatively peacefully for awhile, performing the necessary work required to sustain life and raise a family. They built villages surrounding the rivers and began a system of government that respected elders and was based on a system of democracy. They lived in northern Cameroon, near where the Benoue River runs north and west before it empties into the Niger River. Lebila didn’t relax long, though. It was there sometime in the sixteenth or seventeenth century our mother the daughter of Lebila also an L3b1a was captured and sold into the Transatlantic slave trade. We will call her Layla.
“They wanted us to walk, and so we did. We walked and walked. Our bodies trembling from the shock of being startled awake, violently pulled to our feet, kicking, screaming, punching to escape their grasp, the feel of their touch lingering yet upon our unwilling bodies. We smelled smoke. Saw fire fall. We watched in horror our village burn, our families subdued. We clawed at their skin with only our fingernails as weapons. Some of us tried to run to get a weapon, a rock, a stick, anything, only to be struck down in flight by our captors iron hollow reeds, which spit a deadly venom stinging any ambitious hero in flight, in the back, between shoulder blades, in the chest, the head, one by one they fell Lebila, our mother too, until even our bravest warriors surrendered without protest. We wondered what did they want from us? Were these the ascari’s of the despised, who did the White man’s bidding that was rumored about? Who were these white men? Did they look like the white sands of the deserts or the foam from the mouth of a dog raging with disease? None of us had ever saw one before. We came to a place where they branded each of us with a hot iron. The raw metal seared our flesh and burned its intention directly to our nerves”
Layla may have been captured in a group, in a raid on their village, marched along with others amid their captors, and taken to the Slave Coast. Their captors would stop to purchase merchandise which they tied on their backs and expected them to carry. Some of them were sold there, and never reached the coast. Many died of typhoid fever, malnutrion and disease. Layla made it to the Ocean. That enormous expanse of water frightened her because she had never seen anything like it before.
Upon reaching the Guinea Coast, they were detained in cramped pens, with high fortified walls, too high to climb, squatting in dirt, in open pens, no roof tops and exposed to the open sky above and the elements, the smell of rotten fish, excrement, and dysentery was nauseating, if they vomited there they were forced to sleep in it. They may have been detained here for weeks and put to work at the trading stations. Once a ship was anchored off the coast they were quickly canoed over and boarded on, confined in the hull of the ship tightly like sardines. Many committed suicide right there by jumping overboard and many more died from being forced to sleep in their own and others excrement. Disease was rampant, death took many and the voyage took many months. Layla may have been allowed on deck for domestic duties, women were often raped on board.
They arrived first in Jamaica, where they were dropped off and forced to labor on sugar plantations. Some of our kin was taken to Trinidad and Tobago. Layla’s descendants would be brought to Cross Hills, Laurens South Carolina sometime about 1834. Where Martha born about 1820 and who died sometime before 1880, would give birth to Clarisa Owens born 1853 and who died Oct 3, 1915. Clarisa would marry Lewis Holland and have sixteen children ten girls, including Alma Holland my grandmother who gave birth to five girls including our mother, Airlessa Shepard born April 24, 1923 and who died December 30, 2000 all of direct lineage maternal DNA L3b1a Lebila’s haplogroup, and two sons. Alma had been born with a debilitating rheumatoid arthritis which caused her foot to club. She could never relax. She was always busy caring for her younger brothers and sisters. She didn’t marry until she was thirty years old. She met and married James Shepard and of their seven children, the two males Marcellus and Homer would die young, without issue. Each of the remaining five females would marry but only one, Geneva Shepard-Perry would remain childless. Out of the other four girls twelve children would come but only three females to carry the L3b1a including myself. James Shepard had done for Alma what no person had ever done for her. He lifted her tired feet, rough heels as tough as whit leather, worn from performing domestic work, between his strong hands and wrung them like a rag, rubbing oil like life into her soles. She shuddered with a pleasure she’d never known, and for the first time in her life she relaxed.
She couldn’t relax. Our distant mother let’s call her Lebila, her DNA haplogroup was L3b1a. She was so in demand that traces of her are found all over the world except Antartica. She may have been quite beautiful, long graceful arms and legs, dark skin, kinky curls with bright eyes that glimmered like a dark night alive with fireflies, when she smiled. We may never know.
Whether she was an adult when she reached these shores or a child not yet in adolescence remains a mystery. All that is known is that she was very much in demand for either her labor or her love. She was never allowed to relax. Over sixty thousand years ago her mother left the Great Rift Valley in Eastern Africa, let’s call her Leyva, her DNA haplogroup was L3b and she was born in either Ethiopia or Addis Ababa. Her 4x great grandmother an L2-6 mutated from an L1-6 and this recombination likely occurred once in every three-thousand years.
Leyva may have been captured in the Arabian slave trade somewhere near the Horn of Africa, a peninsula which extends like an outstretched arm into the Arabian Sea. The Arab slave trade which began in the mid-seventh century still survives today in Mauritania and Sudan. Once captured she was probably taken to the slave markets of Zanzibar and sold by a Berber or an Arab merchant to a Sultan of Islam to be his domestic servant, or his private dancer, or concubine. She could have been trained in domestic activities, learning to keep house, if a virgin, she would have brought a high price.
Her daughters haplogroup M and N let’s call them Mayling and Nairobi, either left Africa and inhabited the rest of the world moving first to North Africa or South Asia, but her sisters migrated west. Our mother Lebila, amongst them either in a migratory flow seeking arable land to farm, or as a captive of an Arab slavemaster, or fleeing Arab subjugation and colonialism.
Somehow, our mother Lebila found her way to the West Coast of Africa South of the Sahara. She and our ascendants may have settled near Lake Chad a large shallow body of water which is all that remains of a former Sea. She lived in Cameroon one of the four countries surrounding Lake Chad which includes Niger, Nigeria, and Chad, and she may have spoken Kwa a bantu language. She may have spoken several bantu languages fluently such as Yoruba, Hausa, Igbo, Kanuri, Ibibio and Fulfulde.
There be Bantu in our blood,
Inkongo, and Budya,
Bassa-vah, and Swahili,
Ganda, Ga, and Ba-kossi,
if Kikuyu, then Macame,
spring from Kota? then Mahongwe,
all lovers of the song,
all writer’s of the wrong,
from the valley of the rift,
we carried this thick swift,
language of our mother tongue,
thick as alluvial mud,
‘Cause there be Bantu in our blood.
We come from the Mountains of the Moon,
to the Mount of Cameroon,
from the Bight of Biafra,
to the plight of the diaspora,
we demand, the Bantu that was stole,
give us our words to restore our soul,
but we from Benin, always winnin’
made a language all our own,
Washita muur, or Seminole song,
language people, hooked on phonics,
we be talkin’ wit’ ebonics,
the same who created scattin’
are the same one’s created Pig Latin,
it don’t matter we be rappin’
Gullah, Creole, Patois,
!Klick, Kru, Sheetswa,
always quick to ask, “Say what?”
‘Cause there be Bantu in our blood.
We be spittin’ Hottentotten,
jazz, the blues, we’ll spoil you rotten,
we be speakin’ Wolof too,
French or English, parlais vu?
Before us, the King’s language was a dud,
But we injected Bantu in its blood.
So fed up with the rape and the lies,
my granddad ran away,
but they brought him back twice,
They cut off his foot the last time that he ran,
lt served its purpose made him feel less than a man.
He would’ve been worthless,
had they cut off his hands.
That Sunday they went to church,
and spoke about Christ,
how he healed the sick,
and caused the dead to rise.
If you speak about freedom,
then it comes with a price,
They preached how he made,
the ultimate sacrifice.
So fed up with the rape and the lies.
My grandma was raped,
right before grandaddy’s eyes,
by his own father, and she gave birth twice,
She named one Joe, the other one Ann,
Granddad never touched grandma again,
It served its purpose,
made him feel less than a man.
Massa went to war,
and brought his faithful slave Joe,
Up until then Joe didn’t know,
Until, grandma told, then it all hit the fan,
Massa used Joe as a human sheild,
to uphold the Confederacy was Massa’s will.
Joe had another plan,
he laid down on the field,
so that the bullets struck massa,
and he was killed,
which ended massa’s service,
and the Union did stand,
but it served another purpose,
made Joe feel more like a man!
victori Sep 16, 2012
On turning fifty…
At some point you lose, sight of the fight,
get confused and forget,
when you look back over your life,
just what you were fighting for?
by that time your mind is set,
and you refuse to fight anymore.
Passenger of my own doubt,
driver of my own fear,
no stranger to pain,
and troubles, I’ve had my share,
I’ve called on the Lord,
but never in vain,
and entertained angels unaware.
At age fourteen, I had a dream,
about how life should be,
by twenty-one I’d finish school,
not be a fool, and be married by twenty-three,
by twenty-four I’d have a child,
who’d look exactly like me.
Instead, I stayed in bed too long, or on the run,
’cause that dream escapes me,
I found myself at forty-one,
no daughter nor son, waking up alone,
still unmarried at fifty, single to the bone,
but feeling rather nifty!
I no longer believe in fairy tales,
nor do tears replace the laughter,
I realize the time I’ve wasted,
not reading between the lines,
and as I close another chapter,
I no longer seek for truth in signs,
nor for lies, of happily-ever-after.
~victori Oct 1, 2012