Letter to Editor: My personal attempt to make Black history ‘real’

(Photo courtesy of Michèle G. Turner)

I have often thought about what it means to substantively celebrate Black History Month in an institution that may not be able to fully contextualize the premise, given that about 95% of the student demographic has no Black familial ancestry. Superficially, it seems simple to casually offer celebratory acknowledgement or to attend an event or to cheer on someone excelling in sports from the sidelines. Yet the essence of the 29 days in February are much more profound, hard fought and earned, and are truly sacred to those of us who do share the direct connection to slavery in America. 

And it seems to me, incumbent in the 21st century that, certainly in the collegial environment, we collectively move beyond the superficial to do the hard work of undoing moral confusion caused by the devaluation and dismissal of heritage that may not be shared. Sometimes we must get personal to set that example.

I thought it  might be interesting in this case to offer some of my own personal history, with the goal to make an important legacy “more real” to students, hopefully sparking curiosity as well as compassion. Thus, I am sharing one of my family’s most treasured photographs. 

It is a picture of my great-great-grandparents, seated with their children — to include my great-grandfather, standing in the right-hand corner. This is the only photo we have of my great-grandfather’s family. It is significant in several ways however, apart from the manner in which it anchors my family as Americans. 

First, this is a rare photo taken around the early 1890s, about 30 years after emancipation. What is equally notable is that this time-period marked the first in which nuclear Black families could actually legally exist, so there were not only few photos but no family records prior to this time. Families during the period of slavery were typically ripped apart and seldom knew of their parentage or siblings. I do not know of my own history beyond this image.

My great-great-grandfather was the son of the plantation owner. My great-great-grandmother was the daughter of a Ghanaian woman, who she was separated from early in her childhood. Both my great-great-grandparents had the same last name when they were married, meaning they were once considered property by the same family. Still carrying this last name as freed former slaves, my great-great-grandparents lived, worked and prayed in Jim Crow Virginia — the period of Reconstruction due to segregationist legislation that successfully disenfranchised Blacks after the Civil War. 

Having limited access to education and citizenry, my great-aunts and uncles, who are also in the picture, could only grow up to become farmers and maids. My grandfather also sharecropped alongside my great-grandfather until he left the farm as a young adult and settled in a nearby town after meeting my grandmother. He worked as a janitor and many odd jobs until he retired but was the first in his family to own his home and property. Imagine then, the glory of my father being able to break away to attend college at North Carolina A&T. 

Yet, my father’s young, exhuberant joy was short-lived, since upon discovery that he was dating my mother, he was forced to leave his classes in the dead of night under threat of lynching. My parents drove all night to Brooklyn where they were married and caught a train to San Francisco the next day, riding in separate cars, seeking safety. With a degree in nuclear engineering from UC Berkeley in hand, my father waited tables for four years until 1965, when he would be hired by Standard Oil Company after the Civil Rights Act was passed.

My brother and I attended USC as undergrads together and have since gone on to obtain multiple degrees, own businesses, create lives far removed from this photo  — but the photo remains a piece of evidence which truthfully contextualizes American history.

It is on my heart and mind daily that I am just four generations descended from former slaves. My legacy overcomes the most brutal delegitimizing circumstances, attitudes and beliefs attributed to slavery, Jim Crow and miscegenation in this country. Every time I look at this photo, I get chills knowing that my great-great-grandparents could never imagine my life today, one that is finally determined more by choice rather than by unjust design. 

And for me, this is exactly what is essential throughout our celebrations of Black History Month: the narratives that underscore the toil and hope that has been endured by others, even if not like yourself, to assure a more humane and just society. Yes, every student here at USC has benefited from this unredeemable history and has cause to embrace all there is to celebrate: lived milestones that continue to be foundational to a future devoid of race-hate, violence and bias. 

Michèle G. Turner

Executive Director

USC Black Alumni Association

Correction: A previous version of this article referred to the writer’s great-great-grandmother as her great-great-grandfather. The Daily Trojan regrets the errors.