Then, as the show begins researching Condoleezza Rice’s family from this county in Alabama, I see the very courthouse records room, the very blue-capped ladder, the very canvas coated books of wills that nearly broke my neck as I hefted them down from above my head. I start pointing at the screen, “I’ve been there. I’ve been there.
In that room, I found people I had searched months for – records of their existence in that county as slaves of the man who owned them here in Virginia, where I sit now, where I write these stories. In that room, I found another part of the story to carry home and tell.
Now, Henry Louis Gates is telling Condoleezza Rice that her people are from there, too. My mind begins to race: What if Sec. Rice is related to my people? I have to find out. What will Joe and Carol say if I can tell them that their cousin is the former Secretary of State? I am giddy.
Then, Sec. Rice says, “I’ve always thought that this is the kind of unhealed wound in America … That we have trouble talking about what really happened during slavery. We have trouble talking about the scars of that. … That’s the unspoken and the unfinished business of race in America.”
My eyes tear. Yes, I think. Yes. That’s it. We want to pretend this didn’t happen. That it wasn’t as bad as we all know, somewhere in ourselves, that it was. We want to focus on the Civil War or on the scandals – Jefferson and Hemmings as an aberration – and not the reality of what was horrific, painful, profoundly wounding.
But we can’t. We can’t do that and heal.
So today, as I feel giddy over Condoleeza’s family in Greene County, as I hope to find more records for my people in the local courthouse this afternoon, as I thank Gates for his program and hope he makes many more, I am also very sad, sad that almost every day I hear someone say the equivalent of, “Why can’t people just get over this? Why can’t we just move on?”
As if moving on from reality is possible. As if it’s even possible.
If you’re interested in watching the full video of last night’s episode of Finding Your Roots with Samuel L. Jackson, Ruth Simmons, and Condoleezza Rice, you can find it here.