What I know right now is this – in 1850, my great-great grandfather James Henry Cumbo left his own family and went to live with a “white” family about 2 hours away from his home. This move was the beginning of my family’s identification as “white.”
I wonder what it might have felt like for my great-great-great grandmother Mary to send her oldest son – age 7 – away. To see him leave on foot, in a wagon, on horseback, it does not matter. To watch the back of his head recede down the dirt road, turning away before he turned back.
I imagine her crouched by the fire, her other three children nearby, a comfort, most certainly, and a reminder.
To watch him from afar, at the edge of his life, to hear from mutual friends about the boy that the lives with the Mallards. To never hold him close again.
Did she know my great-grandfather, Noah? Did she know my grandfather, Preston? Could she and I have both seen him – her watching her great-grandson play when her daughter took her by one sunny afternoon, me sitting beside him as we put together a jigsaw puzzle of a castle? Could we have shared him in life and not just in lineage?
I do not know what it would be like to be a black woman who had a son that could pass as white, to decide to take advantage of that opportunity – is it an opportunity? – to send away your own child so that he can seize hold of a privilege and in so doing to be separate from him forever.
Did she hope he would come out of farming, get an education? Was she disappointed to see her grandson, her great-grandson still sharecropping? Or did the continuation of family vocation thrill her, make her feel closer to her distant child?
I wonder what she sees now when she looks at my father – college degree, graduate degree, professor. I hope she approves, that she takes the hand of her son, who holds his son’s hand, who holds his son’s – my papa’s – hand – now reunited. I hope she sees their skin, so similar, so alike, so beautiful, and smiles.
I am researching the story of my father’s family – the Cumbos, the Suttons, the Browns, and the Andrews, in particular. We are descended from free people of color, from European immigrants, and from slave holders. I am just beginning this work, and I know so little. Each of these stories, each of these people is so complex. I hope you’ll join me on this journey to find my family, and I hope you will find yourself in these stories as well.