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Not Your Happy Slave’s Lullaby… By Mae Catherine Godhigh

A lullaby is a quiet, gentle song sung to send a child to sleep. I gave pause after reading this definition. History gives us a moment to reflect. A history that causes divisions and tensions is a common plague to humans everywhere. We do not appreciate or respect the other as we intend or as we are able. American history is much like a lullaby. The atrocities committed against black people were intentionally omitted and white-washed in our textbooks and curriculum. One only has to look at what happened in 1921 in Tulsa, OK. The truth of that massacre has yet to be written much less owned.

Mae Catherine Godhigh at Legacy Pavilion

Even from the era of George Washington, artists depicted enslaved African-Americans as happy and content. During Jim Crow this lie was further perpetuated through force and intimidation by white southerners and some willfully ignorant northerners. Do you believe slavery was a necessary evil for the expansion of the United States of America? I’ll let you decide while I take a closer look at the miseducation of black people.

My search for truth led me approximately 730 miles from my front door. Early the next day, we landed at the entrance to the Legacy Museum located in Montgomery, Alabama. I was armed with oral stories from my ancestors and I longed to see the documentation of their struggle. With my daughter and grandson in tow, we embarked upon a journey that would forever impact our lives.

We entered the corridor and the solemn procession began. We were not prepared for what lay ahead nor could we have ever been. Silently we moved from station to station, I took notice of the diversity in the crowds. Because of Covid-19, we wore our mandated masks. In this space, our facial expressions were hidden but the eyes told the stories. It was the eyes that spoke volumes. People and families from all races and nationalities were peacefully assembled under one roof.

Their purpose for the visit was to discover and uncover our nation’s underbelly and its concealed truths. In the eyes of many visitors, I watched the bewilderment, horror and tears unfold.

At a snail’s pace we moved through the exhibits. I began to remember those oral stories passed down to me. It was apparent, black and oppressed people from all over this country, couldn’t all be liars. There in plain sight lay the evidence, bloodshed, domestic terrorism and blatant crimes committed against people of color.

In 1620, the colonists brought with them more than ideas for a great America. They also brought /home/ets/Documents/wordpress traveler weekly/2021/june 2021/Front Page/Mae_Catherine_Legacy_Pavilion.JPGa blueprint for repression and reverse psychology. Their intentions and methods were to subdue black and indigenous races for eternity. As I realized our ancestors had no recourse or advocate, tears began to slide down my cheeks. It was either comply or die.

Daughter Jamie Rutherford at Rosa Parks Statue, Riverfront Plaza

With mixed emotions we walked towards the exit door. Exasperation filled my bosom. We realized we had absorbed the haunting photos of the last minutes of victims, pain and hopelessness of people who looked like us.

I remembered the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that ALL men were created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

People the hypocrisy was real.

The Legacy Museum housed much more than information on enslavement to mass incarnation of African-American people. It literally houses the piercing voices of enslaved black people. You cannot dispute the narratives of racial lynchings, segregation and racial injustices.

Each step, we were reminded of a horrible and inhumane era. How can one simply deny and dismiss truth? The answer is “old” systems wearing today’s “new suits.”

We finally stepped outside into the fresh air. I will never forget the anguish and betrayal frozen on the countenance of our ancestors. I was angry and I was not ashamed to own it. I needed to digest what we had witnessed. We were all overwhelmed with information and yes, the truth hurt. This was enough for one day.

The following morning, we traveled to the sacred Legacy Memorial. We continued to view the stories and murders of our ancestors. I felt as if I was on an emotional roller coaster. One moment there was sadness, grief, trauma but in the end, there was pride and the gift of strength. It is the kind of pride and strength that causes one to lift their head and remember. We remember how and why they died so that we could survive. Thank you could never be enough.

Along the walls of the memorial were the normalized headliners. Including 805 hanging steel rectangles, representing each of the counties in the United States where a documented lynching took place. Here is a sample of the sickness:

John Stroner was lynched in Doss, Louisiana, in 1909 for suing the white man who killed his cow.

Private James Neeley was lynched in Hampton, Georgia, in 1898 for complaining when a white store owner refused to serve him.

Seven black people were lynched near Screamer, Alabama, in 1888 for drinking from a white man’s well.

Fred Rochelle, 16, was burned alive in a public spectacle lynching before thousands in Polk County, Florida in 1901.

Now I knew what James Baldwin meant when he said, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” The Museum and the Memorial was like a courtroom. With each exhibit, my heart raced as I could hear the blood of my ancestors testifying against unjust and corrupt systems.

Grandson Kingston Lacey at the Legacy Museum

After lunch, it was time for our family to decompress and discuss the events we covered over our 2-day tour. I turned to my grandson and asked him how he felt? His 12-year-old reply was MeMe, I knew it was bad but NOT this bad. Inwardly, I searched for an appropriate response. I needed a few moments because I had to reconcile my raw emotions. In that moment, hope, hollow apologies, reparations and forgiveness never felt so far away.

I looked at him and in the spirit of a true griot I spoke these words:

Grandson, you must never forget what you saw and learned today. Even if history tells you to forget and to get over it. Never forget or else (His-story) will repeat itself. Bring your children and their children to places like this so they will know the truth. Keep telling and retelling (Our-story). Never let the flame of truth be distinguished. The hype of the quiet gentle lullaby (His-story) is designed to rock you to sleep. The healing of any nation is contingent upon truth. Stay woke and know there can never be reconciliation without truth at the table.

The following morning, we put Alabama in our rear-view mirror and headed back to Illinois. Later that evening, I crawled into bed and began to reflect upon our family adventure. This testimony and this truth was a gift of a lifetime. It was anything but your happy slave’s lullaby. Thank you, the Equal Justice Initiative, for providing us with an experience that lifted us beyond anything we could ever imagine.

I encourage you to visit the Legacy Museum and Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama.

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