‘I find myself marking these dates as if they were personal milestones because they are two of many landmarks, not only for the entire modern world, but for my own family’.
Quiet as it was kept, 14 May 2012 was the 405th anniversary of the 1607 trans-Atlantic arrival of a hundred English settlers to the coast of the land soon-to-be colonised by the English as “Virginia”.
Over the years, Queen Elizabeth II has visited here a number of times, including her quadricentennial return in 2007 and fifty years earlier, in 1957.
2012 also is the second year of a ten-year cycle which the UN has declared the “Decade of People of African Descent.”
Now, personally, as a slavery descendant of the Americas, and, more specifically, from the USA, I really would like the decade internationally recognised as the Decade of Afrodescendants.
Even more specifically, I’d like this time to be commemorated as the “Decade of Afrodescendants of the Americas.” Is this asking too much? And if it is, considering the significance of key events of the past half-millenium to globalisation, then why?
I find myself marking these dates as if they were personal milestones because they are two of many landmarks, not only for the entire modern world, but for my own family and, literally, for who I am – this descendant of enslaved and self-liberated Africans turned Afro descendants of the Americas, and also descended from Europeans, and from Native Americans.
I note these dates: May 14, 1607, and the decade 2011-2020, and dare to utter them and their connectedness precisely because there seems to be such a conspiracy to ignore them. Perhaps it’s just a form of ‘forgetfulness’; or maybe a kind of spiritual, political, social and economic attention-deficit disorder.
I pick a day in September 2004 to illustrate my point. My husband and I stand, a bit perplexed, in Lowndes Square, London SW1.
On that day in Lowndes Square, SW1, London, I may have been the first Black Lowndes descendant- for some time, at least – to experience how a globalised Lowndes heritage continues to be commemorated and reflected by a tony, exclusive neighbourhood in southwest London. And the rest of we Black Lowndes, scattered everywhere we may be, have little idea and no sense of belonging.
Is there a connection? Is there a connection between William Lowndes of Lowndes Square – he, Exchequer to Queen – and slavery and the slave trade? And if so, what are these connections, and within those connections, where is my family?
At the center of Lowndes Square, SW1, is a small park, quite leafy and green. In my life never before had I witnessed a park with a locked gate, requiring possession – in this case of a key. That conveyed sense and reality of belonging, and of not belonging.
Nearby a sign declaims: Residents of Lowndes Square have access. And I think to myself, I am a Lowndes descendant and a descendant of Britain through its empire. Yet I have no key and no entree.
Thus this encounter became a metaphor for my own predicament vis-à-vis Britain and British society, and also Africa, and even my existence and that of my people – the Black Americans - back home in the USA. Places to which I am connected through undeniable roots, yet though I come from this history and its various peoples, I have little or no entrée – no real place.
For better or worse, I am a descendant of Britain, and Africa, and North America. I haven’t spent as much time as I’d like visiting and discovering this UK branch of my families and our heritage. I need to know Britain, and to challenge Britain, precisely because I, too, am her descendant. And, quite obviously, because Britain and her empire have been products of my people’s lives and of their involuntary sacrifices.
To date, as far as I can tell, virtually all my family names are of British origin. The same is true of most U.S. Afrodescendants, and of most native English-speaking Afrodescendants from across the Americas.
Lowndes is my grandmother’s grandmother’s family name. Yet for the life of me, decades on, as I grow older, and my parents are now elderly, I am still having a horrible time seeking the pieces of history that would help these mysteries begin to solve themselves, reconcile themselves, and help the past, present and future to truly make sense.
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* Marian Douglas-Ungaro is founder of the AFROAMERICAS Network, on Facebook.