During the late 1980s I spent time going back and forth between my soon-to-be divorced parents’ homes. My mother lived in the suburbs of Chicago and my father remained in Hyde Park where my sisters and I were raised. Normally, I spent the week with my mother to attend school. Weekends were spent with my dad, though that was sporadic at times, and when his side of the family came in town to visit from New Orleans, I couldn’t wait to get to his house to visit with them.
My older sister, Erin, my father, and me on the day I earned a Master's Degree
My father comes from a big family but only has one biological sibling with the same mother and father. My dad, Melvin, told me that his sister, Audrey, would be there for a visit and all my sisters and I headed to his home for a mini-reunion. After all the hugs and kisses and “Come on in here and get you some gumbo,” we listened to upon arrival, I walked by my dad’s bedroom to see a grown woman sitting up in bed.
“Who’s that, daddy?” I asked. From what I could see, the woman clearly had Down Syndrome.
He nonchalantly told me that she was my aunt, his other sister. I was floored at this family revelation and couldn’t imagine why it had taken me until my teens to know a member of the family. I learned that my aunt Audrey, a nurse, had been taking care of her and that they lived together. Why hadn’t he told me this story before? Another question I had relied on my own memory. Had I seen her before when we visted New Orleans? My aunt has 7 children and her house was always full. Did I somehow miss knowing another aunt?
My initial reaction wondered if there was shame involved. I mean, if you have a family member then you should know them and talk about them. Was she hidden from us? Of all the stories I heard, Aunt Dee wasn't at the top of the list.
This is intensely personal of me to share, but one that I often tell people when recounting family history even as I struggle to grasp it all. I write and tell stories to my children all the time because they are as hungry for their history as anyone else. At the same time, meeting my Aunt Dee taught me something quite powerful: our untold stories can seem like secrets if we don't tell them to one another.
Not long ago I was approached to participate in a project about The Kinsey Collection about telling our stories and curating our past. It's called Untold Stories: Our Inspired History. What with our national conversation being centered around race and feeling invisible as a person of color at times, this was an easy decision for me to make. The project is multi-layered so I will be sharing even more in future posts.
Both Wells Fargo and The Kinsey Collection have partnered with celebrities who are sharing their own stories of African American history and this video, featuring actress Lauren London, describes the surprise and shock that the Kinsey family felt upon learning that a slave narrative they were reading in the book Slavery By Another Name (of which you can read an excerpt of another story here) was written by Bernard’s second cousin, Carrie Kinsey. It's short, but powerful.
In a very real way, this same shock is how I felt learning about a living person in my family about whom I was unaware. London talks about how the Kinsey family learned of Carrie’s brother being kidnapped and how, in 1903, she wrote to President Theordore Roosevelt asking for assistance. After searching for this untold story in their lives they learned that Carrie was Bernard’s second cousin and traveled to the National Archives to visit the letter. More appropriately, to visit history.
Lauren utters this line which spurs me forward to continue telling about history; both the collective ones of the African diaspora and the personal one I carry in my family.
"...we let doubt, fear, and uncertainty block us from doing what we are called to do."
In the 30 years since The Kinsey family began their collection they have meticulously collected historic pieces and shared them openly allowing nearly 3 million people to experience art work, historic documents, and living narratives from the people who lived it. Their committment to the collection reminds me that, no matter what our history, we have stories. We have artwork to commemorate it, we share it widely, and we experience reverence when the story is carefully told to new ears because, quite often, the stories are fraught with pain. They are hard stories to hear, but even harder ones to tell.
We have a chance to do the same with our stories and our artwork and our people. What a grand opportunity to share our history with our future. What’s your untold story? No more secrets. Deal?
Share your story. Share your voice.
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