Views on ancestry, slavery flow when two friends put their heads together

October 21, 2001|By GREGORY KANE

THE MEETING of the foreheads was scheduled for noon.

Donna Jones Stanley, executive director of the Associated Black Charities of Maryland, sat perusing a menu in a booth at the Polo Grill restaurant, a stylish eatery located in the Inn at the Colonnade, which is ensconced across the street from the esteemed and prestigious Johns Hopkins University.

About 12:10 p.m., in walked a certain Sun columnist known for several things, most notably the size of his forehead. This would be a meeting of two friends who would engage in a conversation that touched on slavery, feminism, reparations, Africa, race and ethnicity.

"How's your health?" Stanley wanted to know. She hadn't seen me since June of last year, when I was recovering from a bout with congestive heart failure that had thrown me flat on my back and shaved about 30 pounds off my frame.

"I'm fine," I answered. The low-salt diet hadn't killed me yet, or made me so ornery that I kick stray cats for the fun of it. Stanley noticed I had regained some weight.

"I'm about 185 now," I mentioned. We talked a bit about my trip to Sudan in 1996 and the slave trade there. Had I ever visited Senegal, Stanley wanted to know. I said I hadn't. She has. Some of the Senegalese told Stanley she looked like a Bambara, a people located primarily in neighboring Mali.

"They said they could tell by the size of my forehead," she continued. I took a closer look at her. I knew there was something about this woman I liked the minute I met her! She, like me, had one of those foreheads.

"Maybe we're related," Stanley said.

"We might be," I seconded. Malcolm X, the martyred African-American Muslim leader of the 1960s, had a Bambara ancestor and one of those foreheads.

Maryse Conde, an Afro-French writer from the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, dedicated her 1984 novel Segu - Segu was a major Bambara city of the 19th century - to "my Bambara ancestress." On the back of Conde's 1987 novel The Tree of Life is a picture of Conde. She has a big forehead, too. In facial features, she and Stanley could be sisters.

The Senegalese are notorious for telling their African-American cousins exactly what people they may hail from in Africa. A friend of mine who visited Senegal for two weeks said folks there insisted she resembled a Fula, an ethnic group that inhabits parts of Senegal and Guinea. Senegalese will insist, however, that Michael Jordan's ancestors definitely came from Senegal alone.

An odd lot, these Senegalese. Stanley was surprised by their reaction to the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

"African-Americans view it as something horrible," Stanley said. "They [the Senegalese] view it as just something that happened - a part of history that's over."

They can afford to be so dispassionate, I thought to myself, because in the matter of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the Senegalese were the sellers and the ancestors of African-Americans were the sellees.

Soon we were on the topic of reparations. Stanley offered the opinion that those calling for reparations are trying to address some lingering effects of slavery that survive today and are all too real. Lack of confidence and feelings of inferiority, she surmised, might be traced to it.

I decided to tell a story about my maternal grandmother, one that, until now, I had shared with few people outside my family. She had a nervous breakdown around 1936 or so, was carted off to a mental institution and died there about four years later.

When my mother was a girl growing up in the West Baltimore of the Depression years, she got to attend Catholic school, which was free in those days. She brought home A's on her report card and would proudly show them to Grandma.

"That's good," Grandma would say, "but you know you're still going to end up working in some white man's kitchen."

I recalled my reaction when my mother told me this incident, uttered only in the privacy of my mind: "Damn, you mean my grandmother was crazy and stupid?"

She was neither, of course. The pressures of bringing up six kids in poverty finally got to her. She had been inculcated, practically since birth, with the notion that blacks were inferior.

"She probably didn't want to dash your mother's hopes," Stanley offered as an additional explanation.

That may darn well be. Fortunately for me and my siblings, my mother never bought into notions of inferiority. She gushed when I brought home good grades and went ballistic when I didn't.

"That's my No. 1 son," she would tell relatives and friends about me. "He's going to be a doctor when he grows up."

Well, I missed the doctor part, but thanks to one black woman who consciously resisted the "lingering effects of slavery," I figure I've done OK. So has my fellow Bambara, Stanley. And millions of other African-Americans.

It might just be that some of those "lingering effects of slavery" are indeed quite positive.

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