I’ve been reading National Book Award winner Nikky Finney’s beautiful collection of poems called Rice. I close the pages after each haunting verse. This is the world of black folks who lived in Horry County, South Carolina, first enslaved and then free but oppressed and profoundly impacted by their labor in the rice fields of South Carolina’s coast.
Each poem seems peopled by lives that feel surprisingly familiar to me; then I realize that my mother was born in a tiny unincorporated village in Horry County called Green Sea.
And it’s also where Myrtle Beach is. I remember when visiting as a child my mother telling us we were not permitted on the beach because we were colored, though I believe by that time black people were legally allowed there -- but my mother and her family were not yet able to risk believing it.
Each of Finney’s poems bring forward the recognition of cracks filled with a hurting in my heart many generations deep. I close my eyes, become still, and breathe into them. Pause. I express love and gratitude for these ancestors. I read another poem the next day.
Even before Finney’s work, I’ve sensed the presence of ancestors with me always as I move through each day, the vibration of their energies powerful and strong. When I’m down in Paxville, SC -- a 1 mile square village of 500 people where my father was born, I walk the church graveyard on family land where the last person born enslaved holds the center and everyone else is gathered round. I walk the graveyard because I feel I must, out of respect for ancestors who I most physically resemble, whose struggles I cannot begin to imagine and whose deep joy I sometimes sense. Pause. Breathe.
I tell them about my life and my world, its joys and its struggles. I express gratitude for their lives that loved me here.
My heart often holds the ancestral memory of Egbert Ethelred Brown, a Unitarian who traveled from his home country of Jamaica during the early 20th century to study at Meadville Theological School. He led a Unitarian congregation in Harlem, NY for many years and was a respected leader in that community, but his story is a tragic one as we learn how he was treated by a denomination deeply unconscious of its racism. And there are many more ministerial ancestors, male and female, such as this. I acknowledge their collective presence each day as I sit in my office at ERUUF looking out upon the trees. Pause. It was not in vain, I breathe. I express gratitude for their high resolve. Beloveds. Beloveds. Beloveds. I persist and hold faith.