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Mothers & Motherlands: The Forgotten Legacy of Slavery in the United States

Image via TravelTalk

I once had a friend who loved the ocean. He would sink his feet into the scorching sand and let gravity pull him toward the ground. He would spend hours in solitude in front of the coast of the Mussulo Peninsula. His eyes would fixate on the darkness of the sky and the brightness of the stars. My friend used to say that the stars would disappear back in the city. You could only see them near the ocean.

And so, near the crystal blue Angolan waters, my friend found peace. He could hear his ancestors’ laughter echoing in the breeze that hit his body. He could feel his ancestors’ warmth through the splashes of the coastal tide. It was as if the land on which my friend lay belonged to him. And in every way, this was my friend’s motherland.

This story evokes two distinct feelings in my heart. On the surface, I am grateful, as there are few things more beautiful than belonging to a motherland. The richness in the air, the comfort in the land, the peace in the sky. To know that a land is unequivocally yours is invaluable. As is described in the article “People-of-Colorblindedness” by Jared Sexton, a motherland is a place that gives individuals “enforceable ties of blood.” In this text, Sexton does not only present the motherland as a location but also as a source of a people’s origins. And so, as I reflect back on the story of my friend, I ponder the relationship between motherlands and origins. The land of the Mussulo Peninsula was a place of peace for my friend, and one of origin, too. But the Mussulo Peninsula harbors a different history for six million other people

In 1619, the first slaves to arrive on American soil were placed on Portuguese ships that departed on the Angolan coast south of the Mussulo Peninsula. Upon arrival in Jamestown Colony, in present-day Virginia, the enslaved people were bought by English colonists. This transaction marked the beginning of two-and-a-half centuries of slavery in North America.

The legacy of slavery in the United States is defined by inhumanity. Whilst inhumanity encompasses the socioeconomic and political inequalities perpetuated by the American state, it is especially important to emphasize the humans that suffered the inhumanity. 

In 1619, a man and a woman named Antonio and Isabella were aboard the ship that landed in Jamestown Colony. The couple was enslaved by Captain William Tucker, a commander of the British colony. Soon after, Isabella gave birth to a baby boy. His name was William. Historians recognize him as the first known African child to have been born in America. As the first descendant of slaves, William was robbed of his nativity. In the words of Sexton, “any attachment to groups or locations William came to have were those chosen for him by his master.” William would never know the ocean in Mussulo.

It is painful that the birth of a baby boy in the 17th century was shadowed by so much loss. Orlando Patterson, in his encyclopedic 1982 study, characterizes the loss faced by enslaved people as ‘natal alienation.’ In Patterson’s view, the concept of natal alienation goes “directly to the heart of what is critical in the slave’s forced alienation: the loss of ties of birth in both ascending and descending generations.” The alienation of the slave from not only its motherland but also its cultural root is part of what gave slavery its value to the white master. The slave was as imprintable, as malleable, and as impressionable as the master wished. It had no sense of being to connect to and no legacy to live by. To lose all nativity, and have an identity chosen for you, is loss in its purest form.

And so, Black America is living in the afterlife of slavery. It has no land to remember, and no origin to nurture. But, this intergenerational loss faced by Black folks is seldom touched on in political conversations about the legacy of slavery. Liberal spaces instead stress the economic inequality and lack of social opportunity that American slavery entrenched in the lives of its Black people. As such, policy research groups, such as the Brookings Institute, strongly suggest economic and educational reparations for the descendants of slaves. And whilst there is tremendous value in financially repaying Black America for the horrors of slavery, monetary reparations cannot be the sole avenue to healing and reconciliation. Because, at the root of slavery does not lie a dollar bill, but rather the scars of enslaved people whose blood is no longer theirs. Truthfully, there is no scheme that would wholeheartedly atone for America’s legacy of slavery. Yet, I believe that this country must begin to acknowledge the humans that suffered inhumanity. Millions of souls lost their mothers and their motherlands. And whilst Black folks do not expect America to travel in time and cease the horror, Black America is waiting to be seen, and is waiting to be heard. America must uncover the forgotten legacy of slavery with truth and humanity at the pulpit. It must be prepared to confront its dues.

In this country, humans are missing humanity. Our ability to feel is our greatest strength, yet it is the one we practice the least with one another. The legacy of slavery in the United States is missing an acknowledgment of the motherlands that were stripped from enslaved peoples. As seen in the story of the first African couple in America, their baby boy, William, was named after the family’s master—Captain William Tucker. Slavery ruptured the child’s belonging to any cultural root; William was now tied to a place that was not his. This baby boy, and those that carry his same legacy, lost their land and lost their mothers. And, loss is not a policy issue. It is a human issue.

Ultimately, my heart wishes that William, and the millions of enslaved people that embarked from the Angolan coast to the United States, could have seen the brightness of the stars and the darkness of the sky. Near the ocean, the people would have heard their ancestors’ laughter echoing in the breeze; and felt their warmth through the splashes of the coastal tide. In my mind, the Mussulo Peninsula belonged to them, just as much as it does to my friend. Because in every way, it was their motherland, until it was lost in America.