Once upon a time in ancient Madagascar, after contending with countless years of her people’s enslavement, a courageous Afro-Polynesian pirate woman bent on inciting an insurrection turned to her children, and said firmly, “Never forget, our people were always free.”
Or at least it’s quite likely that she said that because author-activist Ben Jealous, the youngest ever president of the NAACP, as well as the distant and direct descendant of that pirate woman was told that very same mantra by his mother, who was told by her mother, who was told by hers, and so on, going back throughout the maternal family line.
The refrain, a bold statement, functioned as a riddle for Jealous as he considered that three of his great-grandparents were born into slavery. Thus, how could it be true? After months of researching, soul searching and demystifying that declaration, he turned the riddle into a book.
“Never Forget Our People Were Always Free: A Parable of American Healing” hit stores last week and comes months after Jealous wrestled with the effects and implications of the January 6 attack on the Capitol, the anxieties of gun-toting neighbors anticipating a civil war, along with additional familial losses and discoveries, including his being related to both General Robert E. Lee and former Vice President Dick Cheney.
“I had to confront the fact that this country is a lot smaller than it feels,” said Jealous. “And we’re all ultimately a lot more connected than we understand.”
Jealous points out that, despite the seemingly obvious multitude of Black people’s bloodlines, the rigid and entirely concocted concept of racism has prevailed, causing no shortage of trouble for our nation, essentially by design.
“Ultimately, these definitions were created by law,” Jealous said. “Never forget that, before there were slave rebellions, there were colonial rebellions. The reason that racism appears to have been embraced by colonial America’s overlords was that neither the military nor new laws were completely succeeding in splitting indentured Europeans and enslaved Africans and stopping them from rebelling together.
“So, they turned to culture prior to the 1720s. For a full century into the American experiment, and for centuries before that, race was essentially a European word for tribe. It’s only in the early 1700s that it becomes synonymous with the color caste that runs from superhuman to subhuman.”
This system, well-oiled, has ensured that the wealthiest of the population continues to thrive and the poorest remain split, divided by artificial lines.
“The price of racism in America is tens of millions of people trapped in poverty,” emphasized Jealous. “More than 16 million of those are White. More than eight million of those are Black. Twice as many whites trapped in poverty as Blacks.”
Another of America’s hidden truths Jealous uncovers in his book is that old, White men are dying from suicide at higher rates than young, Black men are dying from homicide.
“The common thread in all of that is increased isolation and decreased prosperity,” he said. “We need to understand that all of our communities will benefit the day that we can move beyond racism.”
Challenging the status quo in the interest of achieving a greater good has long been Jealous’ focus, and it would seem his birthright. The son of a Black mother and a White father, both human rights activists who couldn’t yet legally, in Maryland, marry in 1966, he learned early the importance of standing up and speaking out for justice.
But then his mother’s side had always been rebellious.
“My mom sued her high school when she was twelve and was in the first class to be desegregated when she was 15,” Jealous noted. “My grandmother led a revolt in Baltimore against gentlemen’s clubs that were sexually exploiting children and established Child Protective Services. And she also was the leader of the war on poverty in Maryland for the state government. Her mother convinced the White county clerk, because she looked White even though she was Black, to let her write birth certificates for all the Black children because she was outraged that, under Jim Crow, the clerk’s office would not grant Black babies birth certificates. And her mother ran away from slavery.”
Add to that streak Jealous’ father, a descendant of seven Revolutionary War soldiers, who through his work in both women’s equality and Black equality movements taught him “the dignity and the urgency of being an ally.”
“It occurred to him one day that if women could have ended sexism, they would have done so themselves, and if Black people could’ve ended racism, they would have done so themselves,” recalled Jealous. “He is deeply committed to realizing the potential of this country and sees nothing more urgent than ending sexism and racism for the betterment of all of us.”
It’s no wonder a civil rights leader was born.
Cooperative work across the lines has found Jealous successfully building coalitions to shrink entire prison systems in states like Georgia and Texas, restoring voting rights and job opportunities for thousands of formerly incarcerated people, abolishing the death penalty in more than a half dozen states, and abolishing it completely for juveniles in the country.
“Every single time, our success has depended upon us finding Republicans who would work with us,” said Jealous. These have included leaders like Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, Arnold Schwarzenegger in California, Bob McDonnell in Virginia, and many others in between.
The journey has reaffirmed Jealous’ belief that this country can heal and move beyond divisive constructs such as race and party to achieve progress for all.
In the process of writing his book, Jealous discovered another unlikely but felicitous partnership. His grandmother’s Black grandfather, Edward David Bland, a former slave, co-led a multiracial, majority-Black populist party alongside a Confederate general turned railroad magnate to save free public schools in Virginia. Calling themselves the Readjusters, they expanded Virginia Tech, created Virginia State as the first public Black College south of the Mason Dixon, and abolished the whipping post and poll tax in the process.
These are the stories that helped to unravel the great riddle for Jealous, and the mantra after which his book is titled is a reminder to us all, in the same spirit as that of the pirate woman from Madagascar aiming to make her children understand. “Freedom was our people’s history, and so freedom must be [our] people’s destiny.”
That includes freedom from the chains of race as a concept. Jealous believes they can be broken.
“It’s important that we decide to have faith that we can pull America together, open up our hearts to the possibility that we are more connected to more Americans, different walks of life and different viewpoints than we realize, dig into our own family history, understand where precisely we come from,” offered Jealous.
“There’s a good chance that a lot of that has been obscured just by the existence of race and how we treat in this society.”
“Never Forget, Our People Were Always Free” is available at Amazon.