By ROBYN H. JIMENEZ
The Dallas Examiner
Never Forget Our People Were Always Free: A Parable of American Healing is a history book with interesting anecdotes. It could also be considered as an autobiography with a historical twist.
“Every chapter started with something crazy to happen to me. But then we quickly get into deep arcane history,” said author Benjamin Todd Jealous during an interview.
Jealous is a longtime civil rights leader, since he was a college student working as an organizer with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. In his position, he helped keep three financially struggling Black colleges stay open. During his career, he became the executive director of the National Newspaper Publishers Association – known as the Black Press of America – which consists of over 200 Black newspapers from across the country. In 2008, he became the youngest person to serve as the NAACP president. Afterward, he served as president of the People For the American Way. He recently became the executive director of the Sierra Club, the oldest and most influential grassroots environmental organization in the country and is a professor of practice at the University of Pennsylvania.
Recently published by Amistad, a division of Harper Collins Publishers, Jealous’ book chronicles his journey.
The book opened with a prologue highlighting a memory of a newsflash while he was sitting at the table on NBC’s Meet the Press, one Sunday morning in 2013. As news of then Vice President Dick Cheney being rushed to the hospital flashed on the screen, he confessed to the host that he had learned he and Cheney were cousins. Then he remembered that former president Barack Obama and Cheney were also cousins.
Later that evening on his way home, he remembered Myrlie Evers – widow of civil right leader Medgar Evers, NAACP’s first field secretary in Mississippi – once told him that she and former Sen. John McCain were cousins.
He went on to consider how many Black Americans had some White ancestry.
“I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if every American actually acted like every other American was their cousin too,” he wrote.
His first chapter began during the Y2K scare. He recalled celebrating New Year’s Eve 1999 with the son of his godfather, comedian Dave Chappelle and his wife, Elaine, in their new home. He recalled how he and Chappelle went to shop for guns while several of the conservative locals appeared to be watchful and on guard. Chappelle made the most of the moment.
“I want the biggest, blackest, most powerful shotgun that you have, son,” Chappelle told the clerk.
Each time the clerk handed him a gun, Chappelle would have a serious expression on his face, point the gun to the floor and adjusted his grip.
“Get off my porch,” he said as he slightly and swiftly raised the gun. “Nope, still too small.”
He continued until he found the one that he liked.
Later in the chapter, Jealous compared the moment to an incident that occurred two decades later, when Johnny Crawford was killed at Walmart nearby while trying to purchase a BB gun for his son.
“An audibly drunk woman called the police and said there was a Black man with a gun in the store. When the police officer arrived at Johnny’s aisle, Johnny was on his cell phone with his mother. The Red Ryder was still in the box and Johnny was leaning on the butt of the boxed, old-fashioned BB gun – as a sort of cane. The police officer shot and killed Johnny on sight,” Jealous wrote.
In the next chapter, he recalled attending a Renaissance event. Each night everyone was seated at a different table with people they didn’t know. On the last night, after having had at least one drink, after he was seated, he began a conversation with a couple seated to his left. The chapter details how the exchange went from introductory to Jealous telling the husband, “I think your wife’s family used to own my mama’s family.”
“Oh my gosh … it was right after her cocktail reception and while drinking wine and dinner,” Jealous confessed with a slight laugh. “You know, there was a bit of liquid courage involved. But as soon as I said those words, I was like, ‘What have I done?’ And then, you know, Maggie Bland was sitting there scrutinizing me, the grandson of Mamie Bland. And all of a sudden, she just erupted into the biggest smile and said, ‘Come here, baby. Give me a hug. I always knew I had Black family,’ And it just it changed my whole life. Now, it really – in a very simple but profound way – humanize the other side of the family.”
Maggie Bland said Mamie Bland, who she called Mammy, raised her until she was 12. Then suddenly Mamie Bland was sent away. Her perspective intrigued him.
“I have never had insight into those types of relationships or even thought for a second about the pain that a little White girl might feel when the Black woman who has raised her for the first 12 years of her life is suddenly sent away because the young lady is coming of age and the family now thinks it’s necessary that she be shaped by White women, not by a Black woman,” Jealous admitted.
“It had left her with a profound kind of hole in her heart and a sense of confusion because she was convinced that Mannie was a cousin, not an aunt, in addition to just being a great generous caretaker of her wishes. Ok, so that would explain why she referred her as just Mammy and not Mamie.”
He said that she was eager to know the Black side of the Bland family. Likewise, he and his mother were eager to get to know their newfound relative. However, his grandmother harbored a lingering resentment for how her White relatives treated her as a child and therefore had no desire to reunited with Maggie Bland. Though she would later change her mind.
“Even my grandmother couldn’t help but be won over by Maggie’s passionate desire to be in relationship with the Black side of the family,” he stated. “Maggie and I both took kind of great pride in having found each other and gotten to know each other and developed a real friendship – both despite and because of a shared painful past.”
In chapter 5, after talking about being part of a group of young Black men celebrating one of them living to see age 21 and tipping their glass to those who didn’t, he recalls learning about a shocking connection.
“What made me walk away from my keyboard was discovering I was also cousins to Robert E. Lee,” he said, still reeling from the news. “Yes, there’s nothing that prepares a civil rights leader for the news. The Robert E. Lee – as I thought about it, as I reflected on the first of my ancestors and that way in a family to emerge from slavery didn’t occur to me might explain a bit of the hubris.
After additional research, he later discovered the will of Richard Gates, the man who once owned his grandmother’s great grandfather, grandfather and so on until the end of slavery.
In the will, his grandmother’s great grandfather, Frederick Bland, was the only slave mentioned by name. Frederick Bland was the man servant and relative of Gates – most likely his younger brother. While Gates didn’t emancipate Frederick Bland in the will, Gates ensured Frederick Bland was protected from experiencing the harshest parts of slavery.
As Jealous looked back on the positive and negative discoveries in tracing his genealogy, he talked about the importance of Black Americans taking the same deep dive into the roots of their own family tree.
“It’s important to dig into our genealogy and our DNA with courage because it unlocks specific truths about where we came from and who our ancestors were and what their experiences have been,” he advised. “That deeper understanding of our individual origins can only leave us feeling more connected, more grounded and more confident about who we are.
“It was revelatory for me to figure out that my grandfather descends from the Lemba people of Sierra Leone. You know, they are rice cultivators, philosophers and just disproportionately have been leaders in that country. It helped me understand where some of his character traits may have come from. It was also mind blowing to figure out that my grandmother descends from an Afro-Polynesian pirate from Madagascar who had been enslaved.”
He said it also shed light on why the female ancestors of his were “consistently rebellious.”
His Final Note, titled An Optimist’s Greatest Gift, he highlighted the hardships of the world with positive notes. He said the book was intended to encourage people to “come together” and push past the nation’s legacy of racism.
“I’m always dismayed by how much the nation’s most educated people seem to organize so frequently dismissed the value of optimism,” Jealous said. “So much about university education seems to emphasize the importance of being right. However, our responsibility as leaders, however, as leaders, we have an even greater responsibility which is to win the battles we take on. My grandmother, both through her, her words, and her achievements taught me that well pessimists are right more off, optimists win more often.”
He closed with the seeds of wisdom that his grandmother shared with him.
“Pessimists are right more often, but optimists win more often. In this life, you have to decide what’s more important to you. As for me,” she said with a smile. “I’ll take winning.”