It is no idea anymore, no fanciful imagination. I am following the voices of my ancestors. Each place I go, everything I experience, is at the direction of my ancestors. Not as abstractions, but as people who lived, loved, and died on this land.
The Black Country, they call it. I didn’t know that name before yesterday. Black by day, red by night: the black of coal dust and smoke thick in the air, the black of the mine shafts where the men in my family worked until old age, or as in the case of my great-great-great grandfather, William Jesson, until it killed them. Red for the coal fires burning throughout the night, lighting up the hillsides, for the forges where iron chains were produced.
An 1849 travel guidebook describes the lives of these ancestors with these harsh, dismissive words:
“Savages, without the grace of savages, coarsely clad in filthy garments, with no change on weekends or Sundays, they converse in a language belarded with fearful and disgusting oaths, which can scarcely be recognized as the same as that of civilized England.”
I read these words, and begin to understand what it means that we have all been colonized.The mines came early to this land. 450 million years of tropical seas, moving continents, and primordial swamps provided the richest coal deposits found on the planet, and Industrial Europe was thirsty to drink them up. My family had been long landless then, and moved from town to town following work.
Through my eyes, my ancestors see their home, and what’s become of it, for the first time in five generations. The tears come unbidden, streaming down my cheeks, as I drive into Oldbury. These are not my tears. They are the tears of names long forgotten, starting now to be remembered: tears of loss, grief, and suppressed rage. They are my ancestors’ tears of gratitude to know that I am listening to their stories, and letting them move me.
In just 24 hours of being in the Black Country, I find that I am experiencing a new depth of what it means to listen to the ancestors. With that comes the visceral understanding that the ancestors must not be silenced anymore, and that learning to listen to them is one of the great imperatives of our times. While I thought I was coming to learn and understand, I’m see now that I am also coming as a gift to my ancestors. This was not only a pilgrimage for me, but for them as well. They teach me that by listening to them and following, a great healing occurs for both my own blood lineage, and also for our shared pain of being ripped from the land and forced into forms that don’t fit our bodies, our souls, our hearts, or our creative minds.
Suffering begets suffering. Woundedness begets wounding. I learn that long after the coal industry ended, and my ancestors escaped from the mines and fled to the “New World,” those that stayed continued to struggle, cheek by jowl, seeking out the fortune and salvation that Christianity, capitalism, and industrialism promised them. I learn that when brown-skinned immigrants came in waves to this place in the mid-20th century, themselves seeking a better life, “Keep the Black Country White,” became a rallying cry of the blackened, soot-covered white people that lived here. And so the cycles continue.
By remembering, we heal. By healing, we can perhaps be free. As I left the Black Country this evening, I felt the presence of my ancestors travel with me. Mary Hartshorne. Jeremiah Jesson. Samuel Hartshorne. Clara Jesson. They are no longer just names for me. They are a gateway to the world of my ancestors. They are part of my, flowing through my bloodstream. I feel them with me, encouraging me on, supporting me, giving me clues as I am ready for them. We are getting to know each other. And I realize, deep in my bones, I am never alone.