Monday, July 19, 2010

Berry Hill Road: Through Settled Eyes

There is a winding two lane country road west of Danville, Virginia. It is County Road #863, known as Berry Hill Road. Along this lonely road one afternoon my mother took me past four former plantation homes nestled in field and forest along the North Carolina border. Three of them belonged to the Hairstons. Another, the main Hairston home of "Oak Hill," we did not see as it had burned down a few years ago under mysterious circumstances. The ones we did see that sunny April spring day, "Oak Ridge" and "Berry Hill" among them and pictured here, were mere satellite holdings.

In my mind, of all the names Blacks in America have been identified with, Afro-American, Negro, Colored, etc. the least specific and probably worst of the bunch is "African-American." It does not equate to Italian-American, Mexican-American or Japanese-American simply in that Africa is not a country. Africa the continent is home to some one billion people living in 54 distinct countries who speak a whopping 2,000 languages. All of that is before even considering the numerous social and religious cultures, native, colonial and expatriate that co-exist on the 2nd largest land mass of the planet. No way am I hereditarily connected to all of that history, culture and spoken word. "African-American" overstates one aspect of the Black experience and disregards several others.

In the history of the Golden Triangle trade routes between Europe, Africa and the Americas the greatest tragedy has been not merely the loss of life or independence but the loss of culture and sense of family. So scattered and blended were the slaves of the day, each forced to learn the language and religion of their masters that over time their descendants lost all sense of exactly which tribe and nation they originated from. Alex Haley illustrated this pain and bittersweet discovery in his master work "Roots" but so few Black Americans (notice the nomenclature I'm using) had or have the wealth, resources and time he did to discover their own past.

Today through ancestral websites and genetic testing some of us are finally able to reverse the "Middle Passage" over the Atlantic with at least some hint of where our families came from. Like most Black Americans my family came to the United States via the bulge of West Africa from not one, however, but three different countries. On top of that, while my mother's family has managed to trace their history by name back to the last years of slavery something even more astonishing recently occurred. In February of 2000 Henry Wiencek published a book entitled "The Hairstons: A Family in Black and White."

It is the story of my family. Literally of thousands of families now spread across the country but all tracing back to this one Scot-Irish clan that established itself in Virginia, North Carolina and Mississippi through tobacco and cotton farming. My direct ancestors, out of over 5,500 slaves who came in to the possession of this powerful clan, go back at least to the 1800s whose name we carry and whose holdings once stretched the length of South Central Virginia and down in to the Mt. Airy region of North Carolina.

As we drove away I mentioned to my mother that it was good for me to have waited until this time in my life to discover and see these ancient homes. As a young child I would have been bored, petulant and disengaged other than to run and play by the river or the grasses of the fields, some of which are still worked to this day. Teenagers tend to be too self-absorbed to find such things anything other than boring while young adults carry latent hormonal "anger" in to the world. Fresh with newfound and uncompromising convictions I might have turned my back on this historical reality and never returned to the scene again.

I looked at each of these three institutions of bondage through "settled eyes" with mixed feelings. The homes were stately indeed, the history behind them tragic but each stood quiet, almost fallow, grand reminders of a bygone era. My mother, her siblings and parents were all sharecroppers so it didn't take much to imagine them working the fields surrounding these homes. It didn't take much to feel a twinge of anger/sadness well up inside me, either but I remembered what year it was and thought of my life, career, experiences and friends that were born of these very walls. I think of all the things I am able to do because they were here before me. I think of all that I do not have to endure because they were here before me.

Some time ago I started to write a piece of fiction entitled, "I'm From Burkina-Faso" that I would end with the sentence "but I don't really know." Today through DNA validation I can factually say that my family amalgam includes Mauritania (Islamic desert nomads), Equatorial Guinea (island fisher folk) and Sierra Leone (village hunter-gatherers). I am also part of this family of farmers, landed gentry of Ireland by way of Scotland and late of Southern Virginia, the Carolinas and Mississippi. I still need to explore the side that includes Cherokee and possibly Seminole lineage as well.

I am a Hairston. And these plantations are where my family started out here in America. African American? To a degree but "Black American" works just fine for me. Each word is as true as the other with no embellishments or further explanations needed.

And all this I surely know.

Gotta go.


  1. I am enjoying your blog. I am doing research into my ancestry and understand that I am one of the Hairston descendants, Stokes County plantation. I wanted to know which DNA test you took which revealed your African strains. Thank you. Sharon Clyburn

  2. This post is great!! Thank you for sharing. I too am a Hairston. I family is most recently from Sauratown, Stokes, NC. I did the Dna test.

  3. This post is great!! Thank you for sharing. I too am a Hairston. I family is most recently from Sauratown, Stokes, NC. I did the Dna test.