When I think about my great grandfather, I don’t think about a sojourner, though in many ways that is a nice word to describe him. Much like Isaac from the book of Genesis, I am the son of a family seemingly destined to transience. From the first enslaved Americans who held what would eventually become my blood, to my great grandfather and his children, we have always been sojourners. We, like many other Black Americans - and Americans in general - can trace our lineage to people who moved for one reason or another. And in this day and age, a time of gentrification and displacement, I think back to my lineage to make sense of it all.
There is no specific moment I can remember learning the word “sojourner.” Like most American students, I sat through clumsy kindergarten history lessons about “the pilgrims” and their settling of Plymouth for the sake of “religious freedom.” As I grew, my knowledge of American “sojourners” began to balloon. I was taught about the transatlantic slave trade, and its offspring: the Civil War, Manifest Destiny, both Great Migrations, American redlining, mass incarceration, and gentrification. In many ways, what it means to be American is intrinsically bonded to these epic movements.
Merriam-Webster tells me that a “sojourn” is a temporary stay. Though it has fallen out of favor colloquially, “sojourner” is a word which resonates with any biblically literate person. It is from the very outset that the Lord tells Abraham that his “offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs” (Genesis 15:13). From the selling of Joseph by his brothers, to the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and their journey into Canaan, to their exile into Babylon, the Bible is very much a book of movements.
The history of Black Americans is a very similar story of movements. By its very nature, enslavement forces transience on a people. The displacement of Africans did not start and stop with their removal from Africa and the journey across the Atlantic, but instead continued as they experienced the constant threat of being bought, sold, and traded throughout early America. Within our history is the chronic separation of entire families and intimate relationships, either by force or by circumstance.
With emancipation, the transience of Black Americans slowed, but did not cease. According to the U.S Census Bureau, from 1910 to 1970, over 6 million Black Americans are estimated to have moved from the South. This Great Migration has been described as the flight of Black People from “a world where they were restricted to the most menial of jobs, underpaid if paid at all, and frequently barred from voting."
Like many others, my family was swept up in this exodus. They had been enslaved on the North Carolina-Virginia border, and after the Civil War, due to the lack of economic opportunity, survived by farming tobacco for their former enslavers. Conditions were hard. Pay was low, treatment was harsh. and the work itself was grueling. As I’m told by my maternal grandmother, it was my grandfather’s father, and his older brother, who had first decided to move their family north to Philadelphia. As my grandfather says, his father “would rather die than go back South.” It is almost ironic then that only two generations later my great grandfather’s descendants would return to the South, one of them only a short 30-minute drive away from the old tobacco farms of his roots.
I was born in the North, and though I had been raised there, I count my most formative years in North Carolina. When I had first moved, I counted myself as a northerner. My best friends can tell you, I would look down sneeringly on southerners as slow, backwards people. I thought of myself as faster and more intellectual due to something intrinsic in my “northernness.” I didn’t understand that I was in fact very southern. As a child, I slept on pallets and my mother cooked chitterlings; my maternal grandfather always kept a garden of greens and my paternal grandmother always insisted all good tea had at least three bags of sugar in it. As I grew older, I discovered that all but one of my ancestors had ties to North Carolina’s soil. Yet, despite my familial connections and long years here, it still feels awkward at times to claim North Carolina as mine.
Amid the affordable housing crisis, the anticipation surrounding the next recession, and the discussion around gentrification, the story of my family is not unique. There are few, if any, Americans with pure roots to the soil beneath them. Though I don’t adhere to the melting pot saying, I do concede the inherent diversity of American culture. When I think about what it means to be American, however, as my mentor, cultural historian Georie Bryant, says I think of a “culture of displacement.” Whether we are removed by force, or forced to move through lack, those of us with roots like mine are increasingly placed in an ahistorical context.
What does it mean to be rooted?
My ancestors were forced into their lives by political and economic circumstances out of their control. Much like today, as people move to avoid poor employment options and high costs of living, they traveled to places where they sensed greater opportunity. Today, however, the difference lies in a lack of historical insights. Without history to give context to the present, the cycle of American displacement continues and evolves. If you have no history of your own to appreciate and reflect on, how may you fully appreciate and act to preserve the bit of history created by previously displaced people?
As the descendent of transient, displaced people — sojourners — it takes time and effort to cherish the history that makes me. Without that history, I am poised to become complicit in the transience of others because I take for granted those very things that give me context. Whether I chose it or not, my identity is informed by the history that surrounds me. I am not purely American or African, northern or southern. Yet, in acknowledging and affirming my history, I acknowledge and affirm myself. It is history that gives me roots. And it is only from those roots, I believe, that I am able to cultivate and share a genuine sense of care for others, their roots, and their displacements.
When I think of God speaking to Abraham, prophesying the many movements of his offspring, my heart goes out to Abraham. I imagine him being afraid in that instant and uncertain, perhaps even overwhelmed. Abraham himself had been a sojourner, called suddenly to leave for a land he had not yet seen and could not dream. His journey had been difficult, and here now God was telling him that his journey would not end with him, but instead continue on through his blood until some unforeseen time. Abraham, however, is known for his faith and his commitment to the dreams of God. And as I read his story, I am compelled to see myself and my family in him. I must imagine that, despite his transience, he had faith that his story would give life to his descendants throughout their long journey forward.
Editor's Note: The author would like to thank Georie Bryant for his conversations and assistance in the development of this piece.