One of my favorite lectures I ever attended was to hear the descendents of Sally Hemings speak. Shay Banks-Young and Julia Jefferson Westerinen are descendents of Thomas Jefferson from his 38-year “relationship” with his house slave, Hemings. Julia descends from Jefferson and Hemings’ son, Eston, who passed for white, troubling his connection to Jefferson. In contrast, Eston’s brother, Madison, (Shay’s direct ancestor) lived as a man of color.
In 1998, after a series of DNA testing, one of the most complex families in American history came together and began a journey of reconciliation. David Works, a descendant of Martha and Thomas Jefferson, more recently joined in the conversation of bringing the family together to be in conversation and in acceptance of all the social and cultural forces that were beyond their control.
This lecture reminded me that reconciliation is a hard process; it is a journey that needs vision and necessitates forgiveness and intentionality. The university has become a space where this is done programmatically.
April 23 begins the African American Heritage Festival week for 2011. The theme for this year is Lengo, which means “vision” in Swahili. I’d estimate about 10 percent of the campus gets excited for this week, but a majority of people have no idea that it is arriving.
The history of the AAHF is rooted in an interesting story. This story is grounded in an idea that people could come together and be “one nation under a groove.” Students in the ‘70s were still feeling the vibe from the civil rights movement, yellow movement, black power movement and women’s movement. They would get together starting with just a community-focused event on west campus between the towers.
What started as a block party that brought all students together, eventually became the AAHF. This created a forum for critical conversation and solidarity in understanding that black history and the lived experience in the United States are not mutually exclusive. Learning and experiencing black heritage are part of the American experience.
It is the same way we learn about history that makes everything seem separate. The great thing about this year’s theme is that the organizers are intentional about the inclusion aspect. When visiting the heritage festival website, I read that the kick-off event has a recess theme. Who doesn’t love recess? All Buckeyes can gather around the idea of play, and I think that no one should hesitate to rush to the South Oval to participate.
The only way we can truly all be Buckeyes is if we stop acting separately and start behaving with the intention of what the awareness weeks, months and days are about: remembering the past and rewriting history so we do not repeat mistakes and bringing folks together. Attending events during this AAHF week and all the other programs associated with other campaigns of that ilk are just as important as Oval Beach and football games.
If Jefferson’s descendents can acknowledge the past, forgive and be present so they can be a family, so can Buckeyes. The more we go outside our comfort zone to understand each other, the more we can really learn about ourselves. The model of progress is not if we can all be in the same classroom, it is if we can intentionally go to Woody’s and have a beer together and enjoy each other’s company.
I am going to start with the Festival this year. What are you going to do?