Kolison: The inheritance of pain

Stephen Kolison, Staff Columnist

Last week I found myself spending a lot of time studying in the medical library. I love how it smells like old books. I love how the reading room and its fireplace make me feel like royalty. But despite my love for the room, I feel uneasy there.

Every time I look at the old white men in the paintings on the wall, I feel like I’m being judged. It’s almost like I can hear them telling me that I shouldn’t be studying there. When my feelings of insecurity first came, I was willing to let them go. However, there is a mural outside the entrance to the library depicting slaves holding up a white man. How can I let go of my race-related insecurities when our own library proudly displays art that tells me that black people do not have a place in academia but instead have a place in servitude?

The anxiety I feel in the medical library is indicative of a larger issue. This semester, I felt lost, like something was missing in my life. On campus and in the United States, I had been struggling to find my purpose as an African-American man. I had to become committed to understanding my blackness and how it was going to shape my future.

Confronting your blackness is a frightening task if you don’t have many people to go to for help. Certainly, I couldn’t go to my white friends because they had the one thing that I envied: security. Security not only in terms of physical safety, but also in terms of identity. My white friends knew who they were and where they came from. They could trace their family lines as far back as the 16th century. They were satisfied with the role their families played in the making of America. My white friends were people who would undoubtedly inherit their family’s legacy, and they took that for granted.

What I was going to inherit was less clear because the only family I knew were the people I could see. I knew I was half Liberian on my father’s side, but I knew nothing about my mother’s ancestors. I wanted to know who they were, what kinds of jobs they had, where they lived and why they were so far out of reach.

In my confusion, I realized that I wasn’t just lost. Underneath my desperation to find my identity was a profound sense of sadness and emptiness. I was clawing for attention from people who lived within me, but I could not find them. In a moment of my life where I needed my ancestors’ guidance the most, they were nowhere to be found.

My old way of coping, by running away from my problems, was no longer acceptable. I wanted to grow and transform into a better person, but that wouldn’t happen until I pinned my grief down and asked it what it wanted from me.

I needed to go on a quest and make peace with the people who came before me. Who could have guessed that the peace I needed was in Cincinnati, Ohio? I went to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center because they had a genealogy center where I could learn about my ancestors. So that I could make peace with my ancestors, I drove all the way to Cincinnati for a white man to teach me how to use Ancestry.com. With his help and the names my mother gave me, I found army records, signatures, census records and marriage certificates.

I wish I could tell you why, but holding copies of those documents made me cry. Maybe I was just overwhelmed—absorbing centuries of data in an hour can do that to you. Maybe it was because I was still unsatisfied. My white friends had pictures, coats of arms and their histories didn’t suddenly stop in 1850. But maybe it was because I didn’t feel alone anymore. Even though I only knew my ancestors by name, they were real, they mattered, and they didn’t just disappear with time. Having physical proof that they existed affirmed my existence too.
I learned that my maternal great-great-grandfather was sold to pay off his former master’s gambling debt and then carted off to Alabama. I learned that my mother’s family did not formally exist until the 1850s when they were freed and became farmers. My great-grandfather could not read, and my grandfather’s highest degree was from high school. My extended family did not leave that county until 1970 when my aunts went to college. In 160 years, I am only the second generation of my family to go to college.

After 160 years of freedom, my family and I are still dealing with the fallout of their original trauma. My ancestors survived slavery, Jim Crow, lynching and disenfranchisement, but it came at a cost. Generations later, their terror manifested in me as a deep depression and anxiety. Psychologists call this transgenerational trauma: the inheritance of pain. In my search for a legacy, I learned that my ancestors left behind their sorrows. Whenever I felt like someone was unfairly exerting their power over me or felt targeted because of my race, I internalized that pain and felt hopeless. My body reacted to that bigotry the same way my ancestors reacted centuries ago.
My ancestors left behind more than their trauma; they left behind power. If I had looked at the library mural a year ago, I would have been angry, internalized that subtle racism and then let it fester within me. Now that I know what my ancestors went through, I have the power to choose.

I choose to celebrate every black person on this campus because our presence is revolutionary. Yes, my great-great-grandfather was a slave and my grandfather only finished high school, but here I am at a major university. I choose to use my ancestors as my strength and push past the pain in order to overcome. I recommend that every black person look into their family’s histories and reclaim their family’s narrative as one of triumph instead of struggle. Our power, as black people, lies in knowing where we come from. Ever since learning about my roots, I have loved and understood myself more. Oddly enough, I’ve never felt more American.

The burden of being black in America is that I will always have the task of carrying this history and pain within me. It’s a history that confuses and scares me, but there’s hope and beauty in it as well.

I, along with my brother and cousins, represent a new opportunity for my family. I’m still not sure of my purpose in life, but I’m sure that it involves confronting my inherited trauma and breaking that cycle. Now that I’m rooted, I take myself seriously. I take my health seriously and I take my education seriously. I now proudly and boldly claim my space because, as James Baldwin would say, my ancestors already paid the price for that ticket. If they could survive their traumas, I can survive mine too. Sure, I’m still processing, but I’m also improving. I would like to think improvement is what my ancestors wanted from me, and that truly makes me their wildest dream.