EDITOR’S NOTE: From the forthcoming book Never Forget Our People Were Always Free: A Parable of American Healing by Ben Jealous. Copyright © 2023 by Benjamin Todd Jealous. To be published on January 10, 2023, by Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.
My great-grandmother wrote my grandmother’s birth certificate herself, as she did for every Negro child in her Virginia county at that time. Back then, the county clerk would explain, “We don’t write birth certificates for cows, so we don’t write them for Negroes.” It was 1916, and my people were far from human in the eyes of the segregationist government that ran Dinwiddie County, Va.
When I approached my grandmother, née Mamie Bland, about the prospect of meeting our likely cousin, née Maggie Bland, my grandmother shrugged. “That’s okay, baby. I knew those people when I was young. I have no interest in reconnecting with them.”
I explained that Maggie was different—that she was born in California and had been a hippie. I shared that she was raised for her first 12 years by a Black woman who she believed was her cousin.
Maggie was eager to reconnect with more Black members of her family; in fact, she had been looking for us for her entire life. My grandmother said she’d think about it.
She said no. “I’d die happy if I never saw them again.”
To say she knew them was an understatement. She was born a Black Bland in Dinwiddie County, where many of the most prominent Blacks and whites shared that unfortunate adjective as their family name. Moreover, her great-grandfather Frederick Bland was the only slave mentioned in the will of Richard Yates “R.Y.” Bland who owned Fred, his wife née Nancy Yates, and their children:
“It is my will and desire that my body servant Frederick be kept in the family where my sons may live, to wait on them, and attend to home business, gardening and so for him to make his board, if no more. He is never to work out as a field hand, nor under an overseer.”
R.Y. Bland had many slaves, but only one was mentioned in the will. And every word of the mention was dedicated to protecting said slave. Why? Well, when the Harvard University historian Henry Louis “Skip” Gates pored over the will and other assembled evidence, his conclusion was concise: R.Y. Bland knew Fred was his older brother and wanted to protect him.
Apparently, my grandmother’s use of the word “knew” was an understatement too. It was clear that the sudden appearance of a white cousin unsettled her in ways for which she was not prepared.
Then she said yes. On some level, she wanted the healing that cousin Maggie was looking for too.
They met. It was brief. The family resemblance was clear. A loop had been connected. I thought that was it.
And then one day my phone rang. “Hey, Cousin Ben!”
“Ah… Cousin Maggie! What can I do you for?”
“Cousin Ben, you run a foundation, don’t you?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Well, I need help. Hurricane Katrina has caused a real mess and we all need to help.”
Hurricane Katrina had rolled through New Orleans just two days before. The country was abuzz with concern. Everyone was trying to help however they could. Cousin Maggie continued, “I have a family from the Lower Ninth Ward who are in an especially urgent situation.”
I had the unfortunate task of explaining to my newfound cousin that there was nothing my foundation could do. By charter, we only funded in California, and we only funded civil rights advocacy. Direct aid to individuals in Louisiana was way out of our territory.
“Well, just listen to me,” she insisted.
“All right, cousin, hit me.”
“I have these two boys. They’re in a nursing home up in Baton Rouge, in the hallway. They were sent there after they were rescued from their family home, in the Lower Ninth Ward. The parents owned a family-run printing business. But the floodwaters came in and destroyed everything.
“The boys had to be rushed out right away. One is in an iron lung, and the other one probably should be. Now they’re in this nursing home hallway up in Baton Rouge. And although the nursing home is far from the flood zone, it’s been inundated with wind and rain. The mold is building up. The spores are floating in the air. If they get in those boys’ lungs, they could both die in a matter of days.”
As Maggie talked, I remembered that my godbrother, Dave Chappelle, had called the day before to ask me to keep my ear to the ground for any individuals who needed help. “My imam said to give alms to any individual who asks,” he said.
I didn’t expect any to find me, quite honestly, in San Francisco. I hadn’t really given it another thought. But now here was my cousin Maggie Bland, descendant of the men who owned my family, descendant of the men who raped my great-great-grandmothers and their mothers, asking me for help.
I called Dave and explained that Maggie needed an air ambulance to get the boys from Louisiana to California. “Absolutely,” Dave said. “Call my accountant and give her the information.” I called right away. The funds were wired. The two boys in the nursing home were airlifted out to Sacramento, and given a new home. They were able to keep going with their lives.
Maggie was elated.
I went back to working on the issues of the day in California: low-wage workers fighting to make enough to support their families, farm workers protesting unsafe working conditions, formerly incarcerated mothers and fathers struggling to find work.
A few weeks later, Dave and I were on the phone. I was the closest thing to a lawyer in the family, and he would often call when there was a difficult situation to work through. While we were talking, he excused himself. FedEx was at the door. It reminded me that I had an unopened FedEx envelope that had arrived that morning.
I reached for it. It was from Sacramento.
“Dave,” I said, “where’s your FedEx from?” “It’s from Sacramento,” he said. “I think it’s that family.”
“Yeah, I’ve got one here too,” I said.
“Let’s open it.” I heard the envelope rip on his side of phone before I ripped open mine. Dave slid out a photograph as I slid out mine. He was quiet. I was quiet.
“Ben, did you know the family was white?”
“Dave, I had no idea, man. Maggie said they lived in the Lower Ninth Ward. I assumed they were Black.”
“Yeah, me too.”
It was a large photograph. We each pulled it all the way out of the envelope and turned it over to read the inscription on the back. “Thank you, Ben, God bless you, the Goldman family.”
“Ben, did you know they were Jewish?”
“Dave, I didn’t know they were white. It never occurred to me they might be Jewish.”
“Well, the Lord definitely works in mysterious ways. Do me a favor, brother,” Dave said. “Don’t tell anybody about this for a while.”
“Sure, Dave, why not?”
“I have no idea how to explain it at the mosque this week,” he said.
I paused. Then I said, “Dave, just tell them this is exactly how America is supposed to work. Only in America could the former slaveholding side of the family call the formerly enslaved side of the family, in order to get alms from a Black Muslim to help some poor white Jews get out of the Lower Ninth Ward.”