“And then the paddy rollers came, and they threw me in a ditch.”
For most of my mother’s life, she held on to this puzzling fragment of conversation from her paternal great-grandmother, Nancy Scott. Mrs. Scott lived into her 90s. And when she was very old she held my mother, Cynthia, on her knee, and told her those words about what happened in her childhood. My mother, understandably, thought that her great-grandmother was rambling. Instead, she was bestowing wealth—the wealth of history.
As anyone who’s seen the seminal movie 12 Years a Slave knows, the “paddy rollers,” or patrollers, were men who supposedly were tasked with bringing back runaway slaves but frequently captured free blacks and took them to the Deep South to work on plantations. The film shows not just the physical brutality but also the cognitive dissonance of having grown up a free man or woman and then having that veil of freedom snatched away. In the film, one of the slavers sings a jaunty jig about the paddy rollers, rejoicing in his ability not only to control but also to taunt the people he’s captured.
My great-great-grandmother Nancy Scott died well before I was born. And to hear my mother’s story, Mrs. Scott sounded shocked by the violence of having been thrown in a ditch as a child. Only later did my mother come to understand that her family had thrown my great-great-grandmother into the ditch to hide her from the paddy rollers.
I am a very wealthy woman when it comes to my history. My mother, Cynthia (Stokes) Chideya, has assiduously documented our American family’s history, tracing it back to free black men and women in Virginia and Maryland who were mainly farmers and carpenters or home builders. One ancestor was a “mulatto” man who emigrated from Scotland. I wonder if, as a genealogist speculated, he was the favored son of a Scottish planter in the West Indies and an enslaved woman, a boy sent to Scotland who later decided that his fate lay back in a different part of the New World. Although we have a record of his immigration, we cannot find the port from which he embarked. We have a grand photo, though. He was a serious, mid-brown-skinned man, with neatly trimmed facial hair, staring at the world with something between acceptance and weariness.
Of Nancy Scott, we have a photo as well, though it’s been damaged by time. Someone tried to gussy it up with paint, and as that paint faded the image became a crude rendering of this strong woman. You had to be strong to be black and free in Mason-Dixon states during slavery and Reconstruction. If you weren’t set up to be kidnapped and forced into labor, you might be robbed of many other things in other ways—your land, your business, your virginity or sexual choice, your life.
Another of my family’s stories has to do with my maternal grandfather’s own father, Robert Stokes. A carpenter and home builder in Middle River, Md., he bought some land from a white man on installment. He kept a ledger of every payment. When he’d paid in full, the man claimed that he had not paid and did not own the land. My grandfather took him to court, showed the ledger and won. I don’t know for sure, but I doubt there were any black men (or any women, period) sitting in judgment. Yet my grandfather’s good name and his literacy, and ledger, won the day.
Not all was injustice. But you had to document what you owned and were owed, love hard and fight for what you had. For that lesson, passed down from all my ancestors, I am grateful. I am also grateful that I am learning the art of forgiveness. For every wound my family has experienced, whether on my mother’s side or my Zimbabwean father’s side (where family land was taken by colonial powers), I have had to learn to forgive but not forget.
A bitter heart is a sure way to a quick and painful death. I will never forget. But forgiveness is a gift not to the perpetrators of injustice but for those who have experienced loss, so we can rise and love and fight and tell the truth again. For that and for so much more, I am thankful—a spirit of thanksgiving that transcends any holiday, any national border, and race and time themselves.
Farai Chideya is a distinguished writer in residence at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Institute for Journalism. A contributing editor at The Root, she is the author of four books and blogs at farai.com.