by Shannon Wright
Last month we welcomed a new family member: my nephew Teddy, born at the end of February. My parents, newly vaccinated, traveled from our home in Texas to my sister in New York to meet him.
After a couple of days, my mom texted me a video. My dad, decked in his hoodie and baseball cap, tall and lean at 72, carries the fussy baby around the apartment, crooning “Rock My Soul (in the Bosom of Abraham)” and, miraculously, Teddy calms down.
Why does he know that song? I know it because he sang it to me as a baby, and presumably he knows it because his mother sang it to him. But it is an African-American spiritual, and we are not Black. We are Southerners, though, and American, and our histories are bound up in each other.
I suspect we know it because of an 11-year-old girl named January. In 1918, my grandmother was born in a log cabin in Magazine, Arkansas. It was poor and rural then, as it is poor and rural now, and both my great-grandparents worked on a farm. January was the Black child brought in to care for my infant grandmother. In the one photograph I’ve seen of her, she is a skinny child in a thin, worn dress with a serious face, holding an infant in a long white gown–my grandmother.
I don’t know very much about January–just her first name, and that she was 11 in 1918. She would have been born only 10 years after Plessy v. Ferguson had made segregation legal, but the practices of Jim Crow had been around in Arkansas for long before that. I imagine January, born only 40 years after emancipation, may have learned the song from her grandparents, who had likely been enslaved–in 1859, all free Black people over the age of 21 were expelled from Arkansas, and only 144 remained in 1860 while 111,115 Black people were enslaved. I imagine that January’s grandparents were steeped in the spirituals that often sustained enslaved people. The bosom of Abraham is referred to in the Gospel of Luke as the place where the righteous rest after death. But the song also carries the image of a parent holding and rocking a child, and the imagery of “rocking my soul” suggests not only spiritual sustenance and comfort in the life to come, but in the one we now live. Song and movement can be a way of expressing resistance to oppression by asserting one’s humanity, the ability to find comfort and joy in the grimmest circumstances.
I imagine that January’s grandparents may have sung this song to her parents and to January, laden with all the emotional weight of their experience. Little January would have sung it to my grandmother, but for my grandmother it would not have had the same resonance. It stayed with her, though, as our childhood lullabies so often do, and she sang it to her children, who sang it to their children and grandchildren. And so a slave spiritual from 200 years ago becomes the lullaby of a wealthy white child in Tribeca.
I don’t know what became of January and any descendants she may have. I don’t know if she was paid for her labor, or how far she was able to go in school before she started working, a child taking care of children. Magazine, Arkansas is now 97.5% white. Perhaps her family became part of the Great Migration to cities in the North and West; perhaps they are still somewhere in Arkansas. My great-grandparents left Magazine in the 1930s during the Dust Bowl and never returned, so almost a century has passed since our family’s lives intersected with hers. Yet we owe her, this shadow child we know so little about. We owe her for her song, which has become part of the fabric of our family, passed down through generations. We owe her for her care of my grandmother. And we owe her for the promises America made and broke to her grandparents and to her, for the injustices she suffered, for cutting short her education and most likely consigning her to a life of service labor. I trust she rests in the bosom of Abraham now, but I wish I knew more about the child who, for me, is symbolic of all the emotional and physical labor we, as a country, have expected from Black people from their earliest days, and from which we profited and on whose backs we raised our own families. While I cannot repay January–and none of us can repay those from generations past whose contributions, voluntary or not, have sustained our own families–there are ways white people can support and lift up Black families now.
- Donate to organizations like Black Women’s Health Imperative, which focuses on making healthcare accessible to Black women and girls, and the National Black Child Development Institute, which focuses on health, education and literacy for Black children ages birth to 8.
- Be aware of what goes on in your local school district. Black children are suspended at much higher rates than white children for the same infractions, and studies show white people perceive Black children as less innocent than their white counterparts, often assuming they are two or more years older than they actually are. Find out your local school’s suspension rate and attend a school board meeting to raise the issue if there is a lack of parity.
- Do you live in a diverse neighborhood? (If not, consider why not.) Get to know the Black families on your street. Let their children know that you are a safe home to come to if they are ever bullied or pursued by the local neighborhood watch or police. Developing this trust will not happen overnight, but it is worthy of your time and attention.