Bittersweet Journey is the story of the wounding, healing and triumph of a family
Bittersweet Journey is a moving and compelling story, eloquently written by Anthony about his profound journey into his family’s past in slavery. It is the story of the wounding, healing and the triumph of a family. The place his ancestors once called home is Black Mountain, in the mountains of western North Carolina, the land of “Cold Mountain.”
Like many African Americans, at times Anthony found it very difficult to revisit some of the darkest days in our American experience. Yet, in his family’s healing process and our nation’s efforts to heal its racial wounds it was important to seek out the truth about our past, regardless of the consequences. Evenin these difficult times, the discovery of his ancestors, how they overcame slavery to begin life anew and how their lives enriched their community was a journey well worth taking.
Ten years ago, my father and I began a journey. The object of our travels: a return to the long past silent days and nights that have been lost to the misty passages of time. Our profound hope was to uncover the truth of our African American ancestry.
In any great adventure, the uncertainty of what lies ahead is exhilarating. The process of discovering one’s family roots is officially known as Genealogy. However, as we were soon to find, in a blink of an eye the process became a discovery of my father and myself. Black Mountain, North Carolina, the place my ancestors once called home is the mountains of western North Carolina, the land of “Cold Mountain.” My story begins in a small community not unlike many southern cities today with a dark past. A short distance from the city of Asheville, hidden deep within the history of Black Mountain our search began for the historical record of my family—the Littlefields. We searched for unknown ancestors prior to my great grandfather, Benjamin Littlefield.
As we charted our path down the road of discovery, we soon began to feel the tantalizing urges I believe any African
American feels when reaching back to the history of our forefathers. Every since the tragic disconnection with the first ancestral land of my forefathers, Africa, brought about by the forced removal through the slave trade, and the practice of separating families by selling them off the same way a farmer would sell farm animals, we, African Americans have struggled with the loss of our heritage and family worth.
It is certain knowledge the souls of our ancestors sprang forth from a continent rich beyond measure in beauty, culture, wealth and mystery. However, in the same vein, very few African Americans can identify with that particular country, custom, religion and culture of our ancestral land. How it must be for Africans from the cradle of civilization who, by choice, choose to immigrate to America today. America---a land which several centuries ago offered a very bitter welcome. It is comforting to know that the civilized welcome received in immigrating today, was bought and paid for by the pain, suffering and courage of those America, at one time, had nothing but disdain for.
For years, never forgetting stories told to him as a child, my father silently clung to brief mentions of our family’s beginnings. From time to time he would recall to me the stories his grandmother, Callie, shared with him how she and her husband Benjamin joined the mass exodus of African Americans from the rural south just prior to the 1920’s. Like the Underground Railroad and it’s lure of freedom did during slavery, the emergence of heavy industry in Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland and many other northern cities beckoned to our ancestors like a beacon in the night. Now, more than four-score years later, my father and I journeyed back to touch and feel the earth of this heavenly land in remembrance of the bittersweet lives of those whose endurance and triumphs have allowed me to be here today.
For many who embark on this incredible adventure, as sure as the sun rises each morning your journey will become a passion. At whatever time African Americans choose to make the decision to reunite themselves with the past, the road to discovery will certainly be strewn with the highest rewards. Many of these rewards will take the shape of a simple discovery of the name of a great-grandparent, the heroic military service of a great-great-grandparent or, in a magical instance, the manumission of a great-great-great-grandparent.
Yet, this same road will also be strewn with the lowest of lows of what you can not discover. There will be those occasions when the answers to what you seek will evaporate with the ease of a desert mirage. As difficult as it may be at times, the rewards of connecting with the heritage of our own individual family by far outweigh the winds of disappointments that are sure to blow across your path.
The discovery of the names of my great-great-grandparents, Richard and Margaret Littlefield, written into the 19th century history of Black Mountain a short fifteen years after the end of slavery, was the culmination of a dream my father had fostered for many years. Since that special day we have come to better understand the process involved in the African American Genealogy and the state of race relations, today. For in this process numerous words will be added to a searcher’s vocabulary. Words such as census, manumission, enumerated, soundex, and the heart-wrenching slave schedule will be required stops along the way on your journey.
As time has marched along, the same can be said of technology. For on our journey of discovery we found a shining new road to travel--The Information Highway. Yes, this explosion in technology, in some cases, allowed us to glide along effortlessly through the pages of historical records housed in many libraries and other sources from the comfort of our living room. Of even greater importance, the information highway allowed us to make the acquaintance of others traveling in the same direction as us, as though we were sharing the next seat on a plane or train whisking us way back through the pages of time.
For more than three hundred years, African Americans have struggled to achieve the fruits of equality and liberty in America while, at the same time, erasing from our collective memories the shattering effects of centuries of bondage and injustice. For countless years the sons and daughters of former slaves went about the business of carving out a place for future generations to take their rightful places at the table of equality---trying not to think of the past.
Before this future generation could experience a slender slice of freedom’s blessings came the men and women who endured the hardships of a forced servitude on a scale unimaginable. I found the process of genealogy allowed the descendants who had suffered, and those who once upheld “America’s peculiar institution,” slavery, to reopen a dialogue about the ill effects of this system that lingers to this day. In many cases, the history of African American families is interwoven with the family history of white families. For African Americans to fully achieve a successful family search will require white Americans to open a segment of their history many may wish not to, for fear of reawakening ghosts of the past.
Sadly, but not unlike many African Americans, the accounts of our ancestors’ history are buried beneath an American tragedy: a time when one man owned another man. Thankfully, over the last twenty years there has been a long overdue awakening in the hearts and minds of African Americans.
Throughout this land individuals, as well as families, are embracing with dignity the common plight our ancestors shared in America’s destiny. Much of the credit for this revival in our heritage begins with Alex Haley. Through Alex’s momentous work a generation became energized to seek with pride millions of individual stories that time and a once wretched system had long forgotten.
In the final analysis, Bittersweet Journey is a attempt to document for future generations to come that, once upon a time, in a place called Black Mountain, an African American family did what all family trees aspire to do: firmly plant its roots in the life-giving earth, give strength and shelter to each branch, then multiply until the end of time.