Library of Congress 1941 – Chopping cotton on rented land near White Plains, Greene County, Ga.

When I was a little girl my grandmother told me about how my family came to Augusta, GA. Her parents were sharecroppers in Warrenton, GA. At the time, it was illegal to quit and you could be killed for doing so. The klan was alive and well. But my great grand parents, Flossie and George had a plan. In the middle of the night Flossie packed up the children and fled in a buggy. My grandmother was about 4 years old at the time of the escape. Afterwards, the overseer came knocking on the door asking, “Where are they?” George gave a convincing response declaring, “My wife left me and took the children.” He later quietly escaped, reuniting with his family in Augusta to build a new life for themselves.

This was my first personal Black history lesson.

They escaped a few decades before Martin Luther King Jr. discovered there were people living in Albany, GA that had never seen a dollar bill. Hangings were real, escaping was necessary, money was scarce.

Flossie and George are not people from an imaginary story.

I remember sitting on Flossie’s lap in her rocking chair. Sometimes she would chew her snuff and spit into an old can. She’d say in defiance, ” I chew my snuff and he don’t like it. But I chews it anyway.” At five years old I’d smile at her mischief…my first lesson in feminism.

Meanwhile, George would check my mouth for missing teeth. He’d then demand that my parents and the toothfairy, “Give this baby her money! Make sure they give you your money!” I’d smile at his concern…my first lesson on economics.

Anyone that reads Ta-Nehisi Coates’ masterpiece on  The Atlantic will realize that it goes beyond the traditional conversation about reparations. It’s a beautifully woven story that works towards dismantling collective amnesia.

Conversations about reparations, entitlements, and the public welfare are often scoffed over and quickly dubbed as unfounded, unrealistic and unnecessary. Then rhetoric such as Paul Ryan’s, “culture of laziness” and Rick Santorum‘s “I don’t want to make black blah people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money,” is quickly inserted as an effort to switch focus from the root causes of poverty in America.

Again and again we meet in battle the advocates of collective amnesia, that seek to not only ignore history but also change it.

Us descendants of the unpaid, indebted labor force are often told the past is irrelevant. Our attempts at coherent discourse are subdued as the world flashes before us and we see the hand writing on the wall. We’re told that remembering is “divisive”, this history is “non-existent”, and that most all “nobody owes us anything.”

It’s not really about owing. It’s about fixing and creating a country that is no longer mired in disparity or profitable through disenfranchisement. Recognizing that many of the current policies towards wages, education, healthcare, and housing are guided by a historically racist, classist, sexist discriminatory framework.

For me, that’s the most important aspect of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ piece…remembering and using this memory to guide us towards a more just nation.

This is why I’ll never forget the escape of Flossie and George.

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Jessica Ann Mitchell Aiwuyor is publisher and multicultural communications specialist. To reach JAM, email her at or visit

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45 thoughts on “Dismantling Collective Amnesia

  1. Thanking you for sharing this. America won’t get better until it gets real about it’s past.

  2. OMG. This is been a topic that I hold dear.Not forgetting our past. My coworkers, who are black, are against seeing 12 years a slave but talk about Jewish Holacust (sp) movies with full reviews. I was upset and said what makes their story better to tell than our own. This collective amensia is widespread in America. However, its also noteworthy that Jewish people were giving repretations and apologize to for the atrocities that they have endured. They are also constantly reminding us of the pain and sorrow. I am not saying their story is more notable or less but what I am saying is that we are forgetting our story and we sharing others like ours doesnt matter.

    1. Many years ago, I was like your co-workers. Someone told me what you told them … and it has made a difference. I thank you for making that difference in them. BTW, I’m not from the US but am recognizing that the black experience is similar in different parts of the world. I am from the Caribbean. There was a time when I scoffed at AfroAmerican culture which is very different from my personal cultural upbringing / experience. I always pleaded for people not to mistake me for Afro- American but CARIBBEAN. No one spoke me out of that but I have seen on my own how much more we have in common, despite superficial differences. Peace!

      1. I totally understand where you are coming from. My mom is from Panama. They way we grew up with my father who has parents from the deep south has made our household appreciate the movements that have happened in the past. Thank you for commenting

  3. Really loved this post and the snapshot of history. These conversations and memories are so powerful in the conversation about reparations in this country. We as African Americans have such strong oral history, it is important to share these stories as often as possible so they survive!

  4. I agree with the above comments. We have to share these historical stories and keep sharing. Maybe one day mankind will learn from history and start to love one another regardless of race.

  5. Well said. I think God’s working overtime to lift African Americans up high above the sufferings of previous generations. He’s got the best plan, we just have to follow His lead. (I’m not black, but I am American. That makes me half African American, right?)

  6. My dad started picking cotton when he was about 5 years old, as a migrant farmer, in 1945. That is a really well preserved picture from that time! Thanks for posting it!

  7. Collective Amnesia is real! If we remember what happened then, we will have to realize the correlation to now. In our present situation we don’t want to address it, therefore we can’t address our past.

    This was an outstanding article and I really appreciated the work. Thanks so much!

  8. Remember our journey here its painful knowing how we hurt for other to survive, die for other to live and how we fought for other to be free our journey as been long and hard. Don’t be fooled our journey is not over yet. Keep up the good work

  9. Look no further than the public education system for reasons why many in the community still struggling. Underfunded schools in poor communities because they are funded primarily by local taxes, and a school placement program that forces you to be dishonest if you want to go to better funded and safer schools outside of your area. Then you have standardized tests that are written by what i would call cultural elitists, asking questions about things like Lacrosse and Polo, something the majority of inner city kids know nothing about. Automatic fail. Guess who will pass these exams? No education, no opportunity, and another generation that won’t know what a dollar looks like. If more is not demanded then nothing will change, both major political parties endorse the status quo but pay a lot of lip service to change, and the African American vote is so predictable that politicians take it for granted. It is all good to know the past, but what is being done today?

  10. Hello and Freshly Pressed brought me here. This white X & Y generation will always look ‘US’ in the eyes and say, “nobody owes us anything.” They will say that until the day they die. 😦

    Thank you for your moderation.

  11. Absolutely wonderful! The title, Collective Amnesia, is spot on. We truly are forgetting who we are and where we came from in so many ways. Thanks for a great post!! Come visit me whenever you can, too!

  12. I’m a teen in a mostly white school and me and the other five out of eight black kids in the middle school get together with the Director of Diversity Initiatives (who’s Hispanic), or sometimes by ourselves and talk about being black. Just our problems, out struggles as students in the minority, the differences in life. I don’t like being told to forget. The past has made me who I am, regardless of whether I was alive then or not.

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