The soundtrack of lapping waves must be the same here. Does the rhythm of water caressing a shoreline ever change? Do the waves of my ancestors’ Mother Africa stroke the sand in a language distinct from here on the Gulf Coast? The sun today warms my skin, and its near-blinding brightness reflects from the powder-white beach, despite the gauzy clouds inching across the sky. The sea breezes are light and give the brown pelicans no trouble as they glide above the surf in search of a spot to dip in for their next meal. Two nearby pieces of driftwood are lined up end to end, perhaps left there in perfect symmetry by the ocean, or maybe the remnants of some children’s game. Oil rigs stand as sentries in the hazy distance offshore. It is a perfect May day on Dauphin Island, Alabama.
Yet I sit on this beach with the footprints forever on my mind — specifically, those of my once-living African ancestors whose blood courses through my veins. Those with whom maybe I share a birthmark or a laugh or the slide of an eye as a warning to find a better lie or tell the truth. Folks who walked this earth but whom I have never met.
My mama’s family is Alabama for at least four generations. Though I grew up in Illinois, my soul is rooted here. So whenever anyone narrows their eyes and cocks their head to question how I — a Black woman — could possibly love this place, my answer has been: “Because generations of my people’s blood and footprints are in this soil.”
And then, just two days before I end up on this beach, there they were: footprints displayed in the University of South Alabama Archaeology Museum. Excavated after hundreds of years from beneath layers of earth in Mobile. Who knows whether they belonged to my kin, but they belonged to my people.
This is a stunning place. But I wonder what it must have looked like to the first two hundred enslaved West African men, women, and children who arrived here in 1719; who were ripped away from their homeland, shackled, starved, and abused before being marched through the Door of No Return and sailed across the sea. Horrific narratives of anti-Black violence span centuries — self-damning admissions written by the enslavers themselves, describing the imaginative cruelties inflicted on the African people by American, Portuguese, French, Dutch, British, and Spanish slavers alike.
But what were the stories of my ancestors? As Saidiya Hartman notes in “Venus in Two Acts” — her essay in which she grapples with how to address the erasure from history of my ancestors’ perspectives — missing from these narratives are the voices of the enslaved Africans and their descendants who endured the savageries of sexual, physical, and emotional trauma forced upon them by these “civilizing” populations. After they had witnessed the slaughter of their families and loved ones in their villages, did my African ancestors have any strength left for a moment of tenderness or hope? How did they care for each other as they sailed toward the unknowable? Did they find a hand to hold, hum softly to one another, refuse to eat, plot revolt? When they arrived on this beach, did they look at the sand and remember sailing away from a similar shore? Could they envision that one day their blood would run so deep in this new soil that three hundred years later one of their descendants would visit this island and sit, haunted, on the sand, asking questions whose answers have been lost? Or were their thoughts wholly consumed with their confusion, mourning, plotting? Perhaps the will to survive such wanton terror and loss is all we could possibly ask of those two hundred Africans, and the millions of others like them, stolen from across the sea. The millions who landed against their will on foreign shores whisper to me in this chorus of lapping waves.
According to the museum exhibit, in either 1819 or 1821 — almost exactly one hundred years after the first slave ship landed on Dauphin Island — a massive hurricane hit Mobile, resulting in a storm surge that flooded a rice field with sand, covering the freshly laid footprints of the enslaved people toiling there. For nearly two centuries, more layers of sand, dirt, and debris accumulated on top, preserving those ancestral marks — evidence of, if not my family’s ancestors, then somebody’s people, captured, frozen in time.
Before this day, when I conjured the image of my people’s footprints in this soil, I spoke of footprints I had never seen, made by people I had never met, but with whom my story is intertwined. Some of their names I know, others not, but they were part of my marrow all the same. Today, on this beach, my skin browns under the same sun that shone on generations before me. The wind carries the same scent of the sea to my nose. Each grain of sand here feels touched by innumerable ancestors who then touch another facet of me. The footprints I imagined feel like a remembrance — a tap on the shoulder from someone in the past to remind me that I am not a mistake. I am somebody’s intention. To remind me that a transplanted tree can be severed from deep-reaching roots, but that the tree and the roots always remember each other.
People sunbathe and laugh and play in the water. There are a few Black families here and there along the shore, although most of today’s beachgoers are white. I talk to a couple of mamas and find out that they are locals from about thirty minutes away. The ancestors of my ancestors may very well have come through Dauphin Island. Or not. In any event, there were once footprints in the sand where I sit, watching the pelicans and listening to the waves and being in community with the generations before me.
Alabama lives in my blood no matter where I find myself in the world. I am fortified by ancestral connection, loved by my folks more than anyone deserves, inspired by the exceptional diversity of my surroundings, and blessed beyond measure by the stories my mama and my kin kept alive. Blood relations, kin by skin, griots, writers, and historians all reach back for crumbs of historical evidence with which to reconstruct Black narratives. Through preservation, imagination, and wonder we find our ancestors, or glimpses of them, and slowly, painstakingly try to give life back to their resilience, their endurance, their pain, their creativity, their brokenness, and their hope, one breath at a time.
In these stories we find moments of tenderness. Humor, even. Connection. Community. So whenever my mama was confronted with the regurgitated horrors of the captors and the perpetual sins of anti-Blackness “down South,” a subtle hardness would enter her eye. With irises as clear and resilient as diamonds, pressurized by years of addressing the certainty of Northerners that things were better for Black people north of the Mason-Dixon, she would usually just allow her pursed-lip disagreement to will the conversation to conclusion. Others in my family suggest that the North is “sure different” with the slightest hint of a grin that invites a similar end of discussion. Like my mama, my folks are diamond-hard, uttering words and resting in silences that cut glass. This comes from somewhere, passed through the generations, though where it originated is anyone’s guess.
The honey way the name of Mama’s hometown eased from her lips brought sweetness and warmth to the bitterest Chicagoland air. Her smile would lift just slightly whenever she drifted into a reverie about her life as a little girl, growing up with the rest of our family in Alabama: how my granddaddy and his brothers built one another’s homes; how my great-uncle was one of the first people in town, Black or white, to own a Model T; how my grandmama taught my mama to sew and sent her to school every day with words of affirmation and encouragement. The Montgomery Greyhound Bus Station where the Freedom Riders were brutally attacked in 1961 is the same station where my mama routinely picked up my cousin on the last leg of her journey home from the Tuskegee Institute. Though both of my grandparents passed before I was born, I have stood in my grandmama’s footsteps, in her kitchen, where she fed her family for decades with pride. I have visited the school where my mama walked the hallways from kindergarten through twelfth grade. I have stood in the church where my parents were married, and I’ve overlooked the Tombigbee River from the exact spot where they cut the cake at their reception. These are a precious few of the footprints laid down before me, and I am not alone in knowing my family’s joy and love and pride and pain in Alabama.
The Atlantic slave trade and the institution of chattel slavery, the racial terror and machinations that killed Reconstruction and brought about Black Codes and Jim Crow, the anti-Blackness that continues to plague the soul of America. These atrocities are all well-documented, yet still hardly fathomable for the depths of their depravity and hypocritical justifications meant to gloss over this history and maintain systems of inequality. I have studied and litigated and debated the root causes of why someone would deny or despise me or my folks simply because of the color of our skin. But it is not the lawyer-me or the writer-me out here today. It is the feeling-me, the curious-me, the me who is grateful that my mama and my people taught me a kind of defiant love for Alabama. They taught me that the sin of anti-Blackness originates in the hearts of man — not in the soil where my people hunted and grew food, not in the rivers where we fished and swam and were baptized, not from the communities that nurtured us. My mama taught me the importance of building one another up, preserving our stories, and having respect for this land.
This is what roots my soul in this particular place. I am tethered here, nourished by a belief that Black people are allowed to love the South. I am my best self in Alabama, because I am bonded to it by blood. My ties are to more than a zip code. Like the footsteps excavated in Mobile, my connection to this land lies deep. The footsteps are there because my people were here, and they continue to anchor me to this soil, under this sun.
On this day, Dauphin Island holds me in an ancestral embrace. I dig my feet in the sand and feel a wash of pride as enveloping as the sea. It is my privilege to be of Alabama, and to be welcomed back to this soil by the footprints laid here long ago.