Mama Is Happier


Mother has officially forgiven all efforts to promote the family. I spent a delightful afternoon at the Wasch Center talking about the family. No lost jewelry, no falling pictures, no foggy trip. It covered enslavement in Virginia, Alabama, and New Jersey, to becoming “first” – African American women and men who bought property in Hartford’s North End, secured pharmacy licenses, ran businesses in Saybrook, and produced Ann Petry.

Engaged, lively, and curious, the audience consisted of retired Wesleyan faculty and others. With all the talk about challenging the aging brain, I can’t think of a better way than to spend time with a community of people who are still learning and still wanting to stay on top of issues in the world.

The center is named for Susan B. and William K. Wasch, who donated the funds to create the center and guided it to the oasis that it is. Bill remains active by suggesting topics and speakers, as well searching ideas for expanding the center.

On and off, I’ll post bits from the talk, which was titled “An African American Family in Connecticut: From Slavery to Triumph” and dedicated to the memory of Susan Wasch.

This lecture will serve as a preview of the documentary film about our family, working title For Dear Mother’s Sake: The James Family Letters That Shaped Ann Petry. We have received a planning grant from Connecticut Humanities to explore how a black family rose from slavery, triumphed over racism, and produced a number of “firsts.” They include shaping the life of Ann Petry, the first African American woman to sell more than one million copies of a book.

The family’s story appears in Can Anything Beat White?: A Black Family’s Letters. It is based on some four hundred letters written between 1873 and 1910 mostly to my grandmother that she saved. The originals are at Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

With the film, we hope to introduce these fascinating people to a wider audience and to draw attention to a period largely ignored in history books. It included an epidemic of lynchings, the takeover by the United States of a country whose leader sought to maintain control, and the annexation of Hawaii. All of these incidents had an impact of the lives of the James family and helped them become who they were. I’d like to note that Bill and Susan made an extremely generous contribution to the film fund. We are eternally grateful.

Thank you, Bill Wasch and Karl Scheibe, for inviting me!

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