Retracing My Steps

Glen Thomas Rideout
September 14 2022

By Glen Thomas Rideout

“If you don’t seek it, you won’t see it…I’ma build my own foundation…You won’t break my soul.”

—Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter

When it was his turn to present his history project to our 7th grade class, he began with delight, flashing a large posterboard and permanent-marker family tree. He’d been able to trace his ancestors back to the 1500s!

I wondered how he managed to discover so much and so many. I’d tried something like that a year before. I asked every adult in my family. Stayed in the local library for so long, they gave me a job at the desk! I combed the Internet looking for something of my deeper heritage, so that I could imagine myself.

He was talking about his German ancestors. I remember feeling confusion. I had no idea where he was getting this information about his great-great-great grandparents. I looked around me, and none of the other Black kids in the classroom seemed to have a clue either. We don't have those stories.

Ultimately, I realized that my white classmate had access to time that I didn't have: access to stories and connections that I could never have.

Like most Black people, I rise on the shoulders of ancestors whose names I can not know. Our ability to move through our own past is encumbered, cut off at the point where we as human beings are sold like cargo: the point of erasure.

In order to shackle people to ships, you have to untether them from their life stories and their heritage; their bloodlines and their land and their homes. You do all of this untethering, and for the rest of the generations of that person—for the rest of the time—there will be no knowing of their stories.

If, from the beginning of racism and this human trafficking, the point was to build a country with people imprisoned and kept in their economic states, then the only way for America—for all of her people—to get any sort of free together is to act as if these stolen stories truly exist; to replace habits that encumber the movement and liberation of our kindred; to remember even the lives for which we know no names.

We show our children now the truths of yesterday and the possibility of tomorrow. It's this deeper connection with the greater living story that brings a chance of wellness and repair for all life.


God, continue to fashion my people in our ancestors’ image, so that we may glimpse their stories in each other’s eyes, and trace over the marks of erasure in bold, provocative joy.