‘Seeking for the Lost’ and the project of finding each other as a misplaced people
Searching for and locating the abducted and enslaved are acts often aborted from the timeline of events related to the Middle Passage.
by Donnie Moreland
“We hummed a celebration for living. For fighting. For refusing to die. For enduring when giving up would be easier. For believing, against all odds, that we’d get home someday.”
—The Coming; Daniel Black
“It’s nothing like losing one’s keys. It’s not as if he has been misplaced. It’s not as simple as retracing one’s steps. He has not been lost.”
—The Loss of All Lost Things; Anima Gautier
As of 2018, and according to the National Crime Information Center, the Federal Bureau of Investigation reports 207,394 Black Americans have been filed as missing. That number is inaccurate. In fact, I believe reports on the Black and Missing are shaped as poorly as American Mass Murder statistics. Especially coming from the FBI, any statistics concerning Black persons ignores history, mismanaged reporting and bias.
That number—20,394—is absent such bodies as our poor, our folks lost to environmental disaster and kin removed from their homes in contemporary presentations of state sanctioned white violence. The more bodies pile on top of that number, the more we begin to draw a line between being Black and being misplaced, as almost synonymous experiences.
Our initial becoming will forever be tied to forced migration, mass abduction and an eternal missing from home. Home, being the empty space next to relatives whose descendants—able to remain—have questioned whatever became of the seized and their descendants; their distant cousins. But to be missing requires an inquiry into place and what is often ignored in the space between being Black and being missing is the quest of finding.
To find the missing is as much a part of the Diasporic memory of resistance as any other method of insurrection. And as we move further into the after years of the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade, the lineage of finding, as an action of rebellion, is unavoidable, in memory, as we attempt to bring home the ones the rest of the world would want to think lost.
Searching for and locating the abducted and enslaved are acts often aborted from the timeline of events related to the story of the Middle Passage, when recounting the conduct of those who remained ashore. There is a history of expeditions, diplomatic maneuvering and armed conflict, on the part of monarchs, rebel factions, families and individuals which when drawn together create a portrait of tug-of-war for the bodies of the taken that undercuts the story of a continent in submission, or fully conspiring, to European invasion.
Researchers such as Sylviane A. Diouf, of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, have recontextualized the manipulated relationship between tribes and their own sovereignty by providing anthropological details related to resistance in the African imagination. As Diouf illustrates, leaders of the territories often thought to be solely complicit in the processes of abduction and transfer, were much like Abdel Kader Kane—leader of the northern Sinagalese region of Futa Toro—forthcoming in their efforts to reacquire their seized.
A discovered letter of Kane’s to the governor, following the abduction of three Futa children, indicates Futa’s regard for the bloody vigilance by which many leaders understood was necessary to contest the practice of mass abduction. The letter reads, “We are warning you that all those who will come to our land to trade [in slaves] will be killed and massacred if you do not send our children back. Would not somebody who was very hungry abstain from eating if he had to eat something cooked with his blood? We absolutely do not want you to buy Muslims under any circumstances. I repeat that if your intention is to always buy Muslims you should stay home and not come to our country anymore. Because all those who will come can be assured that they will lose their life.”
These macro instances of patriarchal resistance often worked in tandem with personal, often familial, episodes of retrieval. As Diouf continues, “[F]amilies who could locate a captive on the coast gathered resources to obtain his or her release, even if it meant substituting another person for their loved one. Some relatives were even able to trace the whereabouts of kin deported to the Americas and tried — sometimes successfully — to buy their freedom.” These interpersonal efforts, as Diouf describes, are often where we discover the most evidence supporting a lineage of seeking as resistance.
Following the American Civil War, and the passing of conditional emancipation with the thirteenth amendment, the newly emancipated sought their missing. Whether separated by sale, war, or escape, many took out space in Black owned newspapers, for Last Seen ads-notices inquiring information concerning the missing of loved ones. These notices were in symbolic opposition to the traditional advertisement suggesting the return of Black persons as the return of property. These notices argued something about human-ness and that it weren’t chattel that was misplaced in the inconvenience of an owner but a person who was stripped from the arms reach of family.
More so, these notices assited to reposition slavery-as an active enterprise of displacement and abduction- beneath the proper scope of ethnic genocide. Judith Geisberg, of Villanova University, has compiled an archive of these notices, which together reconstruct the ethos of emotional, almost spiritual, durability in the act of seeking- often in lineage with methods of retrieval elicited by figures central to disrupting the slave trade centuries prior. An 1876 notice in the Washington D.C. based, Evening Star, and by a George W. Johnson, in search of his siblings, states:
“I am anxious to ascertain the whereabouts of my two brothers, James and John A. Curtis, colored; the first aged 36, and the other 27. In their minority they were bound to Robert Earl, proprietor of a livery stable in Washington city, located on 20th street, between I and K streets. Any information respecting them will be esteemed a great favor, and suitably rewarded by
George W. Johnson,
Lansing, Box 2, Kanss aug 24-3t*.”
Other notices recount the reuniting of families, in Found ads. One 1891 notice taken out by a S.G. Wilson reads:
“Many thanks for the notice in
‘Seeking for the Lost’ column.
I have found my father.
S. G. Wilson.”
These ads, as stated prior, are further testament to a code of resilience, not just in the Americas, but across the Diaspora, when meditating on the act of finding. Whether the underfunded Black press which is printing the notice, or the traveler in search of their kin, these ads are connected to a fabric of intergenerational seeking, as resistance, that begins at the very cusp of Trans Atlantic Slavery and continues on today, with organizations such as the Black and Missing Foundation, whose goal has been, no matter how many bodies accumulate, to return our missing. Much as it has been the goal of our literati, such as Christina Sharpe, Tina M. Campt and Katherine McKittrick, to discover in anthropological, sociological or geological research, the bodies missing in record and beneath unmarked grounds which remember the details of their existing.
In the first words of Chris Abani’s poem, The Ghost of Us, he begins, “this living with ghosts is our desire to return”. I do believe our missing haunt us, much as ghosts do, in a manner much more urgent than it is frightening. They demand that we locate them. Recover them. They demand to never be forgotten, because in the searching for, whether of living person, corpse or record, we remember the, as Abani proclaims, importance of returning. Returning home. Something which decays if we settle on our missing, past and present, as being “lost”. It is-as it has been across time and space-our duty to return them to us so that we may, as a missing people, properly return to where we are very much still missed.
Donnie Denkins Moreland Jr is a Minnesota based youth violence prevention educator and writer. Donnie holds a Master’s Degree, in Film Studies, from National University and a Bachelor’s Degree, in Sociology, from Prairie View A&M University. Donnie has contributed to Black Youth Project, A Gathering of the Tribes and Sage Group Publishing.