Read an Excerpt
Portrait of a Bibliophile
A curious and isolated wanderer
possessed with an obsession for a acquisitions,
you are both the seeker and the finder ...
existing in a life, well and vigorously spent,
salvaging treasures of an ancient past.
Charles L. Blockson, May 16, 1995
I was Born Under a Searching Star
And an astronomer said, Master, what of time?
And he answered, "Let today embrace the past
with remembrance and the future world longing ...
Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet
I was born under the sign of Sagittarius. According to the lore of the Zodiac, I am a searcher, a seeker of the truth, and a lover of humanity. I am a double Sagittarius, meaning that I have the sun and moon resting in my sixth house, with Cancer rising.
Astrology is an area in which African people have extensive experience, being the first humans to ponder the meaning of the stars in any systematic fashion. African-American astrologer Gilda Matthews notes that, "One of the oldest existing horoscopes was drawn in ancient Egypt by Imhotep, a black man."
According to information about my sign, I have a natural inclination to approach all people with an open mind. There have been times in my life when that has presented problems for me. Letting fly the incendiary arrows of truth has sometimes ignited blazing fires because of my liberal attitudes towards life and love.
The truth of the matter is thatmost Sagittarian men like myself will always be bachelors, even if we marry. It is impossible in many ways to "settle down" given the heady sense of freedom, the spirits of wandering, that mark the searching star. The idea of liberation has always appealed to the idealist side of my nature, in the same way that it must have appealed to my fellow Sagittarian Ludwig van Beethoven, who shares my birthday.
It cannot be a coincidence that his music appealed to me at an early age. I believe that Beethoven's Ninth Symphony has been the most influential piece of music in my life. Beethoven's Ninth reminds me so much of my life because of its independent movement and thundering intensity, its vivid expression of exaltation and depression. The latter feeling rushes into my soul as I remember those times when I have been deceived by thinking the best of people when I ought to have known better.
I suppose that it is hard when people meet me to gauge just how I will act and think. Because of my size, I am often perceived to be an intimidating figure. I remember a reporter for a small Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, newspaper who interviewed me for a story in May 1972. In introducing the article about my work and the collection she wrote:
"You don't expect his gentle manner when you meet him. He looms over you, huge and menacing and extends a big unexpectedly soft hand with a friendly grasp. He smiles, warmly, and greets you quietly but everything about him signals the power, endurance, and determination of a champion. He talks as easily about Imperial Rome as he does about 19th-century Black leader, Frederick Douglass. This big man clearly believes knowledge of our racial and ethnic heritage strengthens our pride and feeds our vision of humanity and tolerance."
I stand six feet three inches and weigh two hundred and fifty pounds, but I am usually in control of my emotions. However, when I raise nay voice at times, I can appear intimidating. The reporter was not the first person who has expected me to be imposing and rough, only to find out that I am shy and relatively introverted.
I try to listen to other people's points of view. I try to acknowledge when I have made errors of judgment or assessment when I have been proven to be in error. People have remarked, over the years, that I am a patient and empathetic listener. This quality has served me in good stead with people of all ages who seek me out for my opinion on personal issues.
I am passionate about my life's work, yet I am easily exasperated with people and things that stand in the way of my work. At the same time, I value sincerity of purpose and will go all out to help those people who manifest that quality. I try to be fair and reasonable always, to resist holding a grudge, and to give a person the benefit of the doubt.
I am on guard, however, against insincerity and a lack of integrity, and it leads me to sever all ties with people who prove themselves insincere. I can tolerate weaknesses in people--we all have many weaknesses--but I find little reason to tolerate insincerity. I believe that people should be honest about their motives.
There is another group of people of whom I find myself intolerant, those who exploit individuals or situations for their own personal gain. Those people also tend to exhibit another character flaw: they often fail to acknowledge others who have paved the way for them.
During my youth, I was painfully shy and, as a student, reluctant to speak out on issues that were important to me because I did not want to be perceived as being confrontational. This did not apply, of course, to situations involving my family and, later, my race. As I matured, however, I have become more vocal in the defense of my beliefs, even as I realized that some individuals would misinterpret this forthrightness as insensitivity.
My passion for travel, born no doubt in the blood of the wandering Sagittarius, began at an early age and lives with me still. After leaving Norristown to go to college, I traveled farther when I enlisted in the Army. I have visited most of the United States, Canada, Mexico, Europe, Asia, Africa, South America, and the Caribbean. I have traversed the cold steel of prison cells to deliver lectures, as well as schools in Iceland, Sweden, and Denmark.
I started wandering in my hometown, following trash trucks and hoping that something would drop out, a book perhaps. A book by my favorite author, Langston Hughes, perhaps, would fall on the street before me. Often called the "poet laureate of Harlem," Hughes was one of the giants of the Harlem Renaissance and one of the most prolific writers of his generation. A poet, translator, essayist, novelist, dramatist, librettist, folklorist, short-story writer, journalist, and world traveler, he gained an international reputation and sustained it against great odds. Throughout the years, I have reread his autobiography I Wonder as I Wander (1956) many times and have collected a large number of his other books. I remember hiding that book behind the shelves in an Atlantic City bookshop until I could scrape together the purchase price for it. Sure enough, it was lying in the same spot when I returned to buy it three weeks later. I did not have nearly as much competition for books from booksellers and other collectors in 1959.
Understanding the underlying forces that govern my life requires a deeper exploration of the circumstances that attended the time of my birth. I was born on the evening of December 16, 1933, at my grandfather's house in Norristown, Pennsylvania. I was the first child of eight brothers and sisters born to Charles Edward and Annie Parker Blockson. On the evening that I was born, a cold winter rain pelted the roof of my grandparents' house.
The Norristown Times/Herald, our local newspaper, forecast that the day would be a gloomy one, and it was. On that same date some 149 years before, the Massachusetts Spy, an antiquarian newspaper, had cast gloom in the African-American community by announcing the death of the celebrated African-American poet Phillis Wheatley.
Phillis Wheatley was the first woman of African descent to publish poetry in the United States and the progenitor of the African literary tradition in America. To African-Puerto Rican bibliophile Arthur Schomburg she was the "peerless poet," and Schomburg spent much of his life searching the world for her poetry. Her spirit would haunt me until I could at last hold between my fingers the essence of her spirit, captured in that first book of poems, her priceless Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773). In a sense, I feel as if I have fulfilled a part of my destiny by collecting her poems, fulfilling an obligation incurred before I was born. The world mourned Wheatley on that day, December 16 in 1784. Years later, I would be able to open the minds of people all over the world to the sun shining still in the words of Phillis Wheatley.
In the oft-quoted lines of her poem "Recollection," Wheatley wrote:
"I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate
Was snatch'd from Afric's fancy'd happy seat."
Was it a coincidence that her death was reported on the day of my birth or was it the working of divine providence, through my African ancestors, to link me to her spirit? I think of Phillis Wheatley and so many more of my ancestors and I am reminded of the old African spiritual, "I know the Lord laid His hands on me," which my grandfather sang to me as a child.
December is the month that holds the high holy days of many of the world's most practiced religions. It is also the month in which the dog star, Sirius, shines brightest. This star is the guiding sentry of the heavens according to the Dogon people of Mali, whose mapping of the cosmos still baffles and inspires awe in astronomers today. It was Sirius that served as the "Star of Bethlehem," guiding the three Wise Men to the cradle of the infant Jesus.
As I reflect, December has cradled, in her days, the birthdays of many of the dedicated and spirit-blessed keepers of the sacred history and traditions of African people. Among them are Eslanda Goode Robeson, Pan-Africanist, chemist, anthropologist, photographer, activist, writer, and wife of Paul Robeson. Carter Godwin Woodson, the "Father of African-American History" and the originator of what has become Black History Month, was also born in December under the astrological house of Sagittarius. A graduate of the University of Chicago and Harvard University, Woodson organized the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in 1915 and, one year later, became the editor of the Journal of Negro History. Included among his books are The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861 (1915), A Century of Negro Migration (1918), The Negro in Our History (1922), The Mind of the Negro as Reflected in Letters Written During the Crisis, 1800-1861 (1926), and Negro Makers of History (1928).
Gordon Parks looked back over an extraordinary lifetime of accomplishments in the fields of photography, fiction, poetry, music, and film. I had the occasion to introduce Parks in 1996 when he visited the African-American Historical and Cultural Museum in Philadelphia in conjunction with an exhibit of his photographic work. In my introduction, I noted that we were both Sagittarians. Afterwards Parks commented that mine had been one of the finest introductions that he had ever heard and that we Sagittarians shared an overwhelming need to search out and preserve. Hearing this comment from someone like Gordon Parks I felt the resonance of a kindred spirit. There are many more important figures in our history who share the birth sign of Sagittarius and the birth month of December, far too many to mention here.
Since my birth on that gloomy December evening, I have struggled against the odds. I have come to apprehend the wisdom embodied in the hymn, Amazing Grace: "Through many dangers, toils, and snares I have already come; 'Tis grace has brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home."
God and the ancestors have seen fit to bring me through many toils and snares. As an infant, I was diagnosed with double pneumonia and scarlet fever. The doctor told my parents that I would never be able to speak without the intervention of major surgery. Later, he discovered that I had a heart murmur. As a baby, surgeons removed my palate and operated on my tongue. Later in life, I worked my tongue into an oratorical tool by holding pebbles under it as I recited James Weldon Johnson's incomparable poem/sermon "The Creation." In my junior high school history class, I learned that Demosthenes, one of the greatest orators of ancient Greece, had a similar speech handicap as a youth, and he used this method to correct his speech. I also had to overcome a heavy lisp that contributed to my early shyness.
In retrospect, I believe that I have exemplified, in my life and career, both the parson and the scholar of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales: the former first practiced then preached and the latter would gladly teach. I want to eliminate ignorance, which is another--and in many ways much worse--form of slavery than physical bondage. In today's world, the lack of understanding breeds fear, suspicion, hatred, insecurity, and inferiority--all avoidable evils. Misunderstanding manifests itself in our daily lives, yet it is avoidable. I often ask myself, "Where did this misunderstanding begin? In the Garden of Eden, perhaps?"
My "parson" has always looked for people who know and feel. Some friends jokingly refer to me as a people collector. Yet, initially my collecting was anything but a people magnet. It was the loneliest of quests. I had to overcome the adversity of an environment in which I was often singled out for ridicule by those who had different values than my own. I assumed responsibility for preserving our culture because I knew that I wanted to be one of the hands that holds the quill and thereby controls history. It was second nature to gravitate toward book collecting. I adored my family and they always came first, but my passion for collecting has always been a close second.
My community's initial rejection of racial knowledge was due to a lack of pride and to confusion, or so I told myself. I persevered in spite of a natural shyness and a soul that brimmed with the rage, pain, forgotten moments, and the triumphs and tragedies of our race.
I read the Bible regularly between the ages of twelve and twenty. It gave me solace and quieted the demons that nipped at my soul. Whenever I became discouraged, thinking my quest was somehow in vain, I read Psalm 78:13:
O, my people, listen to my teaching.
Open your ears to what I am saying.
For I will show you lessons of our history,
stories handed down to us from former generations.
I was compelled to continue collecting. I resolved that no human force could dam the divine river of knowledge that the ancestors had seen fit to pour through me. Some people live all their lives wondering what they were placed on earth to do. Thanks to the blessing of the divine force, I understand my life's mission. What excites me is the search, the agony and the ecstasy of collecting. It is the meaning of the light that shone down upon me from the searching star under which I was born. Although I had to struggle to survive, I was blessed with limitless energy and a dedication of purpose that is both astonishing and rewarding.
The House of Blockson: Black and White
Bless this house, Oh' Lord, we pray; make it safe by night and day.
Many white Americans claim ancestors who came to this continent on the Mayflower. These numbers, however, must include some false status-seekers, or that poor little ship from England would have sunk to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean from the sheer weight of its passengers.
The mythology surrounding the arrival of Europeans in the so-called New World reflects the importance and power of history for white Americans. Like every other group of people, the teaching of history and culture has been central to the education of their youth. For African Americans, the transmission of culture has been ruthlessly and deliberately suppressed. Just as the Rosetta stone unlocked the mystery of the Egyptian hieroglyphs, so too, after many years of difficult research, was I able to unlock the mystery of the genealogy of the House of Blockson.
What started out as a desire to learn more about our family's history developed into a twenty-year odyssey into the past. I began to search for my ancestors long before the publication of Alex Haley's landmark book on his family history, Roots (1977). I met Haley in 1973 at a conference on African-American history and studies.
In his book, around which a controversy ensued, Haley asserts that he was able to trace his ancestors back to the slave ship Lord Ligonier after reading Vaughan W. Brown's Shipping in the Port of Annapolis, 1748-1775. Haley was indeed fortunate to have been able to document this information. There are hundreds of thousands of African Americans, including myself, who cannot trace their families as far back as he was able to do.
At the conference, Haley and I became deeply engaged in a discussion of the travails of researching black genealogy. I told him that one of the universities should establish a chair for African-American Genealogy as a means of disseminating our history to genealogists and to ensure the continued viability and visibility of the discipline. Haley thought that this was an excellent idea and proposed that we should have follow-up discussions to pursue it to fruition. Soon after, however, the Roots controversy exploded, first on the literary scene and then into the national tele-consciousness. Haley was apparently caught up in the excitement, and we never explored the idea again. It is my sincere hope that someone comes along and revives the idea for such an endowed chair.
African-American genealogy is the ultimate puzzle, an adventurous journey through a very personal history. For that reason alone, it is infinitely more rewarding if we ourselves engage in the research. Each piece of the puzzle, trifling by itself, takes on new meaning as a part of the tapestry of a person's slowly revealed lineage.
I was more interested in my family's African ancestry than in our acquired slave name. I discovered, however, that many black genealogists must glean information from history of their white slave owners to complete the American part of their family history. I can attribute some of the successes I have had in tracing my family, for example, to the record-keeping of the white Blocksons. In 1977, I received a letter from Halbert, Inc., a heraldry firm in Bath, Ohio, stating:
As late as 1972, there were less than 99 households in the United States with the old and distinguished Blockson name. In comparison, there are some family names with over 400,000 households in the country.
The year in which I discovered the existence of the Blockson family coat of arms and the rarity of the white Blockson name, 1977, was the same year in which Alex Haley published Roots. That year also marked the publication of my own chronicles of genealogical research, Black Genealogy, which was the first "how to" book for African-American people seeking to trace their lineage.
From A Dictionary of British Surnames, I found the following derivative spellings of our name: Bloxham, Bloxsom, Blocksome, and Bloxom. Similarly, in our family Bible, the name is variously written as Blocksome, Blocksom, and Blockson.
I collected considerable information on the white Bloxom immigrants who settled in Virginia and Delaware. In the course of time, I met Dr. Ben V. Bloxham, who was researching genealogy on the white branches who left England centuries ago. I found it ironic that both Ben and I, representing two different branches of the House of Blockson, were doing research at the same time. Bloxham, a former college professor and genealogist, is a member of the Church of Latter-Day Saints. His wife, Joanne, is a direct descendant of Brigham Young, the Mormon leader who became the second president of the Church of Latter-Day Saints.
As we sat in my office talking, I mused about the history of the Mormon Church. I had read that several African Americans played a role in its founding, yet blacks were denied membership in the lay priesthood until 1978. The church keeps one of the world's largest genealogical archives and I was pleased to hear, therefore, that the Mormons have opened their doors to people of all races.
Ben explained that he traced his side of the family in England to 1460 and that the original surname was Ingles. He also said that the first white ancestor of the family line arrived in America from Gloucestershire in 1628. A small town in England bears the name Bloxham. More important, he learned, a James Bloxham came to America about 1784 and he was hired as an architect to supervise the enslaved workers in the restoration work at George Washington's home, Mount Vernon.
I learned from Ben that the white Bloxoms arrived in the seventeenth century and founded the town of Bloxom in Accomack County, Virginia. The family had a long history of enslaving African Americans. The first of the family to leave a will was John Bloxom, a carpenter who owned seven hundred acres of land and who died in 1713. I surmise that this John was the founder of the family in this county.
One fall day, as I was researching in the old Colonial courthouse in Accomack, I came upon the name of Anthony Johnson, one of the original group of twenty Africans who had been brought to Jamestown as slaves in 1619. Johnson, who was freed in 1622 or 1623 and settled in Accomack County, was among the first black freedman and the first black landowner in the colonies. Johnson went on to achieve another, though ignoble, African-American first: he became the first black owner of slaves in the colonies. By 1651, Anthony Johnson was able to pay for the importation of five persons into Virginia, for whose "head rights" he received 250 acres of land.
I continued to read the pages of the large leather-bound deed book that had begun to reveal its secrets to me. I discovered that Johnson had been able to persuade the local court in 1651 that he was entitled to receive services "for life" from John Casor, a black man. This decision marks the first time that a court decreed life servitude for any reason other than punishment for crime. I was surprised to learn that Johnson's son, Richard, a large landowner himself, later bought thirty white indentured servants to work for him.
After more detective work and armed with the information that I had copied from the old deeds and wills books, I was able to find many of the white Bloxoms in Accomack in the 1810 census. These records showed that the Bloxom family owned 28 slaves in Accomack County at this point. Apparently, a family dispute occurred which caused one branch of the family to change its surname from Bloxom to Blocksom.
One John Blocksom eventually gathered possessions, family, and slaves and moved from Accomack County to Seaford, Delaware. He settled in an area with approximately one hundred families called the "Northwest Hundred." During the early eighteenth century, he purchased 361 acres of land and became one of the largest landowners in the state. It was among the names of the Africans enslaved by John Blocksom that I was able to bring together two strands of research: I knew these ancestors were related, but I did not understand how.
After extensive research in the Hall of Records in Dover, Delaware, I located the will of John Blocksom, dated September 2, 1824. A list of the seven Africans owned by Blocksom included Harry and Polly and their son, Spencer. Here, ensconced in these old records, were my ancestors. Although I was elated at having located them, I completely lost my temper and pounded the large oak table in the Hall in outrage at the inhumane treatment accorded to my kin. Now that I had discovered them, my rage at the humiliation and indignity of slavery came rushing out. For African Americans, such images are never far from the conscious mind.
John Blocksom willed Spencer to his son, Levin. Spencer served Levin for seven years and other Blockson heirs for many more years until he was able to secure his manumission. Harry and Polly were willed to Jeremiah Collins as slaves for life. Harry, who was sixty years old, was valued at $80 as was Polly, who was forty years old. The will did not list Spencer's age; however, he was valued at $180. A young girl named Millie was valued at $230, representing speculation on the greater amount of work that she would perform as an enslaved woman during her lifetime. I learned later that Harry and Polly were the parents of my great-great-grandfather Spencer, and that Millie was his sister.
I cursed the name of John Blocksom for listing my ancestors and other slaves as "property," along with farm animals, furniture, saddles, and nails. "May his soul and the souls of all slaveowners lie writhing and withering on the floor of hell," I said to myself, "and may God have no mercy on their souls." There, among the nails, were my people. The blood that boiled in my veins moved me to experience a rage that I believe boils in the blood of most African Americans who have had even the slightest brush with white supremacy.
A chill came over my body: There was something eerie about the will. It seemed as if my ancestors were hovering over me, speaking through the words of an old African-American spiritual that rang through my mind, "Why me here?" I recalled what Frederick Douglass wrote in his autobiography My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) about a slave auction:
"Then, too, there was the intensified degradation of the spectacle. What an assemblage! Men and women, young and old, married and single; moral and intellectual beings, in open contempt of their humanity, leveled at a blow with horses, sheep, horned cattle and swine! Horses and men--cattle and women--pigs and children--all holding the same rank in the scale of social existence; and all subjected to the same narrow inspection, to ascertain their value in gold and silver--the only standard of worth applied by slave-holders to slaves! How vividly, at that moment, did the brutalizing power of slavery flash before me! Personality swallowed up in the sordid idea of property! Manhood lost in chattlehood!"
As the brutality of slavery flashed before my eyes, I was reminded of the words of the great poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. His poem, "We Wear the Mask," conveys something of my own rage as I sat at that big oak table on the day that I found Spencer among the chickens and the furniture:
We wear the mask, that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.
Yes, at times, that mask slips, as it did that day, and the world catches the briefest glimpse of our anger.
Although I had read John Blocksom's will in 1973, I was not able to identify my direct ancestor for another ten years. When I was able to search through the family Bible I came across a name that sent electric shocks down my spine. The same feeling that must overcome any African who suddenly links himself/herself to the direct bloodline of plantation days and lynching nights. According to the family Bible's genealogy, Spencer Blockson died in his seventieth year! It was the same Spencer Blockson whom I had found among the nails some ten years before!
I attempted to locate the name of the slave ship on which my ancestors came to America. During that search, I reflected on accounts of the Middle Passage, and I shed tears as I thought of the thousands and millions of ancestors who died during the transport, who did not survive the opening salvos of white supremacy.
When I read the following account of the torture of an African woman, in Nancy Cunard's book Negro (1934) under the heading "Slavery Papers," I was incensed:
"A woman who was brought on board refused sustenance, neither would she speak. She was then ordered the thumb-screws, suspended in the mizen rigging and every attempt was made with the cat [whip] to compel her to eat, but to no purpose. She died in three or four days afterwards. Mr. Millar was told that she had said the night before she died, `she was going to her friends.'"
This is the type of resistance that the white slavers, with their earth bound imaginations could not understand: that there was a type of spirituality that transcended material bonds of flesh and blood.
I was reminded of this incident many years later when I wrote my second article for the National Geographic magazine on the Sea Island of Georgia. There a historical marker on Jeckyll Island related the story of the slave ship Wanderer. The Wanderer carried one of the largest cargoes of Africans ever to land in the United States, including large numbers of Igbos from the area now known as Nigeria. As the slaves were unloaded at high tide on the banks of Dunbar Creek, they turned together and marched into the deep waters of the creek, chanting as they drowned. "The waters brought us in, the water will take us away." Paule Marsha recounts another version of the story in Praise Song for the Widow (1983) in which the Igbos walk on the water back to Africa.
I gained a fuller understanding of the tragic ordeals and the terrifying journey of the Middle Passage through reading African-American artist Tom Feeling's powerful and graphically illustrated book The Middle Passage (1995). This mesmerizing narrative helped me to bear witness to the courage and strength of those who survived the unspeakable horrors of slavery.
According to Virginia Slave Trade Statistics, 1698-1775 (1984), there were several hundred slave vessels that arrived in Virginia from the Guinea Coast by way of the West Indies. To date, I still do not know whether my ancestors arrived during the period before 1775 or later. After checking and rechecking the listings of several hundred ships, I realized that I had little hope of knowing, with certainty, the name of the ship of sorrow that transported my relatives or the date when it arrived in Virginia. To this day, I search for that important document to complete my family's history.
On many occasions throughout the years while conducting research on my slave ancestors, I would grow frustrated and angry with them for not helping to make tracing them easier. I knew that slaves were prohibited from learning to read and write. Still, I wish that one of them had secretly passed on their African names and the names of their native villages or cities.
For many, the immediate response to freedom was to replace their slave names with African names. The forebearers of Benjamin Banneker, the astronomer and mathematician who helped survey the District of Columbia, bore the African name Banaku. Paul Cuffe, the New England sea merchant, took his name from his native land; Cuff, Cuffly, and Cuffee are all African names. The most famous African in the eighteenth century was Olaudah Equiano. This Nigerian, kidnapped from his village and sold into slavery, was given the same name as Gustavus Vassa, a thirteenth-century Swedish king. As soon as he bought his freedom, he reclaimed his birth name, Equiano. Nigerian scholars thus have been able to document the whereabouts of his village and his people.
Our history has been neglected or, in some cases, consciously forgotten. It is one thing to read about slavery and see it as an ancient tragedy with little bearing on our own lives. It is another to experience it firsthand through an ancestor's diary or by way of a public document.