Ben Jealous had just been kicked out of Columbia University for protesting when he traversed down to Mississippi to do more of the same. At the time, he was advocating for criminal justice reform in Parchman prison and financial equity amongst Mississippi colleges (Ayers case). And because Charles Tisdale, the late publisher of the Jackson Advocate, was heavily involved in these issues as well, Jealous began working as a reporter for the oldest continuously published Black newspaper in the state. It wouldn’t take him long to become managing editor.
Jealous has honed his writing skills over the past three decades and has now published his first book, “Never Forget Our People Were Always Free: A Parable of American Healing.” It is a multi-layered, multi-generational tale of family, community, and healing. It is a story about how tightly woven Black people are into the fabric of this country. Told from the lens of Jealous’ family lineage, “Never Forget Our People Were Always Free” deals with the horrors of the definition of interracial relations during slavery to racism and Jim Crow laws to the reconciliation of that history many still grapple with today – along with Jealous and his family who did the work of personal mending.
Jackson – the capital city of the Magnolia state – is also the name of Jealous’ only son, so it suffices to say that this place holds a special place in his heart. The former national NAACP president sojourned again to Jackson on March 10 for “A Conversation with Ben Jealous” – an hour-long book talk and signing with a crowd of chosen family members and new friends. Sponsored by the Sankofa Book Club and the Jackson Advocate, the event was held at the COFO building on Lynch Street.
During the conversation, Jealous shared the genesis for his book. As far back as the matriarchs in his family – from his sister to his mother to his grandmother and great greats – could remember, they have passed down the phrase “Never Forget Our People Were Always Free.” Over the years, Jealous’ inquisitive mind wondered what the phrase meant to his family whose origins could be traced back to Virginia and on to Maryland where his parents’ – Fred and Ann Todd Jealous – interracial marriage was seen as illegal. They moved to California where Jealous was born, but he says he was “baptized in Baltimore” – the place where he spent summers with his grandmother Mamie Bland Todd.
It’s Mamie’s maiden name of Bland that ultimately connected Jealous to his familial roots. Though he is the product of an interracial marriage and his skin color is fair, the Black women of the Bland line have traditionally had fair skin and the reason for that came to a head one night when Jealous spontaneously met his other Bland family – his white family who’d owned a plantation. He spells out that encounter in his book and how that pivotal moment framed the concept that Americans – Black, white, and all races in between – must reconcile with one another for all to move forward into a new way of thinking of freedom and living in freedom.
During the conversation, he also recalled a rare story of connection amidst differing ideologies. He remembered his old publisher, Charles Tisdale, had a standing lunch with Richard Barrett, the supposed grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Those interactions and that longstanding friendship that lasted until Tisdale passed away in 2007 taught Jealous that reconciliation from the far left and the far right is not only achievable but sustainable if people can find just one commonality to connect and build upon.
“Never Forget Our People Were Always Free” is available to purchase on Amazon, Audible, and anywhere books are sold.