Montclair’s Dionne Ford explores her family history in new memoir
Dionne Ford knew there was a story that she always needed to tell. She wasn’t exactly sure what it was about or when she would tell it, but she knew it needed to be told.
She was 12 years old when her grandfather first told her about the history of her family. Her grand-
father was a great storyteller, she said, but there were still some missing pieces to her family tree that left her questioning.
“Even though my grandfather had given me some really wonderful information that a lot of people don't even get, like the name of the person who had enslaved them,” she said, the information was incomplete.
It wasn’t until her birthday in 2007 that Ford, a Montclair resident, found herself thinking about her ancestors again and decided to sign up for a
trial membership with Ancestry.com. It opened up a new world for Ford, as photographs came up to match the names and stories that she heard from her grandfather throughout the years.
“And from there, that was it,” she said. “I was like a dog with the proverbial bone. And I wasn't going to stop till I had satiated my need.”
Ford has chronicled her findings of family history and how it leads to her over a century later in her new memoir, “Go Back and Get It: A Memoir of Race, Inheritance, and Intergenerational Healing,” released on April 4.
The memoir follows Ford’s family in the Deep South and weaves through the swamplands of Mississippi. She explores a family member’s lynching, a painful sexually
violent past brought on by slavery, and alcoholism. Ford also unearthed some positives, like her great-great-grandmother’s being able to acquire property.
Author Joyce Carol Oates calls Ford’s memoir “a fascinating American odyssey quite unlike any other you are likely to encounter, beautifully written, heartfelt, at times painfully candid, and deeply moving.”
Though Ford has dealt with these heavy topics for more than 10 years while researching and writing the book, she said it was a cathartic experience for her to allow other people into her family’s life through her writing.
“My experience from beginning to get help for a variety of different afflictions and trauma was that the quicker that I can be honest and share what's happening the quicker my healing began,” she said.
She said that if she continued to hold in her own experience of being sexually abused by a relative that she would be shaming herself.
The book is centered on her great-grandmother, who was born to a wealthy Louisiana cotton broker and the enslaved woman he received as a wedding gift.
Ford’s inspiration for starting the book came from seeing her female ancestors on a computer screen and concludes with a look at her female predecessors. She finally decided that her book was finished when she felt forced to confront the threat of sexual violence against her own daughters as they move through the world.
“I think then because I have daughters, the finishing time became something around their own burgeoning womanhood,” she said.
For Ford, her memoir represents more than a period in her life or a theme, but is a constant reminder of the healing she has done throughout her life. The book title, “Go Back and Get It,” is an English translation of the word “Sankofa,” which derives from the Twi language of western Africa.
“It’s believing that in order to go forward, you need to know your past,” Ford said.
Though this is her first memoir, she is not new to the writing world. She has worked as a reporter and has written for The New York Times and Literary Hub. In addition to writing articles, she is co-editor of an anthology titled “Slavery's Descendants: Shared Legacies of Race and Reconciliation.”
Ford has been a resident of Montclair for more than 20 years and works with Succeed2gether’s literary festival and the Montclair
Library’s Open Book/Open Mind
series. She is also an active member of the Friends of the Howe House.
Her involvement with saving the house that belonged to a formerly enslaved Montclair resident, James Howe, directly affected her interest in writing a memoir. She found out about the Howe House the same year that she saw the photos of her ancestors for the first time.
“It just was historic,” she said. “It was kind of like a beacon to me. I would sometimes just walk by that house once I knew where it was, as just kind of like a grounding principle or a touchstone.”
Ford will discuss “Go Back and Get It: A Memoir of Race, Inheritance, and Intergenerational Healing” at Watchung Booksellers on Wednesday, April 12, at 7 p.m. To register visit watchungbooksellers.com.