When I was a kid, my mom told me a story about her grandfather: That he got in trouble with some white men down south, and escaped lynching by running to Chicago. That he chose his new last name "Jones," because it was the most common name in the phone book. That, for years, he would sit in his chair facing the door, shotgun on his lap, waiting for them to come for him.
I used to dream about this image — nightmares, really.
Thing is, I never knew much more about the story than that — until last month, when I found out the secret was literally in my blood the whole time.
See, I took one of those DNA tests a while back, and the company connected me to a bunch of people listed as "cousins." Now, most of these people were just randos — I mean we're all cousins if you go back far enough. But one woman, Donna, reached out to me, because it turned out not only did we have genetic ties together, but also several of her family members and my family members reported DNA matches. But we couldn't figure out why.
That was two years ago. And then, a month back, Donna contacted me again. She had figured out the reason why our ancestral surnames didn't match up: Our common relation was my great-grandfather, the one person in my family who had changed his name.
From the historical records she found, this is the best I can put the story together:
In 1904, my family — black farmers in Aiken County, S.C., — bought a mule. At this time and place, a mule was more than just an animal, it was a means to a livelihood. The problem was, the guy who ran the country store claimed the mule was actually his. He said it was sold illegally by someone leasing it and now he wanted it back.
My cousin had already paid his money, so he told the merchant no. He said that the issue was between the merchant and the leaser. But my cousin was black and poor, and the merchant was white and wealthy, and it was 1904 in the south. So it didn't end well.
The merchant and his hired hand showed up at my ancestor's home on Christmas Eve, past 11 at night. They illegally came in the house, pulled a gun on my cousin, bound his wrists behind his back. They were planning on pulling him out, in the dark, to deliver what they considered justice — which likely meant hanging him until his neck snapped.
All this over a mule.
My great-grandfather was in a room just beyond, with a shotgun aimed right at them. He was 11 years old.
But the thing is, they didn't check the rest of the house. They didn't realize my great-grandfather was in a room just beyond, with a shotgun aimed right at them. He was 11 years old.
When he fired, he hit the merchant first in the shoulder, and then in the gut. Shot and in shock, the guy walked around the room before finally collapsing and dying soon after.
My great-grandfather got away — partly because the resulting lynch mob wasted time chasing false leads, partly because his older brother whisked him away to Chicago, where the Great Migration of northbound southern blacks covered their tracks for them.
And that's what makes this story so rare. Because between 1877 to 1950 more than 4,000 black people didn't escape. Instead, they were publicly murdered — supposedly for crimes, but always to reinforce the social order that was white supremacy.
The horror of lynchings has always been a part of my ancestral memory; I'd imagine that's true for a majority of African-Americans. I even wrote a graphic novel about lynching, so it's not a new subject to me.
But knowing the real story of my own family's brush with lynching? It made it real. Reading the newspaper clippings, seeing the pictures, feeling the utter vulnerability of black life in tin-roof shacks, the darkness of the fields and the hostile world beyond them. Knowing how much has changed since then; knowing how much hasn't.
I get now why my great-grandfather sat at the door with his shotgun. It wasn't about defense; it was about PTSD.
I was on the road when I found out the whole story, so I called my daughter to break the news, knowing she probably wouldn't care because for her, at 16, it's beyond imagination. I was trying to get her to understand the enormity and figured I was failing.
She said: 'Wait, Dad, if they lynched your great-grandfather, you wouldn't be here.'
But then she said: "Wait, Dad, if they lynched your great-grandfather, you wouldn't be here."
No baby, I wouldn't be here. And neither would you. Or your brother or your sister. Or grandmother, or aunt and cousins. None of us would be here.
When I hung up the phone, here's the part that hit me: More than 4,000 people murdered. Erased. Family trees pulled at their roots.
President Donald Trump speaks at the National Rifle Association's annual convention in Dallas on Friday.
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updated at 3:11 p.m. ET
President Trump and Vice President Pence spoke to the National Rifle Association in Dallas on Friday. It's the third year in a row Trump has addressed the gun lobby organization, which was a strong backer of his 2016 campaign.
"The people in this hall have never taken our freedom for granted," Trump told the cheering crowd. "Thanks to your activism and dedication, you have an administration fighting to protect your Second Amendment."
"This country is right now running so smooth," the president told reporters traveling with him to Dallas. "And to be bringing up that kind of crap and to be bringing up witch hunts, all the time, that's all you want to talk about."
Trump's full-throated support for the NRA appeared to soften somewhat, after the February school shooting in Parkland, Fla. After meeting with families of some of the 17 people killed there, Trump flirted with gun control measures the NRA opposes, such as raising the minimum age for long gun purchasers to 21.
At a White House meeting with lawmakers, Trump even criticized his fellow Republicans for their timid approach to gun control legislation, suggesting they were "afraid of the NRA."
In his remarks on Friday, Pence acknowledged the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and other mass shootings have left the nation "searching for answers."
"We mourn with those who mourn and grieve with those who grieve," the vice president said. "But we also resolve to confront this menace with all our strength. And we are doing just that under the leadership of this president."
Far from bucking the NRA, though, the administration has largely aligned itself with the gun lobby's positions, rejecting all but the mildest gun control measures while endorsing the idea of arming teachers and other school employees to serve as volunteer marshals.
"The quickest way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun," Pence said Friday, echoing a favorite NRA slogan.
While state lawmakers in Florida adopted a higher age limit for gun buyers, action at the federal level was shunted to a new school safety commission, which has no deadline to report.
Trump did distance himself from one NRA initiative that would make concealed-carry permits from any state valid nationwide. While the GOP-controlled House passed the measure, the president has acknowledged it's a non-starter in the closely divided Senate.
Then-presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at the National Rifle Association's convention in May 2016 in Louisville, Ky. Scott Olson/Getty Images
President Trump will speak at the National Rifle Association's annual convention on Friday, a little more than two months after he pledged to stand up to the gun rights organization in the aftermath of the Parkland, Fla., school shooting.
In the days after the shooting that killed 17 people, Trump called out lawmakers for being "afraid" of the NRA, saying the group had "less power" over him. He even publicly backed raising the minimum age to buy long guns and supported imposing more expansive background checks — positions strongly opposed by the NRA.
But when the White House actually announced its proposals to improve school safety, the approach was much more narrow and pretty much in line with NRA policy stances.
The mismatch between Trump's rhetoric on gun laws and the legislative actions he ultimately ended up backing fits a larger pattern for Trump. He has repeatedly floated ideas publicly, seemingly off the cuff, before pulling back to conform with more mainstream Republican principles.
"It often seems that Trump pivots to more traditional positions once longtime actors in the policy process are able to brief him about why Republicans hold positions at odds with the ones he just espoused," said Justin Vaughn, director of the Center for Idaho History and Politics at Boise State University.
Vaughn said the result is that Trump ends up falling in line with his base, but he may get fewer policy "wins."
The president was able to sign into law some measures that address deficiencies in the current national background check system, although those provisions fell short of calls for requiring background checks for all gun purchases.
Trump had similar moments on immigration. In January, during a televised bipartisan meeting with lawmakers, he expressed openness to backing a bill that would protect young immigrants from deportation without including funding for a wall on the southern border.
The White House wound up putting out a proposal that included a path to citizenship for those young immigrants in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and $25 billion for a border wall.
Congress has yet to pass legislation addressing DACA.
By showing a willingness to take positions that buck his party's line without following through, Trump is able to play up his independence without dealing with the consequences of actually enacting policy.
"When he does tough talk like, 'I'm not afraid of the NRA' ... it says more about his persona, his image and his core supporters love that," said Robert Denton, head of the department of communication at Virginia Tech.
But there are some risks to vacillating between various viewpoints.
"These inconsistent policy positions leave allies and foes alike unsure where he stands and uncertain about him keeping his word after they leave the negotiating table," said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston.
The White House defended the president's decision to speak at the NRA, despite the intense criticism the group has faced since the Parkland shooting.