Thursday, February 7, 2008

What it means to lack history

I don't know the names of my great grandparents.

My mother and father probably know their names, but I haven't bothered to write them down. I know very few of my distant cousins by name and really don't have many ties to family members beyond my aunts and uncles.

Wednesday night, this made me sad.

I watched Dr. Henry Louis Gates take several black celebrities through the histories of their families on PBS's African American Lives 2 .

Chris Rock learned that one of his distant relatives was a Union soldier, one of South Carolina's first black legislators and, ultimately because of white racism, a sharecropper. I watched Rock grapple with the idea that his ancestors were people of substance, and then come to the conclusion that if he had known this as a child he might have lived a different life.

Don Cheadle learned that his family was owned by Native Americans and for 30 years lived without being citizens of any country before finally receiving 40 acres of land for their trouble. Cheadle clearly struggled with the idea that his family was enslaved by the same Native Americans who watched their race nearly exterminated by white America.

Obviously, it was a powerful show.

My father watched it with me. He's been urging me to contact Gate's company about getting our own genealogy traced. Through his company, Gates can trace your genealogy back to slavery and then use DNA testing to determine which part of Africa you came from.

It's an enticing offer for nearly $900.

My family has never really been big on history. I know that my maternal great grandfather managed to acquire roughly 150 acres of land in Mississippi before he died and left it to be divided among his children. I know that further back on my mother's side there is an Irish family waiting because of her very Irish maiden name.

But, I really don't know much.

I don't know the true arc of my ancestor's lives. I have very little information about the scope of their character.

It diminishes me.

It strips me of a very valuable sense of pride, a very important feeling of accomplishment.

Tina Turner learned through the show that the very school she attended as a child in Nutbush, Tenn. was built on land once sold at a discount by one of her relatives. All those years, and she never knew what her ancestor had accomplished.

I understand her ignorance. Like most of us, I've gotten caught up in the here and now. The daily demands of life easily strip of us of the impetus to seek information about our past.

But that must change in my life. I will learn more about those who preceded me. Those black men and women who lived through this country's most troubling and dangerous times.

My history will empower me.


Christina Springer said...

Tami at has been writing a lot about tracing her family history and how to do it.

It takes a bit of legwork. Basically, it begins with birth, marriage and death certificates. All of which are public record and sometimes free. (Or a nominal charge...$ without 2 lattes once a week.)

My family has done extensive research this way. And it totally changed for me the way in which I experienced school's version of history and the racism in my newly integrated classroom. (Back in Oct., I blogged a bit about that under the title "Unraveling the Tangled Skein.)

Whilst Mr Gates is fascinating in his offer. I find $900 a lot of money for something which can be obtained mostly free whilst experiencing a powerful personal journey. In fact, I find it kind of exploitive of a people whose histories were willfully stolen in order to maintain White supremacy. (And prevent slave revolts.)

Reparations aside, this service should be provided free of charge to all Black families today. It would alleviate some of this current confusion regarding the state of Black America born of historical amnesia which is evidenced by statements like "why can't they just get over slavery?"

There is documentation that they knew exactly what they were doing when thy took our names; sold our children, parents and grandparents; and ripped out our ancestral tongues. It impacts us to this very day. Every Black family in America has at least one ...if not 20...extraordinary ordinary people in their family tree. They wouldn't be alive today if they hadn't.

Your very presence on this planet is proof that someone way back did something wonderful to simply remain alive against all the odds. Maybe that thought is enough to relieve some of the sadness you feel.

Big Man said...

Thank you for that very powerful comment. And I will check out what Tami did on her blog.

stopmikelupica said...

I don't have much to offer on the topic in general, but I do remember talking with a friend once, after he got back from a short trip to Africa. It was his first time there, and it was a powerful experience for him.

What struck me the most about the conversation is how he said stuff like "Being there, I saw the connection. I saw how a lot of our church traditions here are grounded in the traditions over there, and how it was a way of saving those traditions by incorporating them into our churchs, our customs here."

I guess what I'm saying is that, while I don't know whether it is feasible for you or not, keep an open mind about maybe making a trip to Africa someday (if you haven't already). It might be another way to really get connected with your roots, and to empower yourself.

Raving Black Lunatic