Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Searching for My Grandmother's Body and Other Missing Branches of My Family Tree

Hi Meltingpot Readers,

Not too long ago my older son came home from school and asked, "Mommy, when grandpa was little was he a slave?" My first quick response was, "No, slavery was over long before grandpa was born." But of course his follow-up question was, "What about his father?" And I could still say, no, but I knew one more generation back and I'd have nothing to share. Not since I was a child in the third grade have I felt so inadequate because I couldn't answer the seemingly simple question, "Where do I come from?"

I think it's a primal human need to know where we come from. In this country especially, this nation of immigrants, it is expected that one can point to a country where our ancestors got their start. Pilgrims from England, Italian immigrants, Irish farmers, oh, right and slaves. As a journalist and writer who spends a lot of time researching African-American culture and history, I am very much aware of the diversity of the Black experience in this country. From the first Africans who sailed with Spanish explorers and settled in St. Augustine, Florida to the Africans first brought to Virginia as indentured servants, our history cannot be summed up with chains, cotton and Martin Luther King, Jr. But still, I don't know my unique story. I don't know how I got here. So thanks to the innocent question of my son, I've started the journey.

And it's so exciting.

First I interviewed my 92-year old paternal grandmother and she gave me the names of my relatives two generations back. Then I copied some research my own father had started a few years ago on a trip to his birthplace in North Carolina. Last night I actually sat down and wrote out my first version of an official family tree and made it as far back as my great, great grandparents on my paternal side. Then after some awesome internet sleuthing that lasted way into the night, I found the marriage certificate of my paternal great, great, great grandparents. I know where they were married, who officiated and that the ceremony happened at home. It was an amazing discovery. Of course I shared the news with my kids this morning and they're just as excited as I am to hear these tidbits of their history.

I also found one of my "original" ancestors on my paternal side. He was a White Englishman who left the United Kingdom as an indentured servant but died in North Carolina a pretty wealthy landowner. I'm now trying to find out when his offspring crossed the color line.

To a certain extent I feel like I'm jumping on the genealogy bandwagon. What with every Skip Gates PBS special and that new NBC show, Who Do You Think You Are?, finding your roots is pretty trendy. But thanks to the hip factor, there are a lot of resources now available that weren't around just a few years ago. So, call me a copycat. I don't care. I'm just thrilled that soon enough I'll really be able to tell my kids and myself the true history of how we all got here.

Has anybody else traced their family tree? Did you discover anything exciting? Unexpected? Feel like sharing tips or resources?
I'm totally listening!


By the way, speaking of families, I received an email from a producer from A&E. They're casting for a new reality television show about family relationships and they're specifically looking for a multicultural family where folks are having issues dealing with their in-laws. I've checked this out and it is legitimate. There is money involved and it's a three-day commitment if your family is chosen. Please check out my blog for details.


Anonymous said...

To tell you the truth, I have not ever been that interested in my family history. My paternal grandma got way into it when my grandfather passed away. I was surprised that much of that side of my family was originally from New England.

My mom side is also from North Carolina many of those guys were poor (white) servants. Now that I have an adopted daughter, I clam up when family remembers start talking genetics and genealogy. Just like my husband, my daughter does not share my blood line, but they are the grounding force in my life. We put so much emphasis on the past to define us, when really it is the now and the future that counts.

Colombian Mami

esper_d said...

My history is also unique. Here in New Mexico, we've been here for generations and the border crossed us, not the other way around.

Anonymous said...

Oh and thanks to you, I have had "pocketful of sunshine" stuck in my head all week. It is a refreshing song! Love it.
Colombian Mami

LT said...

Colombian Mami,

You know you bring up a really interesting point. When we were going through our plans, one of the things I often worried about was sharing our family history. Of course since I didn't really know anything about my ancestors it wasn't a big worry. But I did read a great book called Children of the Waters by Carleen Brice where a woman discovers she is adopted as an adult but still takes great solace in knowing about her 'ancestors' despite the fact that they are the ancestors of her adopted family. It still gave her grounding. It's a rich topic for discussion.

Oh and sorry about the song :)

Well said. Good point.

Nif said...

When I asked my mother if my father's family had been slaves, she said no because she thought I was asking about my living relatives and not my ancestors. I was about 6. I puzzled over this for YEARS until I finally decided that she was just wrong. How could that family have been in the South and not been slaves? I asked her about this incident as adult and she clarified why she had misunderstood and therefore misinformed me.

Your son asked a clearer question and got a clearer answer!

AnaCeleste said...
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AnaCeleste said...
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AnaCeleste said...

Great post! Actually, my father and I started doing genealogy research last spring. Prior to that, he had done some research on his own (on his mother’s side) and was able to go as far back as my 3rd great grandmother named Anna Page born in 1868. My paternal grandmother had been saying for years that her great grandmother was a Blackfoot Native American, but I never knew if that was certain. Thankfully, after doing research, that claim is no longer true. From the census documents my dad and I found at our local historical society, she was listed as “mulatto.” I’m from Cleveland, but because Anna Page was from Kentucky, my father and I had to go down to the historical society in Louisville to find any additional info on her and her parents. We ended up finding her death certificate and on that certificate were the names of her parents, Daniel Sweeney (born 1848) and Ellen Williams (born 1850ish). We searched for Daniel Sweeny and found him. He was also listed as mulatto as well as Ellen Williams. The other Sweeneys that came up in the search engine were all Irish immigrants, so my theory is that Daniel may have been the product of a union between an Irish slave owner and his slave. Unfortunately that’s the farthest we could go, but I’m grateful for that information. Knowing that I have European ancestry, I do not like to classify myself as “African-American;” I prefer Black American. I’m not denying the African ancestry that I have, but it doesn’t make up who I am 100% (and I don’t want to mingle with the “one drop rule”), especially with this genealogy info that I have. I’m the sum of many parts. I understand it’s tough for many Black folks to come to grips with the fact that so many white men fathered children with their female slaves, but that is the reality and so many Black people are descendants of those unions. I understand that Black people are proud to finally control how we can call ourselves, but to be honest, culturally and mentally, I’m an American. America is the society I identify with because it is where I was born and raised. I live abroad as an English teacher and I’ve met White South African teachers who I view as more African than me because that is the continent they were raised in. One White South African actually told me that she finds it incorrect when Blacks from America call themselves African-American, when culturally they are more American than African. I actually agree with her.

Anonymous said...

I'm also thinking about fleshing out my family tree a bit more. A lot has already been done by other family members so it won't be too hard. I'm even considering getting a DNA test!

@ AnaCeleste. IMO, the Black American label is not specific enough because not all Black Americans are descended from Africans who were enslaved in America. For me, it's a way to distinguish us "homegrown" blacks from other African-descended people who have immigrated or whose families have immigrated to the USA.

Also, the AA and Black labels, in general, have little to do with the amount of non-African ancestry we have. Heck, most people with a basic understanding of slave history know that we--and our counterparts throughout the Americas and the Caribbean--usually have from a little to a lot of European and/or Native blood, so our not being 100% African is a given.

As for the White South African woman’s comment, I disagree. There are sufficient elements of West African culture evident in African American culture to make using African more correct than not.

AnaCeleste said...

@ Anonymous, Thanks for the feedback. Although I refer to myself as "Black," I mean so in the socially constructed sense of the word. I don't view the term Black from a biological perspective; it's more about an experience living as a person of my shade in America with a history that includes a slave experience, a Jim Crow experience, a Civil Rights experience, etc. "White" isn't biological either, but when I say the terms "white privilege" or "white supremacy," it relates to what it means (i.e. the social construction) to be White in America in regards to white privilege, for example. I still prefer not to use the term "African-American." I do not deny that elements from African culture remained during slavery and remain with us today in terms of music, language, and other things, but as a person born in America and under its ideals and thinking, I can't say that my thinking or way of viewing things is totally African. As an American, I only know America; I don't know Africa, although I plan to visit in the near future. I appreciate what our slave ancestors were able to preserve in regards to music, for example, but to me that isn't enough for me to say in conversation with a native born Nigerian, Egyptian, or Moroccan, that I identify as African and am as African as they are because that would be false, and, in my opinion, an insult to them. Africa itself is full of diverse cultures, so what kind of "African-American" should I say I am? There's no single African culture and each country is diverse. I used to live in Spain and despite my skin tone and Afrocentric look, people viewed me as American first and foremost.

To sum it up, even though it's socially constructed, I stick with calling myself "Black" at this moment because it's the term I feel the most comfortable with. Do you have a preference for a specific term? I sometimes say "person of color." But, I'm happy that I have the freedom to define myself on my own terms because it wasn't always that way for many Blacks/African-Americans.