Thursday, February 14, 2008

I saw some of this last night and found it fascinating. It also put some of my family history into perspective...

Cliff actually reminded me it was going on in one of his last posts:
African American Lives on PBS should be shown in every inner city school. It’s the best program I have watched in a long time. The lesson to be learned from this program is that you can't beat the feeling of knowing where you come from. It's empowering. My only wish is that somehow we could do this kind of thing on a large scale. Maybe Barak can try to fund this when he becomes president. This program has inspired me to make an attempt to find out my own lineage. I think I have a good idea of where to start. I just need to get pass the obstacle of not having all the information Katrina took and not having a PBS budget to travel to all of these small towns. Maybe Dr. Gates will read this and hook me up.
These words of his tugged on me for a while, because, fact of the matter is, my great-grandmother on my mother's side did a lot of genealogy research way back when. I can only speculate as to what the mindset of my GGM F. was when she embarked upon her searches - perhaps it was in partial reaction to her first marriage, which, by all accounts, was hell on wheels. She was already working her tail off as a nurse and raising two girls while dealing with all of it.

Or, perhaps, it was simply her hobby...

All of her work centered around doing some of the traveling that Henry Louis Gates did, mainly to Valdosta, Georgia, and doing a LOT of letter writing in the pre-Internet, pre-cheap long distance phone calling days. It established a direct connection to a private who fought in the Revolutionary War. It established, even further back, a direct ancestor amongst the signers of the Magna Carta. And, most importantly, it gave us some documentation that should have been of no surprise to my mother and me when we were looking through three boxes of old family pictures and papers to find stuff Mom wanted to use for my granddaddy's eightieth birthday album.

It was a transcript of a will, dated from the turn of the nineteenth century, from an ancestor of ours bequeathing his slaves, named only by their first names, to various family members.

My mother was initially shocked, "We owned slaves!" she said, looking at me with wide eyes.

Yes, we did. And it wasn't that long ago. I felt, and still feel, pretty awful knowing that, but overall, I'm glad that I do know. And, to aid anybody who is doing what Dr Gates is doing - and what Cliff should, by all means, have the money and the time to do - the name of the family my GGM did a lot of her research on is Keels. If anybody needs more information, contact me directly:

There was a time in our history when we treated people as property, and we have not fully let go of that time. If we had, then most of these folks who are searching for their past would not still be wandering about like motherless children and grasping at percentages of European genetic material in their DNA to constantly have to re-present themselves to the willfully ignorant and the disgustingly bigoted as people fully worthy of consideration and acceptance as fellow brothers and sisters. Most of the people in this country are still treating anybody with African ancestry as that indistinct "Other".

This documentary series ought to be shown in every school. Period. Because if it takes everybody who is "white" ('cause sometimes you don't know unless you go digging) to start doing a quasi-mandatory FOIA of sorts and own up to having these kinds of documents in their possession (and they are out there), then the past can help empower us all and start getting it all out on the table - the good and the bad, the ugly and the gorgeous, the amazing and the awful. Not to mention the fact that in the end, darn near all human history begins in Africa, "the cradle of humankind" (see Megan Smolenyak's video here). It reveals another big way in which people's prejudices are nothing more than constructs of power - one group of people over another - that have no basis in facts or science.

And hey, maybe if we can do it here, it can show many, many others the way ( or a way). It will hurt at first, but it will only help in the long run.


A.F. said...

Beautiful post. I missed the show but hope it will be rebroadcast.

The long, long road home,New Orleans said...

I love the show. I am absolutely fascinated by the DNA work being done. It really adds to the geneology. I was amazed that they were able to use Y chromosome and mitocondrial DNA to link back to specific tribes. I can't wait for the last instalment.

The long, long road home,New Orleans said...

One more thing, I am a history teacher. I record everything on PBS. I will use this to show my kids how and where slaves came from on the African continent and to bring the slave experience to life for my kids. It also doesn't hurt having stars on the show to keep the kids attention.