I can trace my paternal family line back to a pair of brothers who left Ireland for America in the 1730’s. Our surname goes back past the Battle of Hastings to a Roman who settled in Normandy. I can follow my mother’s line back to the Mayflower.
A year ago my wife could only trace her line back to her great grandmother who was alive in the 1980’s.
Family history is hard for many black people in more ways than some might expect. First it is hard because there is a dearth of records, which is a lesson in and of itself, but it is also hard because so often there is stuff in there that can be hard to deal with. Sometimes digging up graves only exposes more questions than answers.
My wife and I are okay with questions. Asking questions is a good thing. Unfortunately we don’t have Skip Gates at our disposal so digging up those questions is largely up to us. We started with DNA.
It is pretty easy. You order a kit online, then they ship you a tube that you spit in and send back. About a month later they send you an email.
There were no Earth shattering revelations, but there were some small surprises. For instance my wife has often been stopped on the street by expatriated Ethiopians who were excited to see one of their countrymen. Not knowing of any roots past New Orleans in the 80’s, Ethiopia sounded pretty cool. DNA killed that idea. Nope. No Ethiopia. The test results came back showing her lineage to be 61% West Africa, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, and Mali. The other 38% was white people. 10% Ireland and dribs and drabs of everywhere else, Italy, Spain, etc. This wasn’t really surprising. Most African Americans know there are white people back in the chain somewhere but it isn’t usually celebrated. In fact, quite often, as Skip Gates has illustrated time and again, these white folks get paved over in family legend by the myth of American Indians. Such was the case with her family. Both sides swore there were Cherokee or somebody like that in there somewhere. Her Dad was adamant that his grandfather was full blooded Indian. Her DNA said zero.
To understand why anyone’s whiteness would be something to cover, we should understand that most African American’s European lineage didn’t get there in some interracial romantic way. Not at all. I remember learning about the horrors of slavery in high school but said horrors were mostly whips, chains, and bondage. I don’t recall rape being mentioned. I suppose the idea of rape is something salacious enough that many teachers prefer to gloss it over, but I have since learned that cases of rape weren’t really outlier events. In slavery rape was normal. It makes sense that many would rather claim to be Seminole.
DNA gives data but only hints at stories. Knowing that there are more pieces to the puzzle we have begun looking for more. Thanks in large part to the efforts of Mormon volunteers, the entire Freedman’s Bank records have been digitized and made available online- the same with census records. There is now more promise of finding out who was who then we would have thought possible 50 years ago. Now begins the work of connecting broken links of a chain. It is a work of in-home black history.
Happy Black History Month.
Also… I am 9% Asian.