Monday, September 6, 2010
Sewing together your past
One of the many things that kept me busy this summer was trying to finish up the genealogy projects I started a year or so ago. I am from a long line of history nerds so when I got bit by the genealogy bug it became almost an obsession. Seriously, it’s almost what we Christians call a ‘stronghold’. I don’t fit the typical demographic for this hobby, so most of the people I can share this addiction with are over fifty years old. I call it my old people sport. We trade emails and secrets and mutually feel sorry for our neglected family members who barely tolerate our habits. I’ve met some really neat people through this hobby.
Unfortunately, my research is limited to what I can find on the internet. It would be nice to travel around the U.S. looking for documents and taking pictures of old headstones, but as of now I have to rely on the research that others have done. I was surprised at the massive amount of information that is readily available online.
I originally started my husband and my combined family tree so that someday my three small children would know their family history. My husband’s maternal tree was relatively easy because he comes from a well documented and historically interesting old Texas family. Through Ancestry.com I was able to piece together his history relatively quickly. However, there were huge missing links in my own tree and his paternal family tree, some of which I may never find. It goes with being rural, migratory and poor. It’s very discouraging to not be able to find the missing pieces of the puzzle.
This is what it’s like for African Americans who try to sew together the fabric of their history. Most of us, if we know what we’re doing, can trace our family tree back to the early 1700’s or earlier. African Americans can barely trace their families back to the late 1800’s, if that. While slavery existed Africans and mulattos were listed only as first names on ledgers of inventory, not allowed to marry, attend churches and not documented when they died. It didn’t get much better during Reconstruction, especially in the southern states. What little information came by way of Census records in the later years of the nineteenth century. That is while oral family history is so important to African American researchers.
While on my family search I had the misfortune of viewing many, many family documents online which list slave ledgers, wills and estate documents of my family. This was invaluable for my family research as far as documenting names and dates of my family members, but it was a cruel reminder that I am a by product of a slave holding legacy. And as one who is interested in African American history and the origins of slavery, it is ironic and painful for me that one of the progenitors of my American family was a man who brought the first Africans to the New World.
I realize that I am not responsible for the sins of my forefathers any more than I’m responsible for the transgressions of my parents or grandparents, but it was lesson for me. What does it mean to be an American? I think all of us carry the collective history of our forefathers. None of really know who we are. So as much as we think we are one color or nationality, we can always be surprised and educated by our past.
My search for my ancestors made me both sad and proud to be American. For me it meant that I am the slave and the slave owner, the Native American and the Indian Scout, the pilgrim and the unwanted immigrant, the land owner and the sharecropper, the sinner and the circuit riding preacher, a culmination of the hope and tragedy of the history of the New World. I am an American. My tapestry is colorful, torn, ragged and valuable and whether we are black, Hispanic, Asian, Indian or Anglo we can all say the same of the garments we carry.