German Lopez at Vox reflects on a young African-American’s conundrum when presented with a slightly Eurocentric homework assignment:
The answers, tweeted above by the student’s mother, are revealing. Where did your family immigrate from? Africa. When did they immigrate? Whenever the slave owners took them. Why did they immigrate? Because the white man wanted free labor. Who did they immigrate with? Other slaves. Did they know anybody here before they came? No, because they were stolen. What was life like when they first came here to live? Horrible. Do you still have family where they came from? I don’t know. Why is it important to know your family history? So that you know traditions and family values.
It is perhaps the last question and answer that’s most revealing. The point of these assignments in school is to reflect on your family’s origin and what it means to you today. And for many kids, that means reflecting on European, Latin American, or even US roots that are easily traceable.
“Her hesitation was in the way the assignment was worded. It suggested the students ‘go back as far as you can,’ but continually referred to ‘immigrants,'” the student’s mother said in an email. “That immediately made her think of relatives/ancestors that came to America from another country. And for us that would obviously be west Africa. Of course we know the history of how today’s African American came to be in America and I find it to be one of America’s dirty little secrets and this assignment is proof positive of that.”
She added, “The general assumption is made that everyone has some grand success story of families leaving their home country and coming to America in search of better opportunities. But the simple and plain truth is that not all of us have this story to tell and the ability to trace one’s ancestry is a privilege within itself — one that most if not all black Americans do not have.”
On my other blogs, Archerology and Dallas Dossiers, I deal with family history, which is one of my favorite hobbies. As I have worked to discover my own roots, I have gained some wisdom relating to why and how people look into this subject.
I think young people, and the naive, are primarily interested in knowing which famous people they are related to. On that account, I am liable to point out that my mother’s side of the family is related by marriage to June Carter and (by extension), Johnny Cash. Redneck Royalty, if you will.
On the other side of the family, though, there are quite a few Old Virginia families, who collectively owned hundreds of other human beings. This is not a particular point of pride, from a moral standpoint; but it’s also not much fun to talk about from an intellectual standpoint, either. The fact is that people with money and power tend to “show up” in the historical record quite a bit; social privilege extends even in death. Books are written about such people, stories are told, songs are sung, and homes and graves venerated. Although some of the finer points may still be up for debate, the fact is that most of what we know about the well-off comes giftwrapped. Accordingly, as a researcher and writer, I tend to think of these people as being rather boring and uninteresting.
The really interesting people in my family tree are the people who I know little about, and who might be easily forgotten. Spending hours digging through online databases, libraries, graveyards, etc. just to get a scrap of knowledge about them… that’s what really gets me going. Some of the most consuming enigmas in my family tree include assumed aliases, secret marriages, adoptions, criminals, children who died as infants, etc.
So altogether, I’d say that studying family history has made me more sympathetic to ordinary people, and more determined to try to tell the stories of the masses rather than the “great men” who disproportionately consume the attentions of historians.
Furthermore, studying family history has, therefore, made me more appreciative of community. Trying to help others find their own history has become important to me, and that is why I am always trying to find more opportunities to share what I find
Returning to the matter at and: Perhaps one of the cruelest injury to African-Americans today is the fact that their family histories were often abruptly cut off by slavery, and even after Emancipation a lack of documentation effectively suppresses truth.
There is of course a non-trivial possibility that somewhere along the line, Native American or African-American heritage might have been covered up. I haven’t found any evidence of that yet (and indeed, there is a strange history regarding “Indian blood” in Southern white culture), but there are certainly some people I just can’t explain very well.
Nevertheless, I must recognize that I can trace most of my family with greater ease and less trauma, than many, many people. In a sense, being able to track one’s family history is important because it is a part of having a personal identity, which is an important part of human dignity.