Yesterday, I sat with my aunt on my father’s side and went through all the data she received from Ancestry.com. We looked at copies of documents that were created before the American Revolution, documents that told a story that stretched far back not only into the story of my American family, but into a time of my Irish family. We saw a ship log with my great-great-great-grandfather’s name recorded alongside his brother’s and a German woman that would later become his wife. There were also records that told of his time in County Cork. On a family tree they sent us were names of other relatives as well, other relatives that fought in the American Revolution, World War I and World War II. My aunt and I spent hours looking through document after document, trying to connect names to other names, places to other places, trying to put together all the stories we knew with all the stories that were popping up before us.
It was a powerful experience, looking back in time and tracing the paths taken by family members from the old world to the new. Seeing the paperwork where the Governor of Virginia, Lord Fairfax, granted my family over two hundred acres in Virginia was, without a doubt, powerful beyond words. Finding out about the journey taken by relatives from Virginia to Alabama, from Alabama to Oklahoma, from Oklahoma to Texas and then knowing about my grandmother’s journey from Texas to New York and then to Jamaica, left a profound impression upon me. And yet… I felt a sadness as well.
I can go pretty far back into the history of almost all of my white relatives, those on my father’s and my mother’s side. If I spent the extra money Ancestry.com requires, I could probably even go as far back as to the time of the Crusades, if not farther. I can probably even tell you the name of probably not just one ship taken by family members from Europe to Cuba, to Jamaica and to the States. And yet, I have no record of the ships taken by my Black family members.
What is the name of the slave ship where my African relatives were chained to one another like wild beasts? What port did they leave from on the African coast? Where are their names recorded in the history of the world? Can someone tell me the name of their countries of origin? Can someone tell me exactly what tribes they belonged to or what religions they practiced? And yes, I know that this was yet another price of slavery, the theft of not just our bodies, but also the theft of our stories. Yet, knowing this does not lessen the pain.
Yes, I felt great joy in learning so much about my family history. Who would not want to know the stories of relatives who existed in the time of kings and queens, in the time of horse and buggy? Yet, I could not shake the incredible sense of sadness I felt as I looked through all those documents as well.
According to my own DNA report, I am pretty much half and half. Europe flows through my veins with almost the same intensity as Africa. Much of this mixture is a result of marriages that left some of my white relatives, who had the nerve to fall in love with black people, abandoned and disowned by many of their own relatives. I also suspect that some of the mix comes as a result of the sins of slavery, which for those of you who don’t know a damn thing about slavery, means as a result of rape. I say all of this to say that I recognize all the parts of me in equal measure and this is what makes learning so much about one side of me both joyful and painful.
The more I learn about my white side reminds me about how little I know about my Black side. Having the picture of my great-grandfather with his children is a beautiful gift to give to my daughter, but it also has to be part of a lesson I need to give to her as well. The story of her white relatives immigrating from County Cork to the States must come alongside the story of the nameless slaves who were brought to this country in bondage. Yes, she must be told about the strength it took to leave one world to go and start a new life in another world, but she must also be told about the strength it took to be forced to leave one’s home behind, ones tribe behind, one’s language behind and one’s name behind so as to live for generations as slaves and then as second-class citizens in the new world.
Recently, a friend of mine from high school shared on Facebook that his daughter was called a nigger while playing a school soccer game. He expressed his rage that his daughter had to have this American lesson come to her just as she was, in may ways, coming of age. He and I went to a high school where we saw first hand what racism could look like, but I am sure that, just like me, he wanted to see a better world for his daughter than the one we experienced when we were teenagers in the eighties.
I once heard an ancient relative of mine, a wrinkled-up Jamaican grand-aunty, from the days of my childhood in Kingston, say that the reason old folks never talked about slavery was not only because there were no words to express the horror of it all, but also because they did not want their children to experience what their slave-ancestors experienced by hearing about those times. She believed that stories carry more than just the memory of a time, but that they also carry the feeling of those times. And our ancestors wanted those feelings of terror and loss to end with the end of slavery.
And yet… here I am looking at all these stories of my white relatives, stories that may stretch as far back as the written word in Europe, and all I can think is that I want to know all the stories. I want to know the story of the African taken by force from his homeland, herded like cattle to the slave forts, chained down in the black hulls of slave ships, sold on auction blocks in the new world, bent and broken in cane fields, whipped and branded on plantations and all the rest of it, all the ugly-rest-of-it!!! I want names of people and places, dates and times and anything else that will make the story complete. I want to pass this all down to my daughter right alongside the stories of my Irish and Spanish and Asian relatives. Yes, we were Catholic back in the days when being Irish and Catholic was a serious problem, I would tell her as I also tell her that our African ancestors worshiped the Gods of time and space, the gods of the rivers and the mountains, the gods of the earth and the moon. Yes, we were the Spanish peasants who had to fight against the Moors and the French, who had to create an identity out of Roman walls and Moorish Mosques and French Cathedrals, but we are also a people born out of the wisdom of Timbuktu and the courage and ferocity of the Ashanti.
You need to know it all my daughter, because as mush as I want to protect you from the madness of this world, there may come a time when the world will call you a nigger, and when that time comes, you will need all your names, all your stories, to counter that ugly narrative. So I will receive this gift Ancestry.com is giving us, I will welcome it into my heart, but I will also let it remind me that as a father of a Black child, in this day and age, it is my responsibility to teach her that there are stories we know that can empower her, yes, but that perhaps, for us as people of color, the greatest source of strength we have are the stories we don’t fully know, the stories of all our ancestors, who cannot speak to us in family trees, but who speak to us in our souls!
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