Here I am, late to the party. I promise to spend a week blogging positively and then I miss my first day. In my defense, I took a working field trip to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Ill., which involved eight long hours in a passenger van. But the experience was well worth my tired bum. The Lincoln Museum is a wonderful, immersive experience. If you have any interest in history, particuarly the politics and unrest leading to the Civil War and the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, you should visit.
The museum helped bring some of my family research to life. As I've mentioned before on this blog, I am an amateur family researcher, which brings me to the good thing that recently happened in my community, which is today's assigned topic for the week of blogging positively. This weekend, the Indiana African American Genealogy Group help its annual workshop and I was lucky enough to attend. I can't describe how uplifting it is to sit in a room full of black people dedicated to reclaiming and recording their family histories--all threads of the larger story of African Americans, the United States and the world.
One major frustration I've encountered while tracing my roots, is the large amount of information about African Americans that has been lost because of racism. While genealogists of European ancestry can examine census records from 1790 and early immigration papers, my ancestors were chattel prior to the 1870 census. Their births, deaths and unions were deemed unworthy of the official record. Even post emancipation, vital records related to black citizens were often kept separately, making them harder to locate.
Then you have the conundrum posed by early ancestors of mixed race. Were they the product of sexual violence between a slave owner and his "property?" The result of real relationship with a Native American or European? Somewhere, there is a white or Native woman with whom I share a blood bond. Who is she? What happened to those parts of my family? I wonder where my earliest ancestors came from. Was it Africa? the West Indies? Am I the ancestor of a tribal chief or a village idiot?
Genealogy is a tough job; even tougher if you are black. Black genealogists like me, whose ancestors were slaves, become master detectives. We connect our earliest ancestor to the white family that owned him or her, and research that family, hoping to find bills of sale, probate documents, bible inscriptions and other things that shed light on our own family history. Like all family researchers, we pore over land deeds and other records, collect family stories, undergo DNA testing, and obsessively post on ancestry sites.
Yes, black family genealogy is a challenge, but it is so necessary and I think it may actually be the key to healing some of the lasting scars that inflict the black community. It has been said that if you don't know where you come from, you can't know where you are going. In uncovering my own family history, I have found tragedy, but mostly triumph--new information that makes me proud, gives me hope and grows my determination to succeed. I am finding my family's place in history. Yesterday, as I watched a video that referenced the Civil War battle at Vicksburg, I knew that my great-great-grandfather's owner, the man who gave us the Winfrey name, was captured there. I also knew, that another great-great-grandfather was fighting in the war for his freedom. As I read about the moment the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, I felt an overwhelming sense of joy for Constantine, Violet, Lucinda, William, Abbey, Edmund and my other relatives born in bondage. They were finally free! I wish that experience for every person who is marginalized by the mainstream.
Black and brown people need to claim their rightful place in our nation's history. The process begins by each of us knowing our own family story and sharing it. Any time folks get together in the name of doing that, it is a wonderful thing.
Read about other bloggers participating in the week of blogging positively at Hochmah and Musar.