Thursday, January 31, 2008

My Black History: Little Gifts

One year ago this month, inspired by Henry Louis Gates' "African American Lives" series, I began exploring MY black history--that is the history of my family. I took advantage of a free trial on Ancestry.com and typed in some family names. Within seconds I was looking at my grandfather's World War II enlistment papers. Weeks later I was holding my great-grandmother Josie's death certificate, learning her parents names and why she died at just 30 years old. Since then, I have traced nearly every branch of my family tree back to the generation just pre-emancipation.

My work is harder now. Moving further back in my family's history will require examining slave census records, bills of sale, wills and bibles from slave-holding families and other documents. Big breakthroughs are fewer and farther between, but every now and again I get these little gifts. I'll take another look at a census and find a missing relative right under my nose. Or, a long-lost cousin will contact me and help solve a family mystery or share a wonderful story that adds texture to the bare facts about my ancestors.

Consider the details I learned a couple weeks ago about the family of Mattie Rivers, one of my maternal great-grandmothers. My new cousin Ed wrote me:


There are a handful of Rivers in Tuskegee, Alabama....The Rivers were in
Talladega...teaching in the mid 1800s. Booker T. Washington was looking for a
strong black resource to relocate to Tuskegee to teach the black children there.
He asked Samuel Rivers...brother of Edmund Jr. (my great-great-grandfather) to relocate to Tuskegee to head up the program. Not sure how many of the Rivers family relocated...but Samuel and Sarah did relocate and opened the first black school in Tuskegee..still operating today..Booker T. used to ride down from Talladega...so I'm told...on his white horse to see how they were doing.
I can't wait to tell this story to my nieces and nephews. Learning my family's history has helped me feel connected to ancestors who lived more than a hundred years ago, and it has helped me understand my place in American history.

Want to research your family tree?

Step one is gathering all of the information you can from relatives to construct a loose tree of family connections. Don't just find out who was whose daddy, ask about uncles, aunts and neighbors. Where did your people live? Did they move? Did the men enlist in the service? Did your ancestors own land? Are their people of other races in your family tree? It's okay if you only have a little information. It will all help you when you begin records research.

Throughout the month, I will blog more about my family history research and how you can get started digging into your own family's past.

In the meantime...

Read more about my attempt to find female ancestors here.

Read about the importance of learning history here.

Watch http://www.ancestry.com/ this month. The genealogy site often offers free access to African American records during Black History Month.

Take part in Mamalicious' 32 Days of Black History Month blogathon here.

Should I stay or should I go?

No doubt many a woman has asked herself that in the context of an ailing marriage. Matters of the heart are messy. The reasons that people decide to stay or go are intensely personal. So why are we so hard on women in the public eye who opt to fix broken unions?

File this under yet more strange criteria folks are using to select a Democratic presidential candidate. During this primary season, I've heard several women say, "I just can't forgive Hillary for sticking with Bill after the Monica Lewinsky thing." Carlita Kilpatrick, wife of embattled Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, whose affair with an administration employee is all over Motor City news and the black blogosphere, has elicited similar disappointment from women. Juanita Jordan...Vanessa Bryant...the list goes on.

Hearing stories about wives done wrong by high-profile husbands angries up a woman's blood. There is an initial tendency to shout a Whitney Houstonesque "Hell to the naw!" and declare that the offending lout be kicked to the nearest curb. But if we are honest with ourselves we know that marriages and their deaths are rarely that simple.

How difficult must it be to be betrayed by a spouse of more than 20 years--the person you made plans and built dreams with...the person who held your hand during labor...the person who stood beside you when you lost your parents...the person who stood behind you when you lost your job...the person whose face you have seen every morning for decades. Even a woman with the most egregious public cheater for a husband must weigh all those things before hopefully calling it quits. And a woman faced with just one illicit affair just might decide to try and salvage the marriage and the life that she has built.

I'm not saying it's right. I'm just saying love and marriage are difficult and strange.

I do not care for Hillary Clinton as a presidential candidate for a variety of reasons, but I refuse to fault her for being human and making a personal decision that she felt was best for her and her family. It may not be the decision I would make, but it is none of my business.

Lest you think I'm easy on unfaithful spouses, be assured that I am not. I married a man that I believe to be faithful and honest, and who shares my ideas about what is appropriate within a marriage. I trust him implicitly. I cannot imagine, faced with even one incidence of infidelity, that I could conquer my jealousy and hurt to repair our union. But in the end, I don't think anyone knows if they would stay or go. We can only guess, and hope when faced with roiling emotions that we will make the right move. We should all try to love with abandon, while holding fast to our dignity and self-respect. I do find it telling that the woman who is yelling the loudest about what "no man ain't ever gon do" to her, is often the one standing next to the biggest fool. You know I'm not lying.

I think we should cut deceived wives in the public eye some slack, and stop pretending that love is clean and rational.

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