Now that “The Bachelor” is finished (Team Courtney!), I have had to find new activities to fill my time. I was trying out another set of bad TV shows last weekend when a commercial for ancestry.com came on. I’ve never been that excited to do a family history search (I feel like that is reserved for my retirement years) but I have always wondered if ancestry.com gives half off to black folks since they probably can’t track their lineage before Emancipation. I said as much to the bf and we decided to see how much our $30 trial run could buy.
In short, we’ve been pretty obsessed ever since we started. As I guessed, the website can’t get you much further back than the 1860s if you are African-American and aren’t the descendants of free blacks. But it’s still pretty cool to see your grandfather’s name listed on a 1920 census form as “Age 2.” We were also often able to figure out the likely slaveholders of our enslaved ancestors and the locations of their property.
So of course, along the way, we’ve also had to try to track and prove various family legends. Uncle James owned ten horses. Your great-great-grandfather was a Confederate colonel. Your grandmothers’ people walked from Mississippi to Tennessee. And the grandfather of them all (no pun intended)- finding the mysterious source of “we’re part Indian…”
I personally think the whole black fascination with being “part Indian” is hilarious but as I thought more about it, it also struck me as sad. I’m sure there is a genuine interest for many people to find all of their ancestors, including those who might not have been slaves. But there is also a less inquisitive side to this search- the hope that your family history reveals something more than a long lineage of people in bondage and oppression.
This desire is not only related to Native American ancestors, I have noticed that black people seem to always be searching for evidence of mixed race people in their family history as well. I don’t know about you, but I am not super excited to know that a slaveholding Confederate was my great-grandfather’s father. I can only imagine how that happened. But you hear a bizarre sense of (pride ? excitement?) all the time as African-Americans discuss features (light skin, curly hair, freckles, “light” eyes) that may have resulted from one of the more tragic aspects of slavery. The desire to not just be the descendants of slaves is palpable.
So what would be so wrong with tracing your family history and finding that is exactly the case?
As we researched more, I began to think about the lives of our relatives, especially those who lived in the turbulent years following the Civil War. We traced most of my boyfriend’s relatives to Panola, MS, a small town in the Mississippi Delta. Our best guess is that they were slaves on a plantation owned by a large, Southern landowning family -the Hurts. After the war, census data showed that they were farmers. I can barely imagine the strength it must have taken to make it out of slavery alive, some part of your spirit salvaged, little of your family in tact. You are then released into a country that doesn’t want you and barely acknowledges past wrong done to you. You figure out how to get a small piece of land close to the only home you have ever known. You set up a house, a few acres to farm (owned by your former master’s family), and try to make a new life for your family. You can’t read, you can’t write, and your every move is monitored by people who hate you. But despite all this, you keep going year after year.
The sheer ability of your ancestors’ ability to survive slavery and Jim Crow seems like enough for me to make any African-American proud of their lineage. While we all want to find things that make our family “special,” not being slaves or sharecroppers doesn’t strike me as the way. I would never begrudge anyone of their desire to know if there were other branches on the family tree- whether that be a Cherokee chief or a Revolutionary War hero-but I would hope that Mississippi farmer brings just as much pride.