White Genealogy, Black Genealogy

The image in the header is an Ellis Island passenger record. On lines 55-60 are the names of my ancestors who immigrated to the United States from Glasgow, Scotland on November 10, 1884.

I found this a few months ago when I was trying to put some family tree puzzle pieces together with my mom. I found it so strange that here I was, living in Scotland, wondering how and why this family made their way to What Cheer, Iowa. I had goosebumps thinking about how if they hadn’t boarded that ship, I wouldn’t exist. I wouldn’t be here, where they were.

When my mom came to visit me in Scotland, we found the church where her grandmother’s grandparents were married and a flat where they’d lived. We went on to the Netherlands where I took a photo of her beaming next to the township sign for ‘Roekel’, where her Dutch side of the family came from. We bought my dad an Ancestry.com DNA test for his birthday this year. Both of them have been into genealogy and tracing family history since I was little.

In conversation, I’ve had many Scottish and Irish people bring up and have a laugh at Americans’ obsession with their Irish/Scottish heritage. I’ve had Uber drivers tell me how crazy Americans are for coming here and having them drive around to cemeteries looking for old relatives’ headstones. I grew up in a town that clings so hard to it’s Dutch heritage that it has an annual Tulip festival, a canal, the largest working windmill in the US, and a Wal-Mart with a ‘Dutch front’ so that it matches the rest of the town’s architecture. Americans love to trace their ancestors’ journey and map out their global origins. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably noticed that DNA tests have become all the rage.

What is it about wanting to know your family history? Why do people spend so much time and money on documenting their family trees? I won’t try to psychoanalyze this, but there must be some reason humans desire to know where they came from. It must help inform their identity? Or a sense of belonging? I’ll even admit to this. As I’ve gotten older, as my own body has brought a curious new life into the world, I’ve come to appreciate it more. Maybe there’s a desire to look back when you’re in the process of bringing forth.

Isn’t it fascinating how in this way, we will so easily acknowledge that we are a country of immigrants? Yet, so many Americans have anti-immigrant sentiments. My European friends will tell me that America doesn’t have a history. That we’ve culturally appropriated every damn thing from hot dogs to Halloween costumes. But America does have a history and we are seeing the repercussions of it right now.

A few days after I found this Ellis Island record, I was listening to The Moth Story Hour.  Trina Robinson, an African American woman, told her own story of going down the genealogy rabbit hole. Only hers isn’t one of looking at census records or immigration documents. There were no Middle Passage passenger lists.

She looks at Property records. Bills of Sale. Estate records. Listed just below the cattle, china and piano she finds the sectioned labelled ‘Negroes’:

David $300

Martha $1000

Her ancestors were two of 14 on the list. They had a monetary value. Their births, deaths, names and residencies belonged to white families. Trina goes on to tell the story about visiting the estate in Kentucky where David and Martha worked as slaves. There was a private family cemetery on the property. She walks by 20-30 graves with beautiful marble headstones. Then her guide points over to the field markers. Stones, embedded in the ground to mark where the slaves were buried. Her family.

Trina may have found this information, but for many African Americans, there is no record of their ancestors on this side of the ocean. There is no record of their ancestors on the other side of the ocean. And yet they existed. And by the time my European ancestors had made it to Ellis Island, more than 3 times as many Africans had boarded ships to the Americas— an astounding fact that underscores the significance of African contributions to life and culture in the early Americas.

Adding to the complexity of being a Black person trying to track your ancestral lineage is the fact that most enslaved people experienced sales and separations 4-5 times in their lifetime. This means they were separated from their families more often than not. Historians have found documentation evidencing that hundreds of children under 10 went up for sale. Even one record showing a 3-day old infant was sold without its parents.

What does it do to a people if you rob them of their family, their history, and their family history? What does it do to a people if they can’t hold photographs or visit marble headstones? A DNA test will only help them locate which country Europeans stole their ancestors from.

America does have a history. It is a history of violence against black bodies. It is one of looting Native American land. It is one of serving and protecting white feelings and white power by all means necessary. To give you some perspective, in 91 years Black Americans will finally be “free” (I say “free” because slavery may have been abolished in 1865 but racial segregation laws lasted until the 1950s/60s) for as long as they were enslaved in this country. I’ll be dead by then. You will, too.

Derecka Purnell, a social movement lawyer and US Guardian columnist wrote, “I do not search for my African name, but rather the names of Africans who led revolts against empires and colonizers. More than our DNA, people of African descent share a political struggle intimately connected to all oppressed people in the world. Due to current conditions of economic oppression, most black Americans will never see the continent. But studying our political roots is the key to securing a better future where we can be truly free.”

Until now, it had never crossed my mind that something as simple as being able to log on to ancestry.com or dig through boxes of old family ephemera is my white privilege. But it is.

None of us can change what is already written in history. I cannot erase America’s abusive history toward Black people. But you bet I will validate and defend centuries upon centuries of anger, fear, sadness, grief, pain, and rage from the Black community. Who am I to tell Black people how to feel, protest, or mourn what is beyond my understanding? I will choose to UNlearn the false narratives and biases that I’ve absorbed growing up in a white-washed society. I will continue to work on confronting white privilege and dismantling racism wherever I find it (even in myself). I’ll mess up and I’ll keep trying. I hope you will, too.

Until Black people have justice in every facet that white supremacy oppresses (housing discrimination, voter suppression, the preschool to prison pipeline, police brutality, disproportionate rates of maternal mortality, disproportionate prison sentences, and on and on), we must continue to show up in solidarity and fight the political struggle. We must amplify Black voices and never stop trying to secure a better future for the lives that have been robbed.

Most of our ancestors came here willingly to the ‘land of opportunity’. But Africans were forced here against their will. The least we can do by now is let them breathe in deep the economic benefit and capitalist opportunities that we have to thank their ancestors for. America is, after all, an economic superpower in large part to the productivity and profitability of chained feet in cotton fields.

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