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.

7 Things Sunday

One. Lambing season is starting and this is basically who I aspire to be:
IMG_7291I have always had a thing for sheep. I don’t know what it is about them. I had a plush lamb toy named Cuddles that I slept with as a child. I also had this polaroid of a sheep running down a hill with it’s mouth open (it was hilarious, trust me) that my grandfather took and I kept it pinned up on my bulletin board for a really long time. I see so many of them in fields whenever I take the train, but I have yet to give one my affection. I want to so baaaaa-d. Word on the street is that I may even be able to assist in the birth of some. Now there’s something to add to my resume.

Two. This week’s feels:

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Three. When I tell people that I’m working at a cafe in North Berwick, they give me really strange looks and ask why I’m working all the way out there. Well, mostly because out of twenty-some places I applied to, they were the only ones to call me back and give me a job. But I think it was a fate thing. You know when you meet people and you know right away, Yep. I’m going to adore you. You just fit. Some of us who work together, we’re all kind of in the same place, working through some of the same what is my life right now?! stuff. Work shifts often turn into therapy sessions. I know I haven’t been there very long, but the two days a week I spend working have been full of life-giving cups of coffee, a lot of laughing, and some incredibly lovely people. This picture is blurry, but I love it anyway. Here are some of the Steampunk girls at the 65th birthday party for one of our regulars, Graham. Champagne. Stovies. Dancing to oldies. A night to remember, for sure.

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Four. Like most people, I listen to music when I go get my sweat on at the gym. But lately I’ve been obsessed with listening to stories instead. I become so engaged in them, I forget that I’m running. Plus I like to think I look less like I’m dying if one makes me break out in a smile or slightly audible laughter. Here are a couple favorites from The Moth:


For Cynthia’s full story, you can listen here

Five. Speaking of stories…Today is International Women’s Day! Some of the most inspiring and courageous women I have ever known, I met through ChildVoice International in Uganda. To honor the young women they have worked with, ChildVoice is doing a Kickstarter campaign to fund and publish a collection of their stories.

“Lifted from the rich traditions of storytelling in Uganda, this book seeks to capture the true stories of war, heartache, faith and forgiveness in one community…With experiences and emotions that transcend time and place, this book delivers a journey from darkness to light as told by those who experienced it most closely. 

…Brought together by the work of one organization, ChildVoice, to restore the voices of children silenced by war, Grace and other survivors share their stories as part of their journeys toward healing and spiritual transformation. 

…Through these stories, readers may find strength for personal journeys toward healing, and the courage to face their obstacles. Powerful, provoking, and educational, Enduring the Night invites the reader to join the conversation and be a part of something greater, for in doing so, one cannot helped but be moved to action in support of women worldwide.”

I have never been so confident in an organsation to #MakeItHappen for women in their community. Please consider supporting their cause!

Mama Cecelia telling me some of her story. She is truly the fiercest woman I’ve ever met. She also has my favourite voice to imitate and shared our love for baby bunny Brenda, sheltering her with protection (which is really saying something because Ugandans eat rabbits rather than use them as house pets). Picture 5


Six. Every person/place/thing is adapting to new technology and figuring out ways to utilise it. I get that. This is where the world is going. As I start to see more and more art museums adopting digital mindsets, a part of me recoils because I suppose there is a tiny voice in my head saying, Nooooo! Please can this please just be one place that doesn’t look like a Buffalo Wild Wings in terms of screen coverage? Can’t we just put down the digital tools and sit on this nice little bench and LOOK at the art. Take it in. Let our imaginations go wild or give it critical thought. So, when I read about all the ways technology is helping visitors engage and learn more I feel torn and see valid points from all sides. But I completely give in when I read how it can be used for experiences like this.

Seven. This was just one of those weeks, you know? When all the bad news comes at once and you can’t do anything about it except have painful conversations that lead to nowhere. By the end of the week my heart felt like someone had been using it as a stress ball. Here’s to setting an intention for a new week full of great potential to at least be better than the last: Be patient and present (and go on more dates with the sea because honestly…so good for the soul):





This post is dedicated to Vivian, (age 4) who before taking afternoon naps will ask you to tell a story from your brain. Its best if these stories involve Vivian as a princess and her dog Lola. Sometimes she interrupts to correct your story and tailor it to her liking. Sometimes she stares at you in awe as if what you just said really, surely, truly happened. Vivian, never stop asking for brain stories.

 I listen to The Moth podcast at work a lot. If you’ve never heard of The Moth before, it started as a story-telling night conducted by an author and poet who gathered his friends on his porch (like moths drawn to a porch light) for spellbinding tales. It grew into a non-profit dedicated to the art of storytelling. Anyone can pitch a story and be selected to share it on stage. There are Moth storytelling events hosted all over the country and the storytellers are recorded and put on the podcast. Collections of Moth stories have been made into books. It’s a really beautiful thing in my opinion. I find myself laughing and crying and getting swept up in other people’s worlds. I love that they’re real, you know? These are your average people and their sad/happy/funny/crazy/meaningful/terrific life experiences.

So I started thinking about if I were on The Moth…what story would I tell? Obviously by now I should have a plethora of moving, witty, exciting tales of my own, right? So I went into a mild panic because nothing came immediately to mind. My thought process was something like this: NOOOOOOOOOOOO! My life is boring. I haven’t done enough interesting things. What kind of life am I living if I don’t have engaging stories? TAYLOR, YOU NEED A LEGACY! Judging by the popular personal memoirs I’ve read in the last few years I should probably wait until something tragic happens in my life like death or divorce and then do something spontaneous and spiritual to find myself. Something with traveling and/or strenuous physical activity. I must accomplish a feat. I’ve always wanted to be fluent in French. Maybe I should just stop everything and devote years of my life to that. I’ll go live on a farm in the French countryside and a sweet old French grandpere will teach me the language while do stable chores in exchange for rent. I could go on a quest to learn the lost art of…something. Maybe I need to hang out with stranger people.  Am I too cautious? Do I just come to terms with my very average, normal upbringing in a place where nothing too exciting happens?

Then I began to scale back when I considered the fact that the majority of Moth stories do not involve any of the things I just mentioned. In fact a lot of them are really average, every day occurrences but they’re presented in an enticing way because of the teller’s perspective. They aren’t stories chased after or forced, they’re experiences well-reflected upon. So maybe I’ll learn French from hypothetical farmer grandpere but I won’t put it at the top of my priority list. Instead I’m making it a goal to live life in a way that encourages storytelling. I’m going to be on the look out for life lessons. I’m going to be intentional about doing things that challenge me and embrace opportunities to do something unexpected. I’m going to write more things down. I’m going to live life so it’s a story to tell. I’m going to foster a creative existence, one that puts the little things on a pedestal because life is one ever-evolving work of art.