Well, if you hadn’t already figured it out, internet, it must be crystal clear by now that I will totally cheat on you. When it’s over 60 degrees in March in Milwaukee, I will drop you like a hot potato. This whole week I didn’t post or tweet or [whatever the verb is for posting on Facebook]. Instead, I played outside. Yesterday I assembled my new potting bench in a t-shirt. A T-SHIRT, PEOPLE. I can totally feel the vitamin D coursing through my body (although it’s possible that’s the Easter candy talking).
Naturally, the forecast calls for snow tomorrow. My new potting bench is going to look awesome covered in snow.
Part of the reason I haven’t written a blog post, though, has nothing to do with the weather. It’s actually a couple of things that happened last Saturday. I’ve been pondering them all week, because I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to say exactly about them. I thought if I waited long enough it would come to me. It didn’t. But my week is up, so I’m posting anyway.
The first thing I saw last Saturday was the episode of Who Do You Think You Are from the previous night, with Emmitt Smith. If you didn’t see it, you should have because it was excellent (way better than the first episode, in my opinion). You can watch it online here. That said, I’m going to spoil it for you right now: Emmitt Smith is black. He’s descended from former slaves. He’s also descended from some white people who owned his family. He’s related to both the victims and the perpetrators. He traced his family back to a slave girl named Mariah, who was sold at age 11, because she was fathered by her owner, and the wife didn’t want her around anymore.
Can you imagine? Because I can’t.
At one point, Smith visits an old cemetery where the white people who owned his relatives are buried. It’s a nice cemetery, tidy and well-manicured and peaceful. It’s the sort of place you’d be happy to rest when your time is up. Smith asks the historian where the slaves would have been buried, and the historian points out the dark, overgrown wooded area behind the chain-link fence. No tidy, manicured lawn. No headstones. Just forgotten people.
Now, I’ve found people in my family with unmarked graves too. But I’ve never had a relative who was put on the other side of the chain-link fence, away from the real cemetery, because they were only three-fifths of a person. When Smith walked over to that fence and looked out into the dark woods…well, I had to go get some Kleenex. In fact, I needed another one just now while I was typing this.
I can’t imagine. I really can’t.
And that’s the one that really knocked me on my ass. Can you imagine finding that your grandpa was sold at the age of five? My oldest child will be five this summer. I look at her and…I can’t imagine. I don’t want to even try to imagine. I want to run away from the thought of something like that. It makes me want to throw up.
I do genealogical research because I like it. It’s fun for me. I’ve found out some negative things about my ancestors, of course, and I like some better than others. I’m sure my descendants won’t be proud of everything I’ve ever done either. But if I were finding things like that, as much as I love to do research…I’m not sure I could. I don’t think it would be fun at all. I think the anger, the outrage…it might be too much for me. I think the act of typing “My grandpa was sold in a separate lot at the age of five” would be a truth that I probably couldn’t handle.
And for the white genealogists too…it’s really not much better. Would it be fun to be researching your family if you were finding things like this? If you found Luckie’s five-year-old grandpa as one of the slaves your own grandpa sold “in a separate lot,” how would you even begin to process that? Could you stand to face Luckie and say, “Here’s the document you’re looking for?” Honestly, I’m not sure I could.
But what I’ve learned recently in my new life as a genealogist is that that’s what needs to happen. Black researchers have a hell of a time finding their roots. I complain about untangling my Norwegians, with their patronyms and their farm names and all that…but that’s nothing. Descendants of slaves have the hardest job in American genealogy, because their people were property. If they were listed anywhere at all, they were listed as property (and often in private records, not public ones). Naturally, some of the descendants of the property-owners who hold these records aren’t always eager to share the information. I can completely understand why white genealogists have a hard time making the decision to share them, because writing a blog post about your grandpa the slave-owner and listing all of the human beings he owned can’t be fun (and even if you’re willing, your non-genealogical relatives are not always going to appreciate your candor). But that’s the only way these long-ago slaves can be brought out of the dark woods and into the light, where their descendants and the rest of us can give them their due.
And you know what? They’re actually doing it. Today I woke up and found the Carnival of African-American Genealogy’s Restore My Name–Slave Records and Genealogy Research project in my Google Reader. For the first time, black researchers and white researcher are using the blogosphere to work together, look each other in the eye, and find the truth about their families. I don’t know how they’re finding the courage, but they are, and it’s awesome. Because if we can find the nerve to start to talk about this stuff…well, some of this is going to hurt like hell, to be sure. But healing is always painful, and tearing down that chain link fence, hard as it is, is going to be good for the people who need to know who their people are. It’s an incredible gift.
I’m off to find the snow shovel…and more Kleenex.
Photo by meddygarnet