African American Lives 2 Reviews
December 25, 2011
Searching for the Real Lost Generations
In general, for most black people in the United States, there is a sort of wall before which no information can be found. If you are very lucky indeed, you can find information from before 1865. If you are even luckier than that, you can find information about how and when and where your ancestors crossed the Atlantic. But the reason [i]Roots[/i] struck such a nerve, I think, is the idea that someone, somewhere, found Africa. That someone, somewhere was able to trace a family not merely to the ship which brought the stolen member over but before and back, to the village and the family which existed before the ship, before the slavers. Alex Haley stood in for millions of people who knew they would not have the chance he did, to stand in a place and say, "This is where my ancestors came from." That, too, is why there is room for Henry Louis Gates, Jr., to give eleven people the gift of knowing more than they thought they could.
We've already done one of his specials, which was about Americans whose ancestors came from all over the world. This one, however, includes nothing but people who are identified in American terminology as black. Perhaps the most interesting, however, is Bliss Broyard, whose father had passed for his entire adult life and who didn't know that until her father died. She has more European ancestry than African, but she didn't know that she had any African ancestry (leaving out that we all technically do) until very recently. Linda Johnson Rice knew she did, but she was adopted; her parents' stories were not, in that sense, her story. Gates tracks more of his own ancestry as a parallel with the information he gives his guests, and on this edition, there is Kathleen Henderson. After the previous edition, many people wrote in and suggested that maybe we'd be interested in the ancestry of someone who isn't famous, and she was the one selected from the people who volunteered to represent the more mainstream black family.
Well, we can't all be Morgan Freeman, after all. Morgan Freeman, who knew that he had a white man in his ancestry but didn't know that he and the black woman who bore his children are buried side-by-side on the land he "sold" his sons. (Illegitimate children, apparently, couldn't inherit under state law.) He cries a little at that discovery. As does Chris Rock on discovering that one of [i]his[/i] ancestors fought in the Civil War and served in the state legislature in South Carolina. Don Cheadle reacts with astonishment at the discovery that his ancestors were held in slavery by the Chickasaw--and that the Chickasaw were allowed to keep slaves even after the Civil War ended, because the Constitution didn't apply to them for good or ill. Tina Turner was delighted to learn that one of her ancestors provided her hometown with the land on which the school she attended was built.
And DNA evidence provides even more surprises. The best part is the discovery that Gates, whose paternal line is from Ireland, is considered a descendant of Niall of the Nine Hostages, an Irish king from about sixteen hundred years ago who is said to be the male ancestor of some eight percent of the Irish male population. So that's not actually that surprising, if you've got Irish ancestry. But by tracing Y-chromosome and mitochondrial DNA, it's possible to say a lot about certain ancestors. In fact, many of the guests are able to be placed with a greater or lesser degree of certainty not merely as descended from people in certain regions but to be descended from members of certain tribes. Morgan Freeman is probably descended from the Songhai and Tuareg. Chris Rock is probably part Udeme. And so forth. The DNA tests don't reflect certainty, of course, just the probability that certain markers come from certain ancestries. And there is some controversy over the claim that there just isn't that much Native American ancestry in the American black genotype. But it's still a powerful thing to learn.
My family is full of amateur genealogists on both sides, but we're lucky. We don't have to hope that someone is mentioned by name in a will because that would be the only place a name might be recorded. We don't have to piece together that a person on one list of the right age is probably the mother of another person on that list. When my ancestors entered the country, any paperwork involved with it mentioned them by name, and the one person who changed his name did so of his own free will. And I'm pretty sure that's on the paperwork, too. When my ancestors were born, they got birth certificates. When they married, they got marriage certificates. Say what you like about bureaucracy; it's great for later genealogists. But my ancestors mattered more on an individual basis to the government than Tom Joyner's or Peter Gomes's. My ancestors counted as a full person, after all, and the male ones were even allowed to vote. It's probably hard not to be at least a little angry if yours weren't.