A Difficult Genealogy Assignment
When I was a young girl still in elementary school I was once assigned a genealogy assignment as a class project. I'm sure my teacher at the time thought it was a benign assignment to ask students to go back 5 to 6 generations and share their family tree. Yet I remember immediately hanging my head as the only Black child in my classroom. Like many Black children I had been curious about my origins long before the ill fated assignment and had soon come to realize that while I had come from a long lived people there was a point where there was too much pain, too much loss or taken, that I could not trace my origins to the first of my ancestors to step foot onto American soil. By the time I was picked up I recall I was in a funky mood as we made our way home from my Catholic elementary school.
Now let me say before we go any further I had what you would call disinterested overly involved parents. The best way to explain it, is my father could care less about the health and well-being of any institutions that I may have attended unless their functions directly impacted me. Let's just say there was a collective groan any time my father opted to attend a PTA meeting. While my mother on the other hand would volunteer as classroom aide just to ensure the school had adequate staffing and always was happy to help; though she was also just as fiercely protective of me.
So the day I came home with that particular assignment my father was fit to be tied. He immediately called the school and yelled at everyone from the teacher to the principal about how culturally insensitive the project was, how he doesn't pay that much money for me to come home upset and a few other choice things in very colorful language. While my father was telling folks they were everything but a child of God on the phone, my mother took me aside and told me that what I had been given was an opportunity. That while I may not be able to trace my direct lineage that I could use this project to not just tell my story but the story of my people. So that is what I did. I traced my family tree back 3 to 4 generations, I then left my own personal family history behind and spent the rest of my project sharing the lives of Black historical figures, the history of slavery and explaining why this task was hard for Black people to complete.
It would be many years later before I would attempt to trace my origins again. During my pregnancy when I had spare time between nesting, I felt the urge to look back into my own history. This time I would include DNA which allowed me to be able to offer what ancestral lands my family was taken from and instead of focusing on what I could not offer in way of names what I could in stories of who those people were. So if my daughter ever found herself facing completing the genealogy assignment, she would never feel the same despair that I felt as a child years ago trying to look back into history and wishing for a moment I wasn't a brown skin girl.
A Challenge for Black History Month This Year
As we enter this Black History Month after four years of some of the most divisive in recent history; where it seems many images that if not for their high definition could be similar to the darkest days of the 1960s. I think its time to focus on being honest about who we were both the good and the bad. Like Carter G. Woodson's original intent when he started his Negro History week in 1926, this February we enter with a hope to return not only to tradition but to have an eye on reform. Carter when creating Black History Month wanted to focus not on great men like the traditional celebrations of his time that focused on Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln but the greatness and achievement of the larger collective Black people.
2020 laid bare many of the social issues and deep hurts that have not healed. While we strive to create a nation that lives up to the words so eloquently written in our founding we must not forgot to look back. It's time to be honest about our history, to truly see what things we should hold up in a place of honor and those things that we should readdress with an egalitarian eye.
In this next several weeks of Black History Month I challenge you to not only look back at history but look towards and be part of the future. For me it will be making my daughter watch Encore on Disney+ to see my brother guiding former students trying to recapture their theatre experience while I tell my daughter how for many years my brother shaped Louisville's drama education, I will tell my daughter the stories of all the people who I named her after, teach her soul food recipes, paint a coconut and celebrate Mardi Gras the way I would if I could take her to New Orleans; show her Dillard University, a historically black university, where I attended briefly, the place where she gained many fictive kin and then use history as a touchpoint to help her learn about all the great people who came before her not only as relatives but those who sacrificed for both of us to have the opportunities we do.
While some of you may not have a personal connection to Blackness I want you to remember that Black history is American history and that there are many contributions that have come from Black Americans we could not live without. I challenge you to:
- Watch Black films and shows
- Visit a Black History Museum (You can join our tour of the Jim Crow Museum)
- Virtually attend a Black culture event
- Listen to music by Black musical artists and performers
- Buy from Black businesses locally and online
- Learn about the unsung heroes of Black history (and I will try to share some with you throughout Black History Month)
- Read books by Black authors, bloggers and poets
- Learn how to cook traditional soul food
- Listen to stories of the past from Black elders
- Champion Black visual artists
- Volunteer with a Black-run or -focused organizations
- Demand that Black history be integrated in K-18 education at your school
However, I know that challenge is not easy. With Covid-19 still being a reality in our lives it has not been easy to engage like we have in the past. Keeping that in mind I have challenged myself to help. Throughout the month of February I hope to be able to share with you little snippets of the rich history of Black America. 28 days is not enough time to encompass all of Black history but it can be a start on the journey.