A couple of years back, before I had the spark of an idea to create The Black Experience In America: The Course, I spent a few months doing some obsessive digital sleuthing. Using public records on Ancestry.com, I was determined to see how far back I could trace my family tree.
For African Americans, this is often a fraught process for several reasons. Among them: Racist laws and practices in the North and South made property ownership and small business longevity more difficult, so there was a lot more moving around. The education available to Black families was generally substandard, so there’s less likelihood of finding written family genealogical records to augment the public record. And of course before the Civil War and the 13th Amendment, most Black people in America were considered property, not persons, and were listed that way in public records — without full names, or birth dates or any other humanizing details.
Still, I was surprised how much information I was able to dig up by pulling hundreds of records and doing dozens of searches across Mississippi, Tennessee, North Carolina and many other places. And while my parents knew little about their lineage before their grandparents’ generation — and even some of that was apocryphal — I was able to trace several branches on both sides to people born before 1850. (One branch, above, includes Elijah Powell, my 4th-great-grandfather, born in 1803 in Nash County, North Carolina.)
Seeing that — all those family tree branches, stretching back so far — had a profound effect on me. I love America, this work in progress, rife as it is with contradictions. And it occurred to me that with branches that reach this high, roots this deep, no one gets to tell me how to be an American. It’s not “love it or leave it.” It’s “love it and build it.” That’s the work ahead.
* I’ve long had mixed feelings about the Woody Guthrie song, since staking claim to land on this continent has all kinds of messy connotations. But in this case, that complexity is exactly what I wanted to evoke.
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