On Family Trees and Black Genealogy

person sitting on bench in sunny park

Hi everyone! My name is Mariah. I’m a rising senior studying Legacies of Race and Empire.

What began as a simple argument between me and my brother this past Christmas has evolved into a full-fledged project.

It all started when we unwrapped our joint present from our Grandma Jessie. She had, after some research, produced a family tree, spanning back an impressive five generations. The results of her research were neatly displayed in a family history/family photo album hybrid of a book. It was the best present I’d received in a while.

I have always been interested in genealogical work; something about listening to my Grandma’s stories of growing up on a Natchez, Mississippi cotton farm had always stirred my interest. But I had always wanted to go deeper and further back and was frustrated by the limited information that my Grandmother’s stories could provide me. I have also always been somewhat jealous of my friends who could easily, whenever prompted, list off the four or five European countries that their families came from, or claim to be distantly related to a Founding Father.

It became implicitly apparent to me from early on—after I had cleared the hurdle of growing up black in a mostly-white environment—that my family’s lack of knowledge about our ancestry was in many ways directly linked with our blackness. It was the result of a history of intentionally severing a people from their heritage in order to claim ownership over them; it was the byproduct of letting go of painful pasts so that brighter and better futures could be imagined.

After looking over the wonderful book that our Grandmother had made, I turned to my brother Max and said, “Don’t you want a DNA test now–to learn even more?” “No,” was his flippant response; it caught me terribly off guard. Wasn’t this every black person’s wish?

“Don’t you think that we live in a day and age where we are more than our pasts, Mariah?” he continued. “Why should some test results about where my ancestors came from hundreds of years ago mean anything to me?”

In just a few succinct comments, my brother made me aware of a few things: first, that we no longer live in the era of Alex Haley; we are certainly not of Dr. Henry Louis Gates’ generation. There perhaps does not still exist a movement of black Americans working to “find their roots.” And this can perhaps be attributed to a second thing: race—blackness, more specifically—does not, at least in the eyes of the millennial generation, necessarily determine the direction of our futures. This is contestable, of course, but it’s a belief that many young black Americans hold. To paraphrase Saidiya Hartman, we only look to our pasts when are homes are inhospitable. Is the U.S. a hospitable home for black Americans? Following recent racially-charged events, this remains unclear to me—and it also seems to remain unclear to the participants of my study. All of these thoughts and experiences persuaded me to do my own research and come to my own conclusions.

The study, which revolves around black-identified millennials, consists of three parts; 1) a pre-DNA test interview, during which participants are asked questions about their identity, are asked to draw a family tree, and are asked to make their own hypotheses about what there results of the DNA test will say, 2) a DNA test, and 3) a post-test interview comparing the results of the tests to the previously-made hypotheses as well as the test result’s effect on each participant (in terms of identity, emotion, etc).

It should be no surprise that my favorite part of the research so far has been in asking my participants (I have seventeen in total!) to draw their family trees. Many of the participants have described this exercise as the most challenging part of the pre-DNA test interview. Others have described it as the most emotional. More importantly, I think it empowers participants to look inward and narrate their own histories.

I have been so blown away by my participants’ insightful and diverse responses, as well as the amount of emotion and rawness they have put into the interviews. I have a lot of data to work with, but I know that this is not a bad thing.

I've been audio-taping the interviews in the hopes that I can create some sort of media piece later.
I’ve been audio-taping the interviews in the hopes that I can create some sort of media piece later.
Since the weather has been nice, I've gotten to do many interviews in the park.
Since the weather has been nice, I’ve gotten to do many interviews in the park.
A snapshot of a participant drawing her family tree.
A snapshot of a participant drawing her family tree.

All of the pre-DNA test interviews are complete, and I have left to start another research project in West Africa (currently, Ghana). The participants will be receiving their DNA testing kits in the mail shortly, and I will follow up with post-test interviews in early August.