Genealogy

Today I received Henry Louis Gates, Jr’s newest book, Finding Oprah’s Roots. While I’ve never been a huge Oprah fan, I have enormous respect for her, because I think she’s a great role model. The fact that she has her extremely successful book club got many people reading again. She’s enormously generous and intelligent. I’m sure you can find her praises much more passionately laid out in many other places, so let it suffice to say that she’s clearly influential, and mainly in a positive way.

That she has let herself be the centerpiece for this work of research is inspiring. I’ve never given a lot of thought to tracking down my genealogy — for a number of reasons, I’m sure — I’ve historically been young and therefore a little less sentimental in the family roots sort of way (though each year, I feel it creeping up on me more and more — as my Polish roots become more and more important to me), and I know a decent amount of my genealogy already, in that I’ve heard lots of stories from grandparents and parents. It’s pretty clear that all of my relative emigrated from Poland, most likely in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This white immigrant privilege is not something I though about much, either, until I began Gates’ book. While I was aware in the abstract that African Americans who are descendants of slaves do not know their ancestry in terms of what country (part of Africa) their ancestors were brought from nor would they necessarily know who their slave ancestors were because of lack of records, I never thought of it in contrast to my own experience. I was just teaching Toni Morrison’s Sula, and there’s a passage where the narrator describes not knowing who one is, not having a language, a history, etc. The narrator speaks of this in reference to a character who is shell-shocked, but there is an obvious connection to African American history. But to think that here is yet again another form of institutionalized (even is historical) racism. If I wanted to research my genealogy, I would doubtless have an easier time than, say, Oprah. Granted, she has a lot more money at her disposal. Gates says as much, so I’m not sharing anything new, just the fact that I hadn’t yet realized it. I agree that it is important for people to know where they came from. I’m not too far into the book yet, but in flipping through, it looks very interesting.

A coincidental intersection — Sujal was just exploring this website, Geni, and he signed up for it and began getting our relatives to fill it out. As I’ve said, I really hadn’t been into genealogy much, but I’m finding it a bit more interesting suddenly. I don’t think I’ll develop a great passion for it, but at least I’ll have a better understanding.

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