Every week I find myself glued to the television as Henry Louis Gates, Jr. takes celebrities deeper into their ancestral histories than they possibly ever imagined on Finding Your Roots. Many of those stories have really resonated with me, particularly the stories of several of this season's guests. Maya Rudolph, Shonda Rhimes and Keenan Ivory Wayans shared an episode last month. Gates was able to trace their family lineage all the way back to the 1800s. Last night's results were no different for guests LL Cool J and Sean Combs.
You're probably wondering why this is so fascinating, but for someone like myself who has only been linked to the maternal side of her family for the bulk of her life, having the opportunity to track down my family history and seeking answers to questions that remain a mystery excites me. And so, a few weeks ago my journey began.
I signed myself up for an Ancestry.com account, slipped on my imaginary detective's hat, and started searching. The exciting part isn't in not knowing what you'll find, but in not knowing what you're looking for to begin with. Naturally, I started with my parents. For those of you who've seen the Ancestry commercials where the little green leaf freely floats along the branches of someone's family tree, I got my initial leaf within the first ten minutes of completing my registration. They'd located my parents' marriage license.
Just like that, I was connected to something I had never seen before. I learned about where they lived before they got married, where they actually got married, their wedding date, my paternal grandparents' names...it was all there. What stood out to me the most, perhaps, was section number eight: Education (specify only highest level completed). My mom; a bold number 12, proud graduate of Sumter High School. My dad; a glaring number 07.
What did that mean? How could that be? Maybe it was a mistake, I thought. Emotions and thoughts flooded my brain, and as quickly as the confusion had come, clarity soon followed. My dad was born in 1937. Somehow, in the midst of growing up in the rural South, he managed to enlist in the United States Navy and worked his way up the ranks. Despite his surroundings, he was determined to become something, someone.
I did what is sometimes the only thing I can do when I'm crying uncontrollably: I called my mom. "It all makes sense now," I said. Every time I have ever succeeded academically or professionally, "Your father would be so proud of you," are usually the first words out of her mouth. Now, I understood why. She wasn't just saying it all these years because she thought it was the proper thing to say. She said it because she truly meant it and believed it. She went on to tell me how hard he had worked while he was serving in the Navy to secure a good life for himself and his family. It was as if every thought I was having about whether or not I wanted to go back to school (again) was confirmed.
While I haven't found time to dig any deeper just yet (maybe I do have the time, but the thought of having my mind blown like that again scares me), but this experience thus far has taught me how important it is that we know where we come from. I have no idea what else I'll find, but I am yearning to learn more. Your journey doesn't even have to start on Ancestry.com. Simply asking a question that hasn't been asked before to an older family member could open a conversation you never thought you'd have!
Sankofa, my friends!
Oh! Because I work for PBS, I couldn't resist this shameless plug: Check your local listings for the next episode of Finding Your Roots on PBS!!!