Who Do You Think You Are?: Ancestry Is Black History [Part One]
1 year ago
You may have unsung heroes of black history in your own family.
In two parts, a personal exploration of what it means to remember the unsung black heroes in our own families.
I almost missed actor Blair Underwood’s episode of “Who Do You Think You Are?” last week. Getting anywhere fast during rush hour in New York City is nearly always a crapshoot.
With minutes to spare, I shoved dinner groceries onto my girlfriend’s kitchen counter, grabbed the TV remote and tuned in for Underwood’s awe-inspiring discovery.
Members of his family were free, land-owning blacks, even as the cruelty of slavery blemished America’s founding promise. I sat watching, speechless, as though I were vicariously sharing in Underwood’s journey.
Through rather elaborate fact-finding missions, Underwood learned of the impossible odds against which his family survived. A DNA test traced his ancestry to the West African nation of Cameroon, which he visited and met with distant relatives.
Coincidentally, the well-produced TV program helped resurface a thought I had leading in to Black History Month this year. During our annually shortest month, why is it that we aren’t encouraged to remember the unsung black heroes in our own families?
Throughout my education in predominantly white public schools, I would more often celebrate mainstream figures of the Civil Rights Movement. That, coupled with year-round study of European-centric history, suggests my learning to value a deeper knowledge of my ancestry would not have come from my teachers. At least, that’s the way I’ve come to see it.
While I’d never seek to diminish the importance of its legacy, I’ve long believed the annual re-airing of the “I Have A Dream” speech has overtime made it too ordinary and, at the same time, foreign to the generations who did not walk arm-in-arm with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
My 90-year-old grandfather didn’t trade sermon notes with Dr. King. My late grandmother didn’t ride a Montgomery bus with Rosa Parks. Neither of them led explicitly public or high profile lives, to better the conditions of black Americans.
Instead, my grandparents raised my exceptional mother and her thirteen equally exceptional siblings in Oakland, Calif. They built their family on an unmatchable foundation, anchored in faith, strong bonds, and a dogged work ethic. Indeed, both the patriarch and matriarch of my large family lived through the pivotal markers of black history: the Great Migration, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s, and the beginnings of a (supposed) post-racial America.
My maternal grandparents are a success story, but I won’t (yet) find that in any book or PBS documentary. Moreover, none of it would have happened, was it not for my grandfather’s grandfather, Charlie Murray. (He’s the handsomely aged man, pictured above.)