Five Ways to Repair the World Through Your Family Story
Family stories have the power to heal the world. Stories shape how we understand our context, as a result they shape our visions of peace and justice. Those visions work themselves out in our investments our business practices, in the way we move in and through our communities and in our votes.
Through our family stories, we have the power to fill in the stories we’re often told about who we are from sources on-high, such as history books that narrate the world through frameworks of wars and presidents. Our family stories have the power to humanize the past: help us to connect to it, feel it and learn from it. Family stories can anchor us in truth and teach us what it will take to repair what past choices broke in our world.
Many of my friends of European descent have approached genealogy with skepticism. “I’m a European mutt.” They often say. Then they ask: “What good will it do for me to know a random detail about where my grandparents were from? It’ll just be more details without meaning.”
Here is my reply: Allow the new details of your heritage to raise questions. Become curious. Ask how your ancestors came to the land where you currently live and why? What caused them to migrate, if they did? Ask what caused them to stay, if they did? Ask what was going on in the world, in which they lived? Was it disease, famine, politics, war or revolution? Or was it industrialization, exploration, education and the pursuit of a dream? Ask what was their proximity to the events and oppressions of their era? Don’t be afraid of what you find. Rather, whatever you found, ask: “What understanding of the world led them to make the choices they made?”
To all of us: Allow your curiosity to lead to deeper understanding. On the other side of your dig, you will be more grounded and more connected to your family’s story, to our national story and to yourself.
Here are my top five tips on how to become a world healer by diving in and researching your family story:
Interview the Elders and Story-keepers
One of the great lies that broke the world was the lie that human value is found in youth, productivity and able-bodied-ness. This is a central lie of white supremacy, which understands full humanity to be held in white, male, abled-bodies. So, what then of the elders? What is the value of one’s whose energy is spent, whose bodies are breaking down, whose productivity is in decline? What is their value? Across the globe in indigenous cultures, elders are revered. They are valued not for what they produce, but for the wisdom their lives have accumulated through decades of lessons won in human struggle.
Likewise, many indigenous peoples have a role within their societies considered critical to the life and well-being of their people. Story-keepers hold and protect the story of the people; passing the stories down from generation to generation. They must, not only know their own families’ stories, but they pass down and protect the stories of their communities, their tribes and their nations.
Often in our families an aunt or uncle, a parent or cousin keeps the stories of our families and passes them down from generation to generation. Interview the story-keepers in your family and interview the elders. Collect the names, locations, birthdates and stories of your ancestors from the story-keepers in your families. Collect the hard-won lessons of the elders. The very act of the interview is an act of repairing what race broke in the world. The act of listening at the feet of the elders and the story keepers renounces white supremacist devaluation of age and story. It reconnects us to the truth of what happened. It reconnects us to our family’s story. It reconnects us to our people’s story. And it reconnects us to our true selves.
Join an online genealogy community like Ancestry.com, MyHeritage.org, FamilySearch.org, or Geni.com.
For several decades archivists have been digitizing documents like newspapers, wills, tax records, baptisms, denominational minutes of meetings, journals, military records and more. Plus, the federal government has released every Census through 1940 and will release more in years to come. If you know your grandparents’ names, approximate birthdates and locations where they lived, then you should be able to locate them on the most basic genealogical document—the Census.
Census documents are treasure troves of information about our ancestors. They reveal: where our ancestors lived, their ages (and approximate birthdates), birthplace, birth place of family members and parents, the kind of community they lived in (segregated, desegregated) and their social location: Were they farm workers, farm owners, renters or home owners? What was the value of their land and/or estate? Were they able to read, unable to write, a veteran, a convict, married, free or enslaved, or did they enslave others?
Every bit of information found on Census documents fills in our ancestors’ stories and raises more questions. The general rule of thumb is: Follow your curiosity.
When reaching back through generations watch for repeated names; passed down through the generations. Our ancestors often named children after family members. This act both honored the ancestor and left breadcrumbs for future generations helping them trace the family line.
Digital archives can only take you so far, particularly for people of African descent in the U.S. If your ancestors were enslaved, then their names will not be listed on the Census. Rather, prior to the Civil War, enslaved people were listed as owned property in the Census Slave Schedule. Names were not listed; only name of the slave owner along with the races (Black, Mulatto or Indian) and approximate ages of the people they owned. Slave schedules offer informational bread crumbs for people of African descent who know the surname of their ancestors’ master, their approximate location and the approximate age and attributed race of their enslaved ancestors before the Civil War. While not an exact science Census Slave Schedules can serve as evidence of the possible story of one’s enslaved ancestors.
Once people of African descent have identified the plantation where their ancestor may have been enslaved, they may be able to find more detailed information in the town’s archived tax records, wills and in the archived journals of the enslavers. This research usually requires an in person visit to the county courthouse archives or the local library in the town where your ancestor was enslaved.
Once records have been exhausted, DNA can help fill in the picture.
Do your DNA Test.
African Americans have been conditioned to understand the genesis of our family’s story in the context of slavery and oppression. Our story often begins in the bowels of a slave ship followed by whips, chains and exploitation. In fact, the common experience that binds us together as an ethnic group is the terror and loss of the Middle Passage—that period from 1525 through the end of the Civil War in 1865 when more than 12 million African souls were bound and hauled as cargo westward to South America, Central America, the Caribbean and North America. The institution of slavery in the U.S. systematically sought to erase the memories of the enslaved of life before capture. Enslavers employed instruments of terror and prolific family separation to hack away at all sense of belonging—belonging to a family unit, to a people, and to a nation on the other side of the sea.
So, the very first time I opened the Ancestry.com app and clicked on the link that revealed my DNA story—the peoples from whom I come—I wept. Each people group listed represented ancestors and each ancestor represented a story—stories that I want to know.
Gazing at the percentage breakdown, my DNA is a map of the Atlantic slave trade. It is also evidence of struggle, pain, love and hope. How did they get here? How were they captured and sold? What were they thinking as they stood on deck and saw their homeland getting smaller and smaller against the horizon—until it disappeared?
Over the next decade I also did DNA tests from 23andMe and AfricanAncestry.com. 23andMe shows a DNA connection with the people of Indonesia, Thai, Khmer and Myanmar. What is that story?! And AfricanAncestry.com identified that the tribes my matrilineal line hails from are the Hausa and Yoruba peoples of Nigeria. When I pulled my African Ancestry certificate from the envelope and folder, I wept again. I belong to a people.
Finally, each one of us holds thousands of stories in our very bodies. We are each a unique blend of all the DNA from which we hail. Some DNA passes down from our parents to us, other DNA to a sibling. So, here’s a pro-tip. Have as many people as possible do the DNA test in your family, especially parents and siblings. You’ll be surprised what your family members’ DNA will reveal that doesn’t show up in yours.
Visit the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington DC
The National Archives in Washington DC is caretaker to physical copies of documents like military enlistment papers, muster rolls, pension papers, as well as immigration records, naturalization papers, land tax rolls and state Census documents. My visits to the National Archives led me to 19th century folders that held hard copies of all of Henry Lawrences military records. I saw his signature. I saw his colleagues’ description of his service and valor. I saw medical examination records. Because pension papers required testimony from fellow soldiers, these documents offered character sketches of Henry that added texture, color and dimension to my research. Likewise, I found Henry and Harriet Lawrence in state Census records that were not available online.
The National Archives offers a wealth of information and has even dedicated a whole section of its website to guild new genealogists in the process of building their family tree. Check it out here. And download their toolkit here.
Pilgrimage to the land where it happened
There is no more powerful experience to deepen understanding and broaden our view of the world than pilgrimage. Family stories are often passed down from one generation to another in bits and pieces. We receive family stories in bits and pieces of memory. Mothers share about “the time when.” Uncles sit younger generations down and tell them stories that begin: “I remember when...” We stash these fragments of memory in proverbial treasure trunks like artifacts found on an archeological dig. Memories tend to exist for us in liminal space without context. As a result, we miss meaning and pass forward incomplete or skewed stories.
I wound through the back wood roads of Maryland’s Eastern Shore looking for Betty Game’s land. I had found the location described on Betty’s land deed, which I found in the county courthouse archives. By pilgrimaging to the land itself, investigators gain access to archival records that would be unavailable online.
Once you find the land, stand still and listen. By this point, you have listened to your family elders. You have listened to courthouse clerks. Now it is time to listen to the land itself. It wants to tell you the story of your ancestor. It wants to bear witness. Betty’s land bore witness that she was even stronger than I imagined. She lived on a riverbank in the deep back woods. She was marginalized, yet courageous.
Land is sacred. The practice of pilgrimage brings us into relationship with land, with which our ancestor had relationship. To listen to the land’s story is to partake in a kind of communion. We stand, listen and receive the story the land tells, like bread for a hungry soul. We do this in remembrance of our ancestor. And memories are knit together.
Bless you on your journey.
Lisa Sharon Harper is author of critically acclaimed book, Fortune: How Race Broke My Family And The World—And How To Repair It All.