My interest in genealogy began my sophomore year in college. A close friend was very proud of her Irish roots and Nebraska upbringing and we'd connected over a number of things - being quirky only children and co-presidents of the Judy Garland fan club to name two. That Nebraska born and raised friend deemed me an honorary Irish descendant because she recognized how much it hurt for me to not know where I was from.
I'm unashamed to admit that I went through an entire MGM phase, by the way. The entire summer of 2005 was spent at Hollywood Video in Waukegan, IL religiously renting Gene Kelly, Judy Garland, Fred Astaire movies. I still know all the words and half the choreography to most of the old school movies.
That said, I'd grown up with these cool grandparents from down south and realized that we had a very peculiar history in the country. For some reason, I was a Midwesterner with a spoken twang and all these Southernisms - I didn't fit into the Chicago mold that got spoofed on SNL. I assumed that my family had come from West Africa, been in the States since at least the early 1800s and became Northern in 1958 when my grandparents moved up from Mississippi.
My childhood was spent in predominately Black churches, schools and neighborhoods. At my elementary school, we recited the pledge of allegiance and sang the Star Spangled Banner in addition to Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing. We flew the Stars and Stripes and the Pan African flag at assemblies - and all of that seemed completely normal. At 14, I decided to attend a high school clear across the city, which made for a two hour commute in either direction and my first experience in a diverse setting.
I was in high school when I saw my name written in another language for the first time. A friend wrote my name is this gorgeous Urdu script on my notebook. I remembered staring at it incredulously. How could something as intimately related to who I am as my name seem so unfamiliar? How much of understanding is lost of me because of how little I've been exposed to? It was then that I realized how fortunate I was to go to school with folks whose parents didn't speak English as a first language, whose families had moved from around the world or worshipped a Divine in ways I'd never known..
I remember learning my first lessons about being an ally in 2001 when we saw the footage of the twin towers falling during second period Algebra. My entire understanding of fear and terror had been a domestic one - I soon after began to realize the vitriol that often goes along with Americanism. The language of fear I'd inherited was one of klansmen nightriders, patrollers and hateful overseers. After 9/11, I saw our country bare its teeth and nip at the heels of friends who wore head coverings, friends whose families were from a number of countries that most of us couldn't place on maps (and proudly so).
Language for fear, lawful citizenship and belonging morphed into an exploration of xenophobia and United States identity for me and I took these lessons on to college (and ultimately, New England). To this day, while I critique my personal privileges (being cis-gendered, a native English speaker, straight, able-bodied and documented thanks to the 14th amendment), I remind myself of the first time I was unfamiliar with my name written in Urdu - the first time I was forced to hear myself rendered in a language I didn't understand, and in an exercise of trust and bravery, believing the person who wrote it..
Which brings us to July of 2009 when I moved to Central Square in Cambridge, smack dab in between MIT and Harvard. Here I was, a lil' doe-eyed Black Chicagoan who'd only spent time away from home in four to eight week blocks at a time, living indefinitely in a part of the country whose rules and language I was disgusting unfamiliar with. When I began my blog, I sat in the front rows of lecture halls at Ivy League universities and historical societies with no college degree and very little confidence in my ability and right to navigate those spaces. I attempted to recreate a bit of solace from my predominately Black childhood and adolescence in Chicago by approaching Black Cantabrigians, only to be rebuffed for class reasons..
You see, my family hadn't been free or educated (the normative way, not in Mother Wit) early enough.
And for the first time in my life, I stopped speaking about where I came from. I was reluctant to introduce myself to people because the terrible trio of inquiries were sure to cleave me from the herd - "What do you do?", "Where did you study?', "Who are your people / Where are you from?"
"What do I do? Um, I do this. I love to learn, so I come attend lectures for fun. Where do I study? Nowhere - I can't afford it. Who are my people? I don't know."
I soon realized that appreciation for history was not always recognition of history. So one day I stormed the records available through the Cambridge Public Library and began my Heritage Box, a collection of old newspaper clippings, photographs, obituaries and census records from the past 250 years. I'm very happy to say that I've since presented our family tree (from 1820 on) to relatives at our 2011 St. Louis reunion and am preparing to donate information to the Mississippi Department of Archives and History and a bound publication of Great Migration interviews to the Newberry Library in Chicago.
...and I'm eternally grateful to my Nebraska friend. Later on, I'd learn that I had 20% European ancestry, including very recent Irish immigrants who'd come to Mississippi. Thank goodness for kinship regardless of how history unfolds.
Thank goodness for the ability to come home to oneself, and for what a blessing it is to do so.
*This piece was originally recited at a Massmouth event on January 7, 2012 in Brookline, MA