John Brown, THE John-Brown-goes-marching-on-John Brown, is one of the reasons I got into documenting my family history. I am a sometimes writer and nearly fifteen years ago I wanted to write a play about John Brown. I was in love with his wild story, and the team of free and enslaved comrades that fought alongside him in his daring raid on Harpers Ferry to free enslaved people in 1859. As you probably know, Brown’s freedom fighting was one of the last sparks to ignite the Civil War. But after many attempts, outlines, and false starts I just couldn’t tell the story. I zeroed in on Emperor Shields Green, said to be the son of a prince, formerly enslaved, one-time valet to Frederick Douglass. Another compelling story, but nope, I had writer’s block. Finally, I realized it was my own family’s story I wanted to tell during this pivotal moment in history and so I dived into genealogy headfirst.
I tell that story at the end of my time on the Flying Carpet Theatre Company’s latest podcast, “Family History Discussion Series,” which centers around the exploration of family history and genealogy. The podcast includes talks with “amateur genealogists” with the goal of discovering common themes that unite different groups of people. I joined my fellow Swarthmore College alum and FCTC Artistic Director Adam Koplan and Pete Candler for episode 4 last week.
Why is the Atlanta-based theater company investigating family history? Because the FCTC team are exploring “conversations about oppressors, bystanders, victims, the hidden, the brash, the loud, the hard work, the racism, the brave exodus, and everything else that makes up the our American patchwork quilt…Because it’s all in our family stories…”
“In the fourth episode, series hosts Adam and Pete interview Joel Johnson. Joel Johnson is a Black writer and veteran ad agency executive. He has worked in agencies in New York, Chicago, and London and currently co-owns Admirable Devil, an agency in Washington, DC. He’s researched his family lineage since 2005 and recently began telling the stories of his ancestors on his blog, Struggle and Progress. He is primarily interested in researching the lives of his free and enslaved Black ancestors prior to and throughout emancipation, and during the period known as Reconstruction. His research has identified his biological European ancestors as well. Joel is a graduate of Swarthmore College, Goldsmiths College in London, and Northwestern University.”