There are layers to us. Just below the skin and as deep as the heart. In the quiet, when we go through our family albums and we see the faces and read the names, when we stare into long-lost eyes, we hear the call and it goes right to the core of our being. It is the call to be remembered.
And sometimes holding memory is justice enough. The call of the ancestors is not to root them up from the dust heap of history for nostalgia’s sake. The call is to answer who we are and to find the homeplace of our souls.
Like a great many things, I first heard the call by accident. And yet my whole life, every choice, every chance meeting, prepared me to be able to hear it. I tell my young daughter that I am storyteller if anyone asks. This is a modest way of saying I’ve spent my life, first in theater, then later in a career in advertising and conservation, communicating, persuading, inspiring through story. I stir at the notion of sharing the turning points in other people’s lives with, well, other people.
In the early 2000s, I joined Ancestry.com spurred by the work of a maternal cousin and Mays family historian, Patricia Thompson. Pat’s work goes back to 1975! She later published a Mays family history, I Came By Way of Somebody, that I used to create a cursory family tree on Ancestry.com. I owe Pat a debt of gratitude for her decades-long interest in research and telling the Mays story laid the foundation to tell my own. In 2006, I watched an episode of African American Lives as Dr. Henry Louis Gates illuminate the life of a black family through records and research. He shared his revelations, the turning points of a black family (and his own) with their descendants. This was my “Roots” moment, that all genealogists have, which inspired countless black genealogists before me. His show illuminated black people. It revealed and reminded us that our ancestors lived through the birth of this nation, and how we are an integral part of its creation and ongoing development. I marveled that history could reveal us, and perhaps my own roots. For a son whose father held secret pains and hidden memories, for a son whose mother departed far too soon and took a family history with her, the thought of learning my own family’s story was exhilarating.
Could I locate the Mays and the Redds, the Johnsons and the Bobos– our place in American history? Could I learn why my family migrated from places like Greenville to Cleveland, and Dallas to Pennsylvania? Would I uncover the ancestor that helped shape a pivotal moment in American life? Dr. Gates work and the subsequent explosion in genealogy entertainment and education (from television shows to podcasts), along with the ever-increasing amount of records filling the databases at Ancestry and FamilySearch spurred me on. Later, visits to archives, libraries, even cemeteries would finally make the reality of so many lives palpable to me. I would use them to pioneer my own journey into my family’s past. I would go back over 8 generations to the 1700s and map the contours of a river long forgotten, moving ever forward in time, to connect its tributaries and find its headwaters, from Africa to the new world.
In the dozen years of research that followed, I have heard the call take many forms. There are as many ways to piece together a family’s history as there are songs and styles of music in the world. Like songs with familiar melodies, there are many similarities to be found across geography and genealogy. My work is the call-and-response of the ancestors, like the field hollers of the enslaved Africans working the plantation. I hear. I respond. I search. And while I can not work all the time, I find myself returning to the work again and again. I do it partially because the discoveries provide their own secret joy and rush, and partially because I have always sought justice for African Americans – and yes, memory is justice. Reclaiming memory is part of the ongoing history project of America where we find, lose, and recover again the truth about how our people lived, struggled, and progressed. I also do it because I have a family of my own now – a giant rainbow family that in many ways represent America’s many cultural and ethnic threads. I see my brothers and sisters and their many children who now represent the world’s diaspora, not just the African one, and I want them all to know their roots, how they came to be, and where they come from. They will have the power of that knowledge for years to come and wield it in ways I cannot yet imagine I’m sure.
I’ve learned that the world is a great pattern bearing form and repetition, like a song. These connections aren’t the clearest explanation of maybe why we do things in our current lives, but they provide understanding. That is the power of history. The research has revealed deep patterns of woe, joy, and whimsy, adventure, craftiness, resilience, and bravery in my family. It shows that the choices my family made through the ages, the places they lived, the professions they held, the partners they took, the wars they fought, they land they worked, were both their own and dependent on their immediate and long-forgotten past. Knacks, rituals, and sayings have come to make sense. Lore has become reality. And through the work – I can call them distinctly ‘ours.’ The Bobo-nose. The Johnson-whit. The Mays-determination. It all comes from somewhere, and by way of somebody.
I’ve found and used countless birth records and death certificates, census records and slave schedules, wills and probate records, manumissions and certificates of freedom, newspaper articles, church records, land records and deeds, history books, digital and physical archives to piece together a family record.
If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the roar of its mighty waters.
The struggle may be a moral one or it may be a physical one, or it may both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has and it never will.
…If we ever get free from the oppression and wrongs heaped upon us, we must pay for their removal. We must do this by labor, by suffering, by sacrifice, and, if needsfrom an address by Frederick Douglass on West India Emancipation, delivered August 4, 1857.
be, by our lives and the lives of others.
And so welcome to this family history with a caveat. These stories are always just snippets, never in full, never complete. My intention is to first and foremost capture the record. In time, other historians and descendants of the many families therein will build and improve upon them with their own research. Some stories I share here may never go further. Where possible, I intend to revise and further detail the stories as I learn and apply more history and genealogical technology. This collection is an object of its own time as well. I hope its format will evolve. I intend to continue to use archival research, digital research, and DNA to further the record. It’s part of the constant revision of history as more questions reveal new truths, and more history reveals itself. If you want to contribute, please let me know. Feedback is always welcome. If you find you have a family story that needs telling. Heed the call.