Not from nowhere

Aunt Tami, do you know where our family is, like, from?
My 13-year-old nephew called me on the phone yesterday wondering about our family’s roots. I have written often about how my research into my family history and DNA testing has strengthened my understanding of my identity (here, here, here and here), but this moment illustrated another reason why I will spend hours evaluating one line on an old census or spend hundreds of dollars for an analysis of genetic material. I want the youngest of my family members to be proud of their heritage, their cultural history and where their ancestors come from. Living in a society that marginalizes and stereotypes much of who you are can feel like a constant assault. Their knowledge of the past can be part of their armor, protecting their self worth.
My nephew is visiting my mom and dad in Gary, Indiana, this week. The city is still–believe it or not–in the midst of the mania that followed Michael Jackson’s death. So, my mother and nephew headed across town to 2300 Jackson St., the King of Pop’s former home, to witness fans’ celebration of their idol’s life.
In the car, after looking at the shrines and notes left by people who hail from around the globe, my nephew offered: “I feel like I am going to cry. everybody else is from somewhere. I mean, we’re African American, but we really don’t know where we’re from. We’re from nowhere.”
In the spring, my nephew’s class at his predominantly white school studied the people, places and cultures of Europe and the Americas. And he says that he noticed this study included very little about the contributions of people of African descent. In the history of America, his ancestors were slaves and, it seems, nothing else. I am proud that my nephew had the presence of mind to recognize this inequity and ask his teacher whether some information about black Americans and the role of Africa in the building of the United States might be forthcoming. I am enraged, however, to know the answer he received from his teacher. The class wouldn’t be covering information about black and African peoples, because “The school system doesn’t want any trouble.”
This classroom exploration and celebration of the rich history of Europe and the brave European men who “discovered, “conquered and colonized America (to the exclusion of any acknowlegdment of the history and contributions of anyone else–particularly people of color) left my nephew feeling rootless and unsure of his place in his own country. After all, to discuss his people is merely to invite “trouble.”
My nephew never spoke about his feelings until yesterday, when the international outpouring of grief for a pop star reminded him that black people have no importance in this country and no knowledge of any other country or culture to embrace. And he called me.
I told him, we are not from nowhere. Our matrilineal line traces back to the Balanta and Fula people in Guinea-Bissau, the Mende in Sierra Leone, and the Mandinka in Senegal. And those countries and peoples have rich histories. Balanta, by the way, translates to “those who resist,” because Portugese colonizers found them difficult to “govern.” (Ha!) I have e-mailed a plantation I once visited in Vacherie, Louisiana, because I recall docents there explaining how the enslaved Senegalese who helped build the ornate Creole home were skilled artisans and builders, chosen specifically for their knowledge. Through a ripped out piece of wall, tour guides show how the home’s original foundation (planned by African builders) remains far superior to the parts of the home built more than a hundred years later with modern materials and contractors. I want to prove to my nephew that our people never were just beasts of burden.
I will tell him that black history is a part of American history and we have contributed greatly to the founding of this country. Our story is not solely one of dysfunction and despair. I will tell him about his paternal great-great-great-grandfather, who was born enslaved but within the decade after emancipation had taught himself to read and write and acquired land that remains in the family to this day. He also founded the first school in his town for African American children. One of my nephew’s maternal great-great-great uncles was an educator who was tapped by Booker T. Washington to help open the first black school in Tuskegee, Alabama. And there are lots more stories–some big and inspiring, some seemingly small and mundane.
This opportunity–to not just talk vaguely of African kings and queens in an attempt to boost a child’s self-esteem, but to share real stories of real people–I think, is priceless.
A lot of people don’t get my interest in the past. “Isn’t genealogy something old folks are into? Why are you bothered with that?”
This is why. This is why.
Oh, the irony…

Last week, the town where my nephew lives (and I live with my husband and stepson) was named among the top 10 places to raise a family by a major magazine. This isn’t the first time our city has earned this tag, and like always, one of the things to be praised is the great school system. Interesting how “greatness” can be relative, depending on who your children are. 
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About Tami

Tami Winfrey Harris writes about race, feminism, politics and pop culture at the blog What Tami Said. Her work has also appeared online at The Guardian’s Comment is Free, Ms. Magazine blog, Newsweek,, Huffington Post and Racialicious. She is a graduate of the Iowa State University Greenlee School of Journalism. She is mom to two awesome stepkids and spends her spare time researching her family history and cultivating a righteous 'fro.
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