I started this post a couple of nights ago when I absolutely could not fall asleep. I think the blame was split between the great documentary (The Neo-African Americans) I had seen earlier that night and that blasted extra espresso shot I agreed to let the barista pour into my vanilla latte a couple hours before that. I’m not sure how to divvy up ownership of the blame (fifty-fifty is too simple) but the result is that, for whatever reason, my brain was dancing to the drums of my favorite obsession, black identity and the African diaspora, when it should have been dreaming of the ancestors. A television show I had watched a few days before also showed up to the the meeting in my mind so I figured that maybe if I unloaded some of the things going through my head it’d let me get some zzzzz’s. (And hey, it wouldn’t hurt to add a post to my poor, neglected blog.) In this post I’ll focus on the season premiere of Who Do You Think You Are?
I didn’t get a chance to watch the season two debut of WDYTYA until last weekend. This episode, which traced singer-actress Vanessa Williams’ paternal ancestry, yielded many finds that remind us that the story of African descendents in the U.S. is much more nuanced than the reductionist synopsis we’ve taken as our national narrative. Here are a few things from the episode that stirred some stuff up for me:
Did you know that both of Vanessa Williams’ parents were black?
I just love learning things that challenge the assumptions we take for granted. Because of the clear white ancestry we see in Vanessa Williams’ phenotype (appearance) I had always assumed that her immediate parentage was interracial. Like virtually all African-Americans, Vanessa’s ancestry is much more complicated than our notions of race and generalized understanding of history would have us think. I would have liked to have seen this angle of her family history explored in the show, but I do understand there is only so much that can be shown in an hour.
Did you know that African-Americans were active in southern politics soon after the Civil War ended?
Yep, they were! One of Vanessa Williams’ ancestors, Tennessee state legislator Samuel Fields, was among them. However, white supremacist movements successfully organized to push blacks out of politics and positions of power. This marked the end of Reconstruction period; the denial of newly-won rights such as voting continued well into the following century. Yes, today we finally do have a black president. But imagine how much farther we as a nation could have come by now if the American government had remained true to the civil rights acts it passed after end of the Civil War. Just a thought.
Did you know the first photograph was taken way back in 1827 ?
Alright, you caught me. This fun fact was not reviewed in this episode of WDYTYA, but it did allow Vanessa Williams to leave the show with priceless mementos – photographs of two of her ancestors. She even remarked that one of these pictures made her think of her brother. This inspired my corny but sincere go at one of those credit card commercials:
Knowing the names of some of your ancestors – awesome.
Learning something, anything about their lives – absolutely amazing.
Matching up all those facts to a face that may even resemble some of your living kin – ah, so priceless.
Now back to our regularly scheduled program…
Did you know there were African-Americans born free during the slave era?
I did, and you probably did too. But what an amazing moment it was to witness Vanessa being presented with a document showing that one of her antebellum ancestors was not born into slavery. Her great-great-grandfather David Carll answered the question “Have you ever been a slave?” in definitive handwriting with a simple, one-word response: “Never.” The most powerful thing about this response was not just the answer, but the way it was answered. Carll was given a question designed for a “yes” or “no” response and managed to give us a two-syllable answer that somehow spoke a million more volumes about what it meant to not be a free-born black person at that time.
There has to be something powerful in knowing that you had even just one ancestor that was never someone else’s personal property. This luck of the draw – for that’s really what it was, just chance and circumstance – allows Vanessa and her family to rejoice in knowing they have an ancestor whose name they can speak that escaped that atrocity. And not only that. David Carll voluntarily joined the Union Army in order to fight for his shackled brethren, all the while knowing that he risked being enslaved himself if captured by the Confederates.
At the same time that we revel at the knowledge that maybe one (or more!) of our ancestors were spared from the sentence of being a slave, it deepens our gratitude to so many others who managed to survive that “curious institution.” Somehow all of these people, born slave or free, having died slave or free, endured whatever they went through so that you could take up the space you do on this earth to be, as Maya Angelou put it, the “dream and hope of the slave.” They weren’t able to leave us much in the way of materials things, but this is is no small inheritance.