Brothers and Sisters

31 August 2010

Every year when I do my genealogy trek to the Southland, I am reminded of the rife injustices about which I have enormously conflicting emotions. Here is yet another issue that has been top of mind this week.

My paternal grandfather had seven siblings. My maternal grandfather had five. There are at least two dozen additional grand aunts and uncles emanating from my grandmothers. Proceeding forward to me, this generation gave birth to literally hundreds of people whom I can identify as blood relatives.

However, going back in time — back to a past generation — back to my GREAT grandparents — it is a shock to find that NONE of them appear to have brothers and sisters.

Why is that? Because they were slaves and slaves were not generally documented in human records. Their personal details and family relationships were obliterated by omission.

Before 1870, my great grandparents are listed on census forms with references only to their quantity, age, gender and color — maybe.

Although I can sometimes find the name of a mother (generally on a death certificate if the person died after 1900), I can’t find the name of a father, the deceased person’s siblings nor any children they might have had other than the one who produced me. Even on death certificates, the mothers frequently have no surnames. In death records, they are “Harriett Unknown” (along with “unknown” place of birth). Fathers are straight ahead “unknown” (no given name, surname or place of birth).

In plantation records, if you are lucky enough to find them, enslaved people will be noted variously as “Rhody’s boy,” “Old Mary” or “Little Tom.” Fathers again are non-existent.  Virtually all of them, black or white, are unnamed, unknown and unclaimed.

Even without names — or perhaps the reason why there are no names — is because enslaved people had such great economic value that Thomas Jefferson “urged slavery as an investment strategy…. There is icy clarity in his instructions to an overseer not to overwork pregnant women: ‘I consider a [slave] woman who brings a child every two years as more profitable than the best man of the farm. What she produces is an addition to the capital.'”

I long to know where the descendants of all those “financial dividends” are in 2010?

There are surely people walking around in this world today who probably share some of my genes. Their great grandparents could have been the siblings of my great grandparents. But it is very unlikely that any of us will ever know one another or even surmise our relationship. Public records mitigate against our ever finding and reaching out to one another.

White people can tell you who in their family came over on the Mayflower. They can show you on paper when their ancestors got their first tract of land along with its exact dimensions. They can document marriages all the way back to the 1600s — even before there was an America — and before slavery was the economic engine of its growth.

As I proceed with my genealogical research, it is ironic that digging up the past has proven to be a most therapeutic exercise. Believing as I do that spirits never die, I am convinced that my ancestors are assuaged in knowing that they are not forgotten — even if I don’t know exactly who they are. That is how I attempt to transform my pain into productive use.