Monday, May 14, 2012
by Alethea Connolly
Like many newspapers across the country, our Syracuse Post Standard, published on May 8 the syndicated columnist Cal Thomas’ commentary on the 10 part PBS TV series “Finding Your Roots” hosted and created by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Thomas applauds Gates combined use of genealogical research through preserved records and genetic imprints through DNA testing. One result is that featured guests, and viewers, come to realize that they are not who they thought they were, that is, they are often more than who they knew themselves to be.
Through the series Gates has demonstrated that any narrow, purist view of our racial lineage may be incomplete, if not faulty. In the last ten years we have seen an explosion of internet search options giving us greater access to genealogical and historical records, as well as a refinement of genetic testing tools that can point our heritage links across the globe to kinship relations we rarely knew were part of our family tree.
In his column Thomas tells of the poignant insight of Condeleeza Rice, former Secretary of State, who appeared as one of Gates guests. It was clear that a record discovered in a court house naming an ancestor touched her deeply. Ex-Secretary Rice appeared stunned when she saw a document recorded her great grandmother, when four years old, was sold for $450. Her comment about the slave owner, and seller, cited by Cal Thomas, was “My great-grandmother was worth $450 to Mr. Head….just property.” Such a personalized revelation is sometimes disturbing, but also often enlightening and inspiring. How did she make it into life from such an experience?
In another genealogically focused TV program on NBC, titled “Who Do You Think You Are?” country singer and actress Reba McIntire decides to search for her family roots. Led by a team of genealogists, she travels from Oklahoma to Mississippi, to North Carolina to Virginia, going back into generations of her Brasfield family. The camera catches her shock and troubled emotions as she comes to grip with one of her ancestors who owned and sold slaves. The genealogical consultant, Harry Watson, tells her that it is “okay to learn and openly talk about our ancestors as slave owners, ‘because we can't have healing without acknowledgement.’" This story is humbling.
Later in the program Reba travels to England and learns that the first Brasfield to come to the United States was a nine year old who came by himself as an indentured servant. This story inspires. How did he survive?
For many people on these programs, learning about ones ancestors was a journey that stimulated both humility and admiration. It required more than an idealized understanding of human nature. It was not about ego building or celebrity but about connecting with those who somehow brought us into life through generations of challenges and hardships.
If there is something to celebrate, it is the honesty and compassion to learn from the truth. These programs open up that door in each of us.