In celebration of Black History Month, I wanted to featured a guest who could share the impact Roots had on their quest to trace their own family history.
Today’s post is written by Tiffiny Neal, a blogger and genealogical hobbyist, who has been tracing her own lineage for more than two decades.
When Alex Haley’s Roots first aired on television in 1977, it was the first time that many Americans witnessed a true depiction of African bondage and post-emancipation in the United States. It awakened a new interest in African American history, allowing viewers of all races to not only have a better understanding of the cruelty of slavery but to witness the perseverance of their spirit and commitment to family customs and values, no matter how challenging.
You might think that such a global event like Roots would trigger an explosion of folks trying to find their own “Kunta Kinte,” the central character in the epic story. Yet, although we have made many gains, the reality is that we still have a lot to improve upon. There are a few reasons why I believe that we can use this event, Black History Month, as a catalyst to change opinions and confront the challenges that will allow African Americans to trace their ancestry beyond the 1870 US census, the first census that slaves were officially counted.
Prior to Roots, most African Americans knew little or nothing about their own ancestry. Watching the Roots story unfolds made many viewers wonder if their stories were similar.
“Would I be able to trace my family all the way back to Africa?”
Thanks to Roots, many tried and a few actually succeeded.
It also reminded us the importance of compiling oral histories. Much of Alex Haley’s lineage was passed down through generations by this traditional method. The problem with oral history (as a means of documentation) is that it is hard to validate many of these stories.
At a certain point, our ancestors will pass and they will take those jewels of information with them. As a result, our family history will remain incomplete.Regardless, some genealogists have found oral histories to be the only data (such as exact birth dates or even parents’ names) they are able to collect. Retrieving the information can be difficult since I often hear many elders tell me that they are reluctant to share their background because they “don’t want to relive the past.”
Considering it might be the only way for African Americans to trace their family lineage, it is, therefore, essential that we record and document as much of their stories as we can while they are still alive.
Alex Haley had the benefit of knowing the names of his ancestors, but the majority of African Americans don’t have much to go on without the names of their enslaved ancestors.
If every person who found a slave-owning family in their lineage would publish this information on an online database, archive, or repository, we could take a giant step forward to heal our wounds.
It takes a combined effort of everyone, both whites and blacks, to make this happen.
I still have faith that we can restore the connection to our roots!
Tiffiny Neal, a journalism student at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, is a member of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society, African American Genealogy & Slave Ancestry Research, and the African American Genealogical Society of Milwaukee. Tiffiny recently earned her certification in African American Genealogical Studies.