Saturday, April 30, 2011

Race In Family History Research: It's Complicated

There are two kinds of people. Those who divide everyone into two groups and those who don’t. You have probably heard several variations of this old addage. There are many examples of the first group when we talk about race in American history. There are Blacks and Whites, North and South, etc.

However, when we examine the stories of individual families, such concepts are rarely that simple.

Example # 1: I have helped two different women in two different states research their family trees. Each had been raised as Aftican-Americans and considered themselves to be so. Of the 8 great-grandparents of each who could be firmly identified, both turned out to have 3 great-grandparents who could be documented to be African-Americans. However, both also had 3 great-grandparents who could be documented to be Native-Americans. In addition, one had a great-grandfather who could be documented to be a European-American.

Example # 2: Y-chromosome DNA studies are showing that about one-fourth of those who identify themselves to be African-Americans actually have at least one European male in their paternal lines.

Example # 3: “Race has never been about biology and blood. Plenty of white people have African blood”[1] says Daniel Sharfstein, author of The Invisible Line: Three American Families and the Secret Journey form Black to White. New York: Penguin, 2011.

I just completed reading the extensively researched and well written book listed above. Sharfstein is a friend of my son in Nashville and a law school professor at Vanderbilt. His prior experience as a print journalist shows in his writing style. Even though I have two degrees in history, I learned a lot about the complex and personal ebbs and flows of the African American journey from Colonial times to the mid-20th century. Legal, social and economic issues are woven into these three genealogical family histories that move between both North and South. It took me a while to get used to jumping back and forth between the three families—a style employed by Henry Louis Gates, Faces of America. Gates is one of Dan’s academic mentors.

Sharfstein notes the power of genealogists to illuminate complex family histories:

The secrets of prior generations, it seems, are no match for the Internet. In just the past decade, historical and genealogical databases have reduced search that used to take years—scrolling frame by frame through entire volumes of newspapers on microfilm—to mere days or even hours. Popular ancestry Web sites and vast communities of online researchers have allowed millions of Americans to learn previously inconceivable truths about their roots. All it takes is one genealogy buff in the family. Far from big cities and major archives, [they] have gone to their local public libraries to search census records.

Denial is a common and understandable reaction. Members of these families have identified so closely with the mainstream of white Americaand the line between black and white has appeared to be so solid—that an alternative account of their origins seems outlandish.

For some descendants, their family history provided answers to lifelong questions.

For one of the three families chronicled, the decision to pass for white led to downward social mobility, less money, education and influence than their black ancestors had enjoyed.

Understanding race in America is difficult, but this book will stimulate thought and illuminate these complexities.

[1]  Stacie Williams / February 23, 2011, Interview with Daniel J. Sharfstein, author of “The Invisible Line"
In "The Invisible Line," law professor Daniel J. Sharfstein uses the stories of three families to explore the fluid nature of racial identity in America. Christian Science Monitor February 23, 2011.

1 comment:

  1. We have a family myth that our maternal grandfather was descended from native American lineage. We have not been able to confirm or deny the myth. Is there any research sites online or in hard copy to pursue this?

    Also, can you direct me to a good resource that will help me organize my family history papers and artifacts?

    Thanks, Barb