“We are linked by blood, and blood is memory without language.” –Joyce Carol Oates
In my grandmother’s house, hanging in her living room, is a photograph taken, I think, around 1920. It’s a picture of her mother, my great grandmother, Ethel , around the age of 27. In the photograph, she’s wearing a simple shirt with a turned down collar and her hair is naturally straight. Right next to her picture is a picture of me taken in 2000, when I was seventeen years old. Two portraits taken 80 years, and three generations, apart. And yet, the first thing that you notice isn’t that Ethel is clearly a grown woman, while I was a teenage girl verging dangerously on the precipice of adulthood. You don’t notice that I obviously didn’t know how to apply my makeup (or pluck my eyebrows) and she obviously did. You don’t notice that her hair is a lighter, I presume a reddish shade of brown, and that mine is jet black. You don’t even notice that Ethel’s portrait is in black and white, and that mine is in color. The first thing that you notice when you look at the two portraits aren’t the differences…they’re the similarities.
Both of us have our heads tilted at perfect 30 degree angles to the left. Both of us have our hair straightened (although mine was chemically treated and hers was not)…parted on the right side…and lightly brushing our shoulders. Both of us are wearing blouses that button up, with down turned collars. Both of us have diamond shaped faces, small button noses and clearly defined cheek bones that look like they’re about to leap out of the photograph and smack you across the face!
And while I’m sure that she saw me, that she probably held me and said how much she loved me…I don’t remember her at all. Ethel died in 1984, when I was only one year old.
While that is only one blood line, my paternal grandmother’s blood line, and I am obviously made up of many (like all of us), I can’t help but think of the striking similarities that I still share with this person; a person whom, for all practical purposes, is a complete stranger. It makes me think about other things that we might share. What are some of those other commonalities that decades of time have washed away, seemingly forgotten, reincarnated as I egotistically claim them for my own “individual” present day traits? How did her mind work? What did she like? Not just like, but you know…LIKE, like. If presented with the opportunity, would she have played guitar like my brother, or piano like me? Would she have preferred Apple or Android? Did she always leave the last piece of broccoli on her plate after she’d eaten everything else, JUST because it was broccoli and it was the last piece of food on her plate? Did she put the moves on my great grandfather, because she was the kind of girl to go after what she wants instead of waiting around for life to happen to her? Did she bite her lip when she was anxious? Or pull her hair out? Or punch people in the face?? Oh! Oh! Did she ever stick her index fingers out on each side of her breasts all cock-eyed like and proudly proclaim them to be “Orangutan titties!”
Hm. Maybe not.
BUT! Who’s to say that I didn’t inherit those charming characteristics from another ancestor? Or a combination of SEVERAL ancestors?
To be honest, it’s never something to which I’ve given much thought. Like most of you, I’ve lived under the misguided belief that I’m completely original. Yes, I, Jennifer (a name given to no less than 1,423,950 women in the US alone, and YES I checked) born to two parents who don’t like each other (because, you know, that’s practically unheard of for people who get married so young dot…dot…dot) moved as far away from home as I could possibly imagine (nope, not running! Nah!) to spend my hopes, dreams and savings on a relationship with someone that I loved (that didn’t last).
Not cliché at.all.
If there is anything that I stand to learn…an insight into my impulses, actions, thought processes or experiences that I have not yet already thought of…then this is something that I should have done years ago. So, without further prologue, I present to you my findings thus far:
The Good News:
I am lucky enough to know my paternal grandmother, and to have known my paternal grandfather in this lifetime. My grandmother, who has been recently diagnosed with a particularly aggressive form of Alzheimer’s Disease, is the direct descendant of Cherokee, Blackfoot, Scottish and African slave ancestry. And her father, my great-grandfather, is a descendant of the immigrant Scottish clans Graham , Gilchrest and MacMillan dating back to 1698 in Kilbride, Argyll and Paisley Scotland, who moved to North Carolina around the Bowmore/Robeson communities in the 1700’s. From what I can tell, the first union between Scot and African slave (on this particular branch of the family tree) occurred in 1840, at the birth of my great-great-great grandfather, Richard Graham. Richard was the son of Alexander Torrey Purcell, the plantation owner, and a slave by the name of Sara, Sarai OR…and I shit you NOT, truth is SO INFINITELY stranger than fiction…Darki. Darki. That’s the name printed on official census documents. Darki.
Even though this happened 173 years ago, it still makes my blood boil. And I can’t decide if that’s because the name is a verbal brand that was meant to anchor those internal self-hating mechanisms that black people are SO good at imposing on each other, OR…the sheer lack of imagination! Darki. DARKI! Not even brownie, or blackie, or Red Ochre-I, or mulatta-i…just a resounding, obscure, it’s gonna-follow-you-for-the-next-173-years…Darki. Daaaarkness! Darkness is in the building everyone! It is for this reason that I shall, from this point on, refer to her as Sara and nothing else. If she didn’t have that dignity in life, I can only presume to extend that very basic courtesy in death.
In my remote searches through ancestry.com, I managed to obtain a photograph (or, really, an artist’s rendering) of Sara’s child, Richard Graham. The McLaughlin family, still based in North Carolina, branch off at this point in our family tree. It is through him, that we are united. The McLaughlins have, I discovered, embarked upon this quest years before me. And I found this photo, made public on their family tree, posted on ancestry.com.
Just as many others look at the photograph between my great-grandmother Ethel, and seventeen year old me, when I first saw this picture several days ago…I did not see the differences, but the similarities between his photograph…and photographs of my father. The eyes, the smile, the shape of the face…those eyes, Jesus…even though Mr. Graham is rocking the most amazing chops of all time, and he appears to have a lighter complexion and (a pimp named) slick (back) hair…that man is speaking from beyond the grave, alive and well, making his mean-ass beef briskets and voting Democrat (thank God) in Orlando, Florida to-DAY.
It’s…amazing. Absolutely uncanny resemblance.
There are so many mysteries in the blood. Even after over a century of space and time and births and deaths and civil rights and war, we are still so connected to people we never even knew. Lately, when I’m trying to fall asleep, I try to imagine that I’m on one side of the mirror and that Richard Graham is on another. If we didn’t know who was looking back at us on the other side, would our movements and actions be the same? Our posture? Our pronated ankles? Would we like each other? Or would his personality be more like, say, my brother’s? I picture us getting into a shit-talking contest and then marinating some ribs together and having a “Game of Thrones” marathon.
Or, if he was more Scottish, maybe he would just start slamming ale and choking out livestock in a kilt as part of the ancient Highland tradition of familial bonding?
What? Too much TV?
Richard went on to inherit land from the Grahams and Purcells and eventually became a wealthy farmer. He built schools and churches, including one in Bowmore, and went on to father about a dozen children himself. One of them, John Edward Graham, my great great grandfather, married Julia McBryde and had another twelve children by her…just by her. My great grandfather, Alexander Graham, was the product of an extramarital affair by a woman nobody seems to know the name of.
It was my great grandfather, Alexander, who migrated down to Florida and planted his roots in Polk County.
Moving on from the Gilchrests, Grahams, MacMillans and MacNegros. Let’s take this story of wholesale multidirectional fuckery down to Georgia, the home of my paternal grandfather.
I knew him in life too, and was very close to him up until the onset of dementia shortly before his death in 2004.
In fact, he died 6 days after my 21st birthday. Maybe it was because we moved around a lot while my brother and I were growing up (every three years in fact) or maybe it was because my father wanted to encourage my reading and writing from a very early age, but the first letter I ever wrote to anyone…was my grandfather. Because I was not yet familiar with the concept of a brain-to-mouth filter, I would tell him anything that was on my mind: Cartoons. School. Fights with my brother. New and interesting ways to incorporate new vocabulary. I remember in one particular letter that I wrote to him after a fight with my brother (which centered around sharing a pizza) that my heart was “a cesspool of devastation.” He sent me $20 and told me to keep my grades up in school.
My grandfather was awesome. AWESOME. He was dignified and kind, strong and encouraging. He loved my father completely, and cuddled me senseless as a little girl. After he retired, I would usually catch him down by the community center playing chess with his friends. He never wanted to be a burden on anyone; always insisted on pulling his own weight. He never asked for anything from anyone, and he never laid a hand on anyone if he didn’t have to…but he never hesitated if did have to.
He always told the truth. And it’s here that I know that he’s my grandfather.
But aside from the stories that I have of him, and the stories that my father has shared of him (and there are some gems, let me tell you) I don’t know much about my grandfather. I never have. I knew that he moved to Florida from Woodland, Georgia; a town with only one traffic light and nothing else. Woodland is less like a town and more like a village. I went there once with my dad when we lived in Tallahassee, and all I saw was farmers and butchers. Peaches and pig shit. My grandfather left when he was 15 years old and moved to Polk County. He never really spoke to me about his family…the only thing he ever said was that he would never go back. Dad tells me that he was very close to his siblings, especially his sisters. But even my father doesn’t know much about his father’s side of the family. I have to admit, I thought that story was largely lost…reduced to a pile of letters exchanged between me and him, and government documents about his time in World War II, and his service to the Citrus industry.
For my entire life, I thought that my grandfather was a “Junior.” In fact, that’s what everyone called him: Junior. But according to military enlistment papers and US Census Bureau reports, he is actually a third. That would explain why I didn’t get much information on him the first time I inputted his birthday and date of death into ancestry.com! But when the website corrected me, there he was, plain as day; correct birthday and date of death. Place of birth and place of death. I wonder if he even knew? I spoke to dad this morning and he said that it was possible, because he was a man of simple means and it’s probable that he ignored the suffix part of his name entirely.
Through my updated research, I was able to determine that my paternal great-great-great grandfather was named Walton Greer. And, according to the soft copy of the “Five Civilized Tribes” enrollment form, he was a Choctaw Indian. He was born in 1835 and lived to be 105 years old. His daughter, Mollie, married my great great grandfather when she was 19 years old. Because I don’t know the date of death of my great-great grandfather, I can’t say if her SECOND marriage (when she was 24 years old) is a result of divorce…or death. At the moment, the trail appears to end there.
In fact, it appears that I have Native American ancestry in every…single…branch of family! I would never have thought to even mention Choctaw in my repertoire. It’s always been Cherokee, Cherokee, Tsalagi (that’s supposed to rhyme, so say it right!).
But wait. There’s more…
Walton Greer’s wife, Mary Jane Roberts, had her daughter, Mollie, when she was only eleven years old. Mary Jane was born in 1853 and had Mollie in 1864. But Mary Jane and Walton did not marry until 1868, when she was 15. This fact leads me to conclude that neither the consummation nor the union were consensual. Just was I was beginning to get excited about the idea of listing Choctaw as one of my definitive lineages…I have to wrestle with the idea that great X 3 grandfather might have also been a rapist.
And that…is a hard pill to swallow.
This leads me to the next part.
The Bad News:
But just as my father is the complete polar opposite of my mother, my search on her family has been as stifling as the search on my father’s family has been illuminating.
I expected to hit a wall…but not this early in the search, and not on her side of the family. The history of her family is well documented, but it turns out that is only up until two generations ago. My mother is actually the second youngest out of twelve children (and those are only the kids that made it past infancy). My grandparents had their first child in 1933, and their last one in 1954. My mother was born in 1951. They all recycled the same bed, room and clothes amongst each other in a very small house in Mulberry, Florida. The town was named for a mulberry tree that used to be in the center of town, where they lynched black people up until the civil rights bill of 1964. My mom told me that they would leave the bodies to hang as a warning to the other uppity negroes to watch their step. I don’t know when they cut the tree down…but she says that it wasn’t until much later.
I’ve been using the assistance of ancestry.com to cross reference birth certificates, death certificates, social security records, military records and Native American enrollment papers to go beyond that. But I get nothing. I have the names of my mother’s grandparents (my great grandparents) but nobody can seem to agree on a birthday or a date of death. And, from what I can tell, there appears to be no public record of them ever existing.
This is only three generations ago.
I am led to a few conclusions based on this:
- My great grandparents moved from somewhere else. If my grandfather was born in 1906, and my grandmother was born in 1915, then THEIR parents (my great grandparents) would have been born sometime around (and this is purely a guess) 1880. That means that they were the children of slaves. And when slavery ended in 1863-4 (the Emancipation Proclamation was signed in 1863, but the Civil War didn’t end until 1864) there was a great migration of freed slaves, and their families. Slaves who lived in Virginia moved to Kentucky. Slaves who lived in Mississippi moved to Arkansas. Slaves who lived in Louisiana moved to Alabama. And on, and on. Everyone wanted to move AWAY from the place where they had been enslaved. Aside from the obvious logistical sense that this makes, people wanted a new start in a place; they wanted to make homes for themselves. And they wanted to do it without the watchful eyes of “massuh” on their backs. SO, knowing this, I can safely assume that my great grandparents probably came to Florida from somewhere else. I’ve heard Georgia being tossed around quite a bit. Plus it makes sense. You can only go so far by horse and buggy.
- While records may be a common practice for keeping track of MOST Americans, let’s be honest, people of color weren’t extended the same courtesy in regards to their citizenship. I’m aware that there is a Census, and that it’s taken every year, and yes, I have seen some of the names of my ancestors on census papers dating back over 100 years. But a lot of names are also NOT on those papers. And let’s be honest…did white people really give a shit back then? Would you be fined for not lining up with everyone else? Would the police come knocking on your door and demand to see your ID? Do they even have ID’s? Were they eligible? Probably not. So, many of them probably don’t have a paper trail. I know that, no matter how much I look, I’m pretty sure that I won’t find my grandfather’s birth certificate, because he never had one (but his death certificate does exist). So, how does the US Census handle that? They don’t. How many other people slipped through the cracks of the system? How many others have no paper trail to even suggest that they are citizens on this country?
- The Trail Of Tears – The forced relocation of the “Five Civilized Tribes” from their homes, over a journey that encompassed nine states, to reservations half way across the country to make room in the Southeast US for white settlement. This move cost thousands of lives (including 4,000 Cherokee) and is a genocide rarely spoken of in American history. The people who did NOT cooperate with the move, went elsewhere. And the records of their participation in tribal activities might have dissolved in the process. Because I KNOW that I have native blood on this side, it’s very possible that one of my grandparents was part of that tangent process.
So, unfortunately, I’ve had no choice but to hang an “Under Maintenance” sign on that branch of our family tree…for now. I’ve enlisted the help of my parents, still in Florida, in furthering the quest for information. My father managed to get my the names and birthdates of all of my aunts and uncles, and he’s meeting with one of his sister-in-law’s tomorrow. He said that she’ll bring some documents from the safety deposit box that might help, and I’m relying on him to make and send soft copies so that I can use them in developing my ever expanding family tree. My mother, unfortunately, does not have a functioning relationship with any of her living brothers or sisters, but she promised me that she would take a trip to city hall to leaf through the archives. Whether she will or won’t remains to be seen…
The Ugly News:
I was kindly reminded by my father the other day that the Emancipation Proclamation was signed on January 1, 1863. 150 years ago.
That really isn’t that long.
I know that I live in Australia, and that I am lucky enough to have access to things like universal healthcare and commonwealth supported schemes to pay for my tertiary education…but I’m not that far away from the days when my father had to use the back door to enter restaurants, or when a railroad signified the division between white neighborhoods and black. That was one generation ago. One.
And when I think about that, I am reminded about how fragile our progressive journey really is. It’s not as solid or resilient as some might have you believe.
I’m reminded on this as I research on my family. It’s been less than a week and I have actually uncovered already…three rapes. And, while I KNEW that I would learn something along the lines, while I knew that the Scots wanted a little brown sugar in their bowls…I guess I didn’t expect to feel so upset. For example, when I learned about Sara and her other name, I felt a small pinch. Just a pinch! An “ow” in my side. And I can only wonder if, by virtue of our shared blood, that was her speaking. I know I know…esoteric and unlikely, blood doesn’t speak or feel…wait, but does it? Does it? Seriously. Does it?
Maybe the average reader doesn’t know this, but rape is a real part of present day culture. Internationally. I can’t help but feel disheartened over the progress that we’ve made with racism (even though it is FAR from being eradicated) but not over the basic right that everyone has to consensual sex. I could look at Sara and Mary Jane’s experiences and say that “those were so long ago…thank goodness that we’ve come so far!” But I can’t, because we haven’t.
What makes me sad…is that I know the one thing that has NOT changed in those 173 years, is a woman’s right to her own body.
And I know that once my mother’s family starts to unfold…I’m going to delve even deeper into this phenomenon, because I can tell you one thing…where there is a broken family of such epic proportions as my mother’s family…there are a broken man and woman behind it.