I’ve been interested in where I come from, so to speak, ever since I was about 6 years old and one of my white friends from my neighborhood asked me if I was Mexican. I don’t recall how aware of race I was at that age, but I was pretty sure Mexican I was not. Still, some years later when my grandfather griped at the dinner table about people coming up to him speaking in Spanish and asking what he was, and him telling us he proudly retorted “black,” I couldn’t help but ask, what are we really, though, since people keep asking us?
At the time I was given a generic answer of Creole and left to look up what that even was, as vague pictures of papa – my grandfather ‘s– parents were painted for me. They were born and raised in Louisiana (Lake Charles and Lafayette) and only spoke French, which my grandfather neglected to pass on to his children and had since forgotten in his old age. Aside from an aunt Marie who was still alive somewhere in Texas where my grandfather was raised along with his four brothers and a sister who died at 15, that was about all I had to go on.
My first attempt at tracing my roots was about seven or eight years ago when I was in college and we had to present our family trees as part of an ethnic studies class. At the time, I had the bare minimum and became that stereotypical African American talking about they had Indian in their family, thanks to a pension file I came across of my third great grandparents on my father’s side: Church and Ellen Tipton. The Tiptons, both mulattos according to census records, were the first real ancestors I could put a face to – literally – thanks to a photo my dad sent of them. Beyond that I also got a glimpse into the kind of people they were, with a special examiner providing this description of my great, great, great grandmother in the pension file relating to Church’s service in the U.S. Colored Troops:
“This claimant is one of the cleanest neatest negro women I nearly ever saw to be living on a farm. She is honest, reliable and is believed to be virtuous by those who know her best. The evidence herewith is deemed sufficient to show that she and the soldier were married by a ceremony, but without a license, during slavery times and lived together continuously, except the time he was in the army, until he died since which time she has not remarried.”
I wrote about the experience of finding the Tiptons before, but ever since I came across their story I’ve been eager to find more like that about my other ancestors. So, this Christmas I spent some time with my grandparents on both sides of my family, looking through old photos and asking questions about who they knew and remembered. I wasn’t expecting to learn much, but my dad’s parents turned out to be a gold mine.
My grandmother told me the names of all the ancestors of her father, who’s still alive at 91, up until the 1870s and from there I was able to use census records to go back to the 1820s. I found out that entire side of my family had basically lived in the same area of Jasper, TN, and Fackler, Jackson, and Bridgeport, AL, since our time in the United States. And thanks to some sleuthing and e-mail harassing on my part, I’ve been able to connect with a distant cousin of my great grandmother’s who has pieced together even more parts of our ancestral puzzle and was able to provide the first and only photo of my third great grandfather that I’ve ever seen. Another cousin has also connected me with all of his closest cousins and we’ve begun connecting on social media and sending each other e-mails.
My father’s father was just as helpful on this front. Though I knew Church and Ellen were the great grandparents of his mother, Cora Stewart. I didn’t know much about his father, William’s side. Now I can put names to fourth great grandparents who were born in Georgia and Alabama in the 1820s and 1840s. As I sat with my father’s parents two days after Christmas, I realized that was the first time I was actually learning who they were, and I felt kind of ashamed. In 28 years it never crossed my mind to ask where they grew up — and how — or how they met even. And here they were with a treasure trove of information just waiting to share with someone if only they asked — except when I asked my grandfather, “so what’s our background?” and he replied, “background?!” “You know racial makeup background,” I probed, and he said “Well, black, there’s some Cherokee in there and I guess Irish. McCarver (his last name) is Irish.”
I think some of the apprehension to ask my father’s parents these questions came from the response my mother’s side provided when I’d gone down this road with them years ago. I recall lots of gaps in information and timelines about their moves between Georgia and Texas and Illinois and Ohio that just didn’t add up. And then my aunt reminded me of a marriage and divorce that was left out of the story and a few other details and I realized my ancestral stories wasn’t necessarily being halted by a lack of memory but memories some didn’t want to remember. So far I haven’t cracked through that barrier with my grandfather who insists he recalls no family members outside of his parents. But from time to time he’ll lament how he wishes he knew more about his ancestors as he writes gumbo recipes for me and tries to teach me what a rue is.
Surprisingly, this time around my mom’s mother is just as invested in my project as I am, sending me pictures of my great, great grandfather, George Adams, that I never knew existed, and explaining to me what it was like to grow up in the south with little-to-no electricity and miss out on school because she had to farm, and migrate to the Midwest just have a better quality of life.
As I await the results of my DNA testing so I can finally give people a straight answer when they ask what I am since “black” is never enough, I already feel grateful for the connections I’ve made with my living relatives whose very presence in my life I’ve taken for granted. I never realized it’s not the norm to be nearly 30 years old and have both sets of your grandparents alive and even a great grandfather. I’m also anxious to finally feel a sense of belonging to a specific group of people instead of envying friends who’ve clearly been able to call themselves Jamaican or Puerto Rican or Filipino. I’m also excited to share these results with my grandparents and provide answers to questions they never thought they’d find an answer to.