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  • Writer's pictureAiysha Hall

Searching for Answers in My Family Tree

Updated: May 11, 2023

Last week, I came home to find my husband watching Finding Your Roots, a docuseries in which professor and literary scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr. takes people on a journey to discover their ancestral history. In this episode, Gates took actor Sterling K. Brown (This is Us) through the details of his family’s past, and as I watched him overcome with emotion at what Gates had discovered, I couldn’t help but wonder how Brown must have felt. Clearly, he was moved, as shown by the tears that fell from his eyes, but I believe there was something more, something deeper that he felt. As a people with such a fragmented history rooted in years of slavery, I imagine Gates’s discoveries made Brown feel as if he was finally able to put the pieces of his ancestral puzzle together. Though so many pieces may have been lost, stolen or purposely withheld, this newfound knowledge was his to hold onto and hopefully share with future generations.

In that moment, I knew I wanted to feel that. I still want to feel that. Up until about a year ago, and like more than 50% of Americans, I didn’t even know two of my grandparents’ names. My paternal grandmother died 8 months before I was born, so I never had the opportunity to know her. Secrets and soured relationships have kept me from knowing pretty much anyone beyond my immediate household – with a few exceptions. Do I blame anyone? I probably could, but I don’t. There’s now too much technology at my fingertips to keep me from learning about the very thing I’ve longed for all these years, and that is to know my family. So, with the voices of Brown and Professor Gates in the background, I started the journey of uncovering my family’s past. That was exactly seven days ago, and what I have learned about my family in just that short amount of time has sparked a host of emotions, some of which I don’t even know if I can fully articulate yet. Even so, the process has been fascinating.

Beginning My Journey

Using information that I had collected from previous research, I’ve scoured ancestry and news websites for answers. Let me just say, I am absolutely blown away by the number of historical records I’ve found that are tied to my family: census reports, draft cards, yearbook photos, newspaper announcements, etc. Each piece of information is like a clue, and I’m the thirsty detective eagerly trying to make sense of it all.

This 1940 US Federal Census record tells a few details about my grandmother and great uncle.

Some clues are dead giveaways, while others have required me to ask family members to either verify the information or do their own detective work. And when all else fails, I turn to my trusty sidekicks Google and Facebook. Slowly, but surely, I’m beginning to connect the dots, and I’ve even connected with a couple of cousins along the way. My work is far from finished, but what I’ve learned about my family thus far is enough to compel me to keep my research going. Maybe more importantly, it’s given me insight into some of the things (and people) I’ve questioned over the years. If you’re looking for me to spill the tea on all my findings, that’s not going to happen, but I’m happy to share a few things like the fact that my grandparents and great grandparents have roots in Mississippi and Alabama; my family tree is filled with veterans of World War II and Afghanistan; and that Creatives – artists and poets -- precede me.

I don’t know what the rest of my research will uncover, but I’ll keep you posted on my progress. In the meantime, enjoy LIFE: living intentionally, fully and expectantly. One shot is all you get.

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