I get jealous every time I catch Henry Louis Gates’ Faces of America special—and yes I’ve watched it enough times to recite Yo Yo Ma, Eva Longoria, and Mario Batali’s family histories from memory. I’ve always been obsessed with genealogy and I’ve longed for the ability to connect with generations before me in an effort to solidify my place in the world.
You know, the way that Beyonce, Tina, and Agnèz Deréon have that whole fashion designer connection, or how the Kennedy’s have been in politics since the late 1800s, or the English acting dynasty, the Redgrave’s—I’ve longed for a blueprint that gives me the basic direction that I should move in, on top of an already established foundation of ancestral success.
I’ve wondered was there a great writer somewhere in my family’s past, or women who were, at times, unreasonably independent, or someone who had the courage to move to a new city where they didn’t know a soul—something that explains how I came to be who I am and gives me assurance that I’m on the right path.
In college I had a project in my ethnic literature course where I had to trace my roots. Diverted by family members with short-term memories (and memories they chose to forget), I took to the web. I found little, but I did come across a deposition concerning my paternal great-great-great grandfather, Church Tipton’s, attempt to get a disability pension after serving in the the US Colored Troops.
Church eventually died before the pension was granted—you can imagine the amount of bureaucracy—so a “Special Examiner” was given the task of determining whether my great-great-great grandmother Ellen (the claimant) was his legal widow.
He wrote: “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.”
Once I get past the frustration of the circumstances that warranted this statement (and no doubt the preconceived notions that the examiner had of negro women), I feel a great sense of honor to be Ellen’s descendent. Whenever someone asks what my best quality is, without hesitation I always say that I am reliable. It wasn’t until I found this information that I realized that reliability is a part of my heritage, it was a defining attribute of a woman from whom I am far removed generationally, but closely tied in character.
Like Ellen, I know that there have been times when someone was surprised at my sophistication or my professionalism because of my race, but that doesn’t take anything away from these positive attributes. Furthermore, those who knew Ellen best were able to speak to her admirable qualities.
While I was searching for evidence of my ancestors’ ethnicity and what they did to make a living, I nearly overlooked the point of who they were, perhaps even who I am—a virtuous woman. Times can’t be any harder for me now than they were for Church and Ellen, living in both pre- and post-slavery rural Alabama. If Ellen’s virtue and orderly comportment were such that all those around her could see, how much more integrity and self pride should I display on the job or in my dealings with other people.
Being an individualistic society, sometimes we can get so stuck on “I” that we forget that we are a part of a generational legacy. That our failures and successes don’t solely rest with us, but are a reflection of our lineage and that responsibility should not be taken lightly. Even more so, these roots should remind us that we have a rich history, that we are somebodies and that we have much to celebrate.
I may not be able to say that one of my ancestors owned their own business or founded a province. I can’t even say whether Ellen was successful in claiming this pension. I can say, however, that my great-great-great grandmother was a documented, virtuous woman of color and hence that virtue is a part of my identity, and in that I take great pride.