Ways Our Ancestors Creatively Left Their Marks
by Trelani Michelle
Genealogy envy might be a made-up word, but it’s a real thing. Anyone who’s ever tried to dig into their family history, I’m sure, can relate. Full of optimism and curiosity, you set out to fill in the missing pieces of the puzzle. You take what you know, identify what you don’t know, and register for all of these genealogy sites and classes.
As most black folk do, however, you might hit a brick wall pretty early on. In the middle of that frustration is usually where and when the genealogy envy kicks in—wishing you knew just half of the names, stories, and dates that other folk know of their respective families.
There are tons of printed and digital resources that might have what you’re looking for. Censuses, military records, newspaper clippings, certificates, licenses, and social security data…they’re all valuable. Unfortunately, though, they’re not always available or reliable. That doesn’t mean that our people traversed this earth without leaving their marks though. You just gotta look for things like:
Don’t overlook ‘em, especially if they’re really old. And ask around to see what the quilt might be made of. You could very well have pieces of your grandmother’s wedding dress or your granddaddy’s military uniform. The same for handed down pillows. Those stitches tell stories.
Faith Ringgold, Tar Beach
We probably all have someone in the family who collects obituaries. That’s family history!
Most obituaries hold valuable information like: pictures, birth and death dates, names of parents and children, military services, job and school information, and migrations.
Remember those big, thick bibles with the gold-lined pages? In the front cover matter, there would sometime be a page dedicated for a family tree. This was another way we kept up with who our people are. Find out who has the family bible and check it out.
Sons are named after their fathers. Daughters too! (My daughter’s great aunt is named Willie Pearl.) There’s also a beautiful tradition of daughters being named after their mother. Some are named after their greats. Women will sometimes name their child their maiden name, so as not to lose that part of their history. And often times, unless you ask, you’ll never know. Namesakes are another part of tradition in keeping the names alive.
What’s on your plate says a lot about where your people are from. What is it seasoned with? Who’s recipe is it and where did they get it from? What foods show up on the plate consistently? What meals are reminisced over during get-togethers?
Natalie Daise, Sacred Heart II
Ironwork and Inscribing:
West Africans made sure to leave adinkra symbols in much of their ironwork. Adinkra symbols are communicative symbols created centuries ago in West Africa. The sankofa is one of the most popular ones. Then there’s the inscribing, which typically brings to mind ancient caving markings, but they’re very much still alive here too. Pews of First African Baptist in Savannah, Georgia, for instance, are carved with West African Arabic script, one of the earliest forms of writing.
Sankofa symbol, meaning “Go back and reclaim your past.” Photo credit: Sankofadesign.tumblr.com
Little resin statues, bottle trees, and makeshift sitting stools. These are all traditions handed down through the generations that tell stories. Bottle trees, for instance, were believed to capture evil spirits in the blue bottles assorted on the tree’s branches. They’re prevalent in Gullah Geechee culture. Then you have actual trees which are planted during births or deaths to commemorate a person’s life.
Ask around. You’d be surprised at what you might learn and from whom.
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TRELANI MICHELLE is a writer, editor, and a historian who’s helped over 1,500 teens and grown folk write and showcase their personal stories through memoirs, poetry, podcasts, and visual art. She wrote her first book, What the Devil Meant for Bad, in 2012 while a senior at Savannah State University. In 2016, she received a Master’s in Writing from the Savannah College of Art and Design. While a graduate student, she started Zora Neale Hurstoning, interviewing 19 black elders over the age of 80 in Savannah, and wrote a book called Krak Teet with their stories. Michelle co-created a curriculum that centered social issues, self-exploration, writing, and ethnography and taught it to high schoolers in an after-school program for two years. In the summer of 2018, she completed a 10-week internship at the Library of Congress’s American Folklife Center where she curated and digitized Gullah Geechee collections, wrote and recorded podcast scripts, and held original handwritten manuscripts of Zora Neale Hurston. In addition to The Library of Congress, Michelle has partnered with UNC’s Black Communities Conference, the City of Savannah, the Jepson Center, Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities, the Highlander Research and Education Center, the Deep Center, and the Life Balance and Wellness Institute to help people share their personal stories.
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