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Posts Tagged ‘writing your family history’

I find myself thinking about this question a lot when it comes to my family history. It has never for me been about “gathering names” or seeing how far back I can go. I have always grappled with trying to recreate my ancestor’s lives, trying to understand the forces of history they lived through and what drove them. What connects my life to theirs? What’s different? Those issues endlessly fascinate me. I think those are the things that inform us and have the potential to ever so slightly turn the lens of life that we see ourselves and our own lives through. I know who am I and where I am as a young woman today (well maybe not so young anymore) because each branch of family–so different, shaped by vastly different lives—collectively moved the ball forward for me to have greater opportunities.  And I embrace all of that.

I’m always trying to encourage people to take a break from researching long enough to actually write up your research. I know it’s hard and trust me, I have a few lines I still need to write up. But thinking about the details about what their lives were like can provide the meat to make your write-up interesting. No one will read a list of names and dates with much interest, but if you can make it come alive (and you don’t have to be Toni Morrison) you can get some serious credibility with the family. Here are some ideas and questions to ask as you ponder what their lives were like:

  • Many of our ancestors were farmers. What crops did they grow? What kinds of animals did they have? Check the agricultural census. How did that shape their lives? Growing tobacco is very different from corn or wheat. Read up on it or do some research at this cool website on agriculture. Were they sharecroppers or landowners?
  • Some of our ancestors were professionals, such as teachers and ministers, some were business owners. I found out all manner of detail on my great-grandfather who was a Methodist minister through the journals at Drew University, which is the archives for the Methodist church.
  • What was going on in the nation politically, socially, and economically that shaped their lives ? Of course most of us know the enormous role that race played. What was the news of the day? What about locally? Blackpast is one of my favorite sites for researching African American history timelines. I found out long after my paternal grandmother died that there was a lynching in her town of Salisbury, MD while she lived there in the 1930s…I would have liked to ask her about that experience.
  • What kinds of technology impacted their lives? My mother remembers the exact year her family got a television set. My maternal grandmother recalled life before refrigerators, which is still hard for me to imagine. But then I tell younger people that we didn’t have the internet or email when I was in college, they look at me like I’m 100 years old!
  • What games did they play as kids? What did they do for fun? My grandmother talked about going to shows/parties at school (which somehow would never have occurred to me in rural Tennessee) but also about spending lots of time socially at church. Her father told the children folktales that she remembered very fondly, scary stories at that.
  • If they got to go, what did their schoolhouse look like? What subjects were taught and how long did they go for? Did many people in the community get to go to school, or was that something only a lucky few got to do? I found a picture of my grandmothers Tennessee schoolhouse (which burned down in the 1940s) in “Negro School Records” at the State Archives…she would have enjoyed seeing that.
  • What music did they listen to? Did they have a radio? (you can find that data on the 1930 census) What movies did they watch?
  • What kinds of food did they eat regularly? This link talks about foods the enslaved ate. My great-uncle who grew up on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, recalled the fresh crabs they caught and the oyster fritters and other seafood treats.

I could go on and on…this is just a small sampling of the multitude of thoughts that go through my head when I am trying to recreate my ancestors’ lives. What questions do you ask yourself when wondering what their lives were like?

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Michael Jackson’s untimely demise has got me ruminating on the meaning of music. I got so emotional about his death and wondered why? One reason is truly that so much of his music plays in the background of my life. I started to think about this from the perspective of a genealogist. We’re so used to recording the facts of a person’s life…..shouldn’t we also include the music that defined that person? Doesn’t that give you some insight into that person? When I do video interviews, I always ask about what music, what movies, what tv shows that person listened to or watched. The cultural zeitgeist of the times we live in inevitably define us in numerous ways. So I became intrigued with this concept and thought I’d list a little “discography”, if you will, of my life so far.

My very earliest memories of childhood Christmases was the Jackson 5 Christmas Album. My brother and I couldn’t wait to hear it every year, so much so, that at some point, the 8-track tape (am I dating myself?) actually broke! We got another copy pretty soon, and even today I know every song by heart. On I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus, I used to love to hear Michael say, “I’m gonna tell…I’m gonna tell my daddy!;)

I was a child during the 70s, when as a young girl I recall my mother constantly playing R&B and soul albums. It’s funny how in my memory, that period is defined by whatever albums my mom owned and played at the time. My most vivid recollections are of Natalie Cole, the Commodores, Minnie Riperton, and the Stylistics. My aunt Denise had some jeans where she’d written “Brick House” down one pants leg with a magic marker. I had no idea what that was, but I wanted to be a Brick House too.

70s

The 80s, I maintain, was a good decade musically, but an awful decade fashionwise to “come of age”.All those MC-hammer pants, and shoulder pads, loud colors, big gold jewelry…..think Dynasty meets Fresh Prince. Oh, the horror of it all…LOL. As a teenager, I had the biggest hair you’ve ever seen in your life! But I digress. This was a wonderful era for music, and of course Thriller was sort of a bookend for the decade coming out in 1982. These were big albums in my memory:

80s1

prince

soul

We bought Michael Jackson and Prince buttons to wear on our jean jackets. And Hall and Oates, oh my goodness. Culture Club. Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?…..We listened to bands like Duran, Duran and Journey too. I remember Air Supply. Madonna ruled the 80s. Anita Baker and Luther remind me of my first boyfriend who broke my heart, and I used to walk around crying singing those songs convinced I would never love again. And Keith Sweat, who could forget him? HAHAHA.

I would be remiss without mentioning the fact that my generation saw the birth of hip-hop music, which was a thing of beauty in the 80s (no cursing and misogyny back then). I will enjoy telling my kids about the birth of that style of music, just as I can imagine the previous eras that saw the birth of the blues, rock and roll, bebop and other truly American art forms. I still have an autograph from L.L. Cool J I got when I was 14 years old when he came to the local music store on my street. I thought I was just going to DIE from the giggles.

hiphopMy best friend and I wanted to BE Salt n’Pepa, and we would frantically dance around the living room trying to look cool. My first concerts were to go see these hip-hop artists at the Capitol Center in Maryland. What terrific memories those years are for me. Wow. We used to rewind and listen to the songs so we could memorize the raps. I also listened to alot of go-go music, being from the D.C. area, which is sort of our homegrown local music.

I could go on and on, but I think you get the point I’m making about the place of music in our lives and our ancestor’s lives. Certain artists and songs just bring back all sorts of memories. I got happy just writing this post, remembering all this stuff. The last 10 years or so have seen my tastes veer distinctively towards classic jazz and old school R&B (classic sign of getting old, right…LOL). So, think about what songs would be in your life’s playlist, and write them down. And write down why. Ask your parents and grandparents. Years from now, this’ll be great conversation for your descendants. If they don’t know the artist, it may prompt them to look them up, and say to themselves….who was this James Brown person anyway?

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