My Colored Contradictions, Pt 2 - Stephanie Renee
Mar 16, 2014

Digging into one's family history often unearths a deeper layer of anger and frustration that has nothing to do with the research itself

I hit a wall this weekend.

I suppose it was inevitable. Once the gleam of fresh discovery in genealogical research begins to dull and you find yourself neck deep in closed doors or a despairing sea of nothingness when trying to find answers about your Black ancestry, you get angry. Where your anger is directed can vary wildly depending on what you encounter along your journey.

I was reminded the other day, after noting the irony of moving through life (particularly on St. Patty's Day weekend) with a Scotch/Irish last name, that my love affair with my family name ended before I hit my teens. I hadn't yet had a reason to drop my last name altogether for professional purposes, but I'd pretty much decided that I had no love for it or no strong attachment to it at all when I met my paternal grandfather. I was twelve years old.

Age 12 was already rough enough. My mother had died the summer before, I was speeding rapidly towards puberty, and my father and I were struggling to find a new dialogue that suited our heightened dependence on one another. To shoulder our grief, and move on with our lives. Emotional connectedness was surely not my father's strong suit. Yet, somewhere in the midst of our healing, Daddy decided it might be best to bring his father from his long-established home in Detroit to our home in DC, to live with us, together. Prior to this, I had only known my grandfather by the occasional phone call or Christmas card with a few bucks slipped in. Never in person. Not even once. My father would make annual trips to Detroit to check in on the old man, but he never took me with him. We had no photos of him around the house. I knew his name. I knew where he lived. But, for the most part, Clarence McNeal was a ghost on the other end of a phone line. And now here he was, under the same roof.

Granddaddy Clarence didn't evoke any of the warm fuzzy feelings that my imaginary family narratives with Dizzy Gillespie or Levi Stubbs from The Four Tops did. He was aloof, at times downright surly, and certainly not as thrilled at the prospect of developing a relationship with his youngest grandchild as I secretly hoped he might be. I wasn't old enough to ask the probing questions that would have brought clarity as to why my beloved abuelita divorced him so early in my father's childhood, or why he moved halfway across the country and never came East to visit even during the holidays, or why my mere presence in a room seemed to unnerve him. All I knew was that if he was a McNeal, I wasn't pressed to be one. I was fine just being Stephanie Renée, because that's what my mother named me and that was who I was. No reason to drag around a name that tied me to a man who couldn't care less that I was carrying his DNA and his legacy. Better to be unrooted. Exotic sounding. Grounded in the tribe of me.

So last weekend, when I found myself once again staring at the vastness of this branch of my family tree that I knew nothing about until I started this research journey...marveling at how that curmudgeon managed to be one of the only members of his clan to leave the Deep South and start a life for himself miles away from his ancestral home...thinking how easy it seemed for him to cut ties, not just with those relatives, but with me too, for reasons that will forever remain a mystery, I got angry. But the feeling soon passed. I had to accept that the wall I hit wasn't about the troubles of the paper trail, but more about my long-unacknowledged sorrow over a man who took stories, details, answers and love with him to his grave. And no amount of research, or hurt feelings I hadn't recognized or put away, is ever going to adequately overcome that gap.

Here is last week's playlist: