My Colored Contradictions 3 - The Unknowing - Stephanie Renee
Apr 20, 2014

Acknowledging, then surpassing, the willful ignorance of genealogical research

Some things are just beyond my understanding.

I know I'm in the right business, because in talk radio, my natural curiosity has an appropriate outlet. I get paid to ask the questions that I'd probably end up asking anyway, given the right circumstances. But being a radio host gives me access and opportunity unavailable to other people.

I see DNA as the ultimate equalizer, especially for anyone with an inquisitive mind that turns inward. In many cases, the presence of identical DNA between two people--or two groups of people--eliminates the need for questions altogether. You and I share a segment of one or more chromosomes? Guess what? We're related. Plain. Point blank. An undeniable truism. It'll take a lot more digging to figure out through whom the genetic connection persists and how distant the connection, but DNA is indisputable.

Back in 1998 when I first began my family research in earnest, I linked via email with a distant cousin from North Carolina. Back then, most of this research was done via discussion groups and message boards. Turned out that she and I were searching the Milton surname. Mine, slaves on a Florida plantation. Hers, slaveowners from the same plantation. We traded a bunch of emails back then, and she confirmed a lot of the anecdotal info that my elders had shared with me over the years. She also lamented the fact that her own children seemed to have no interest in the information she was sharing with me. She'd encouraged, enticed, even threatened them in the past, but no takers.

These days, I find that the lack of interest seems to work in reverse of what Leigh described. I have a new slew of cousins from my DNA research who are under age 35. And many of them say they turned to DNA because their parents or grandparents flat-out refused to answer their questions about family and lineage. I don't know what kind of fear or frustration saps the curiosity out of someone. What traumas or lack make a fantasy more acceptable than truth. But I am of the firm belief that Black folks can afford no such luxury of ignorance. When so much of our history was consciously kept from us in the vagueness, destruction or lack of records for our families, how can we be well into the 21st Century and remain so disengaged from the possibility of getting definitive answers about who were are and from whom we've descended? The Internet has put much of this information only a few clicks away. Yet, I continually hear from adopted cousins who are frustrated by how unresponsive birth families can be, or from Black elders who seem fine with the idea that their knowledge of their history is limited to their maternal side or does not reach beyond their grands or great-grands. Humanity is thousands of years in the making. I don't think it's unrealistic to want to know at least the past few hundred years of one's genetic history.

So, despite the confusing and conflicting way my ancestors recycled family names...the persistent roadblocks of determining whether or not children were conceived through documented marriages...the twists and turns of ethnicity listings when people decided to create families of mixed heritage...and all of the other ways that genealogy can grind one's brain to mush, I am going to mush on. The pain of not knowing is far greater than anything I might discover along the way.

Here is last week's playlist: