An unexpected connection with my deceased Grandfather
“I have great respect for the past. If you don’t know where you’ve come from, you don’t know where you’re going.” - Maya Angelou
We didn’t talk much about race growing up. I don’t know this for sure, but I have come to understand that it wasn’t so much an avoidance of race in my household as much as it was survival. For my dad, as a Black man, I believe he saw the absence of talking about race as an act of resistance. Or, maybe as an act of survival. If he didn’t give it power, his children could grow up wanting and achieving anything they wanted to despite their race. After all, that’s what dad did. He left Detroit, received a college education, and raised a family who never went without. For my mom, I think she viewed racism as an individual act. Both her and my dad were met with extreme resistance from my her family (a sister didn't even show up to their wedding) when they decided to get married. While she witnessed the ugliness of racism when marrying my dad, as a white woman, she mostly bought into the lie that we are living in a post-racial society. And, while my dad’s family didn’t actively resist their union, there was an unspoken lack of trust in my mom. A lack of trust in “The Man” (the white man).
I loved going to my granny’s house around the holidays. My dad’s family is full of story-tellers, and I would be captivated by their stories of bullies at school and sibling rivalry. And, sometimes I would hear the darker stories about the race riots, the death of MLK Jr., and gun bullets going through my granny’s front window. As a young child, as intuitive as I was, I didn’t name my experiences and questions as having to do at all with race. However, now I can reflect back and understand that, on a regular basis, I was encountering race dynamics even though I often didn't name them as such.
About five years ago, a fire was lit within me. I was finally making the connection to many experiences as a child, and even as a young-adult that at one time or another caused me confusion, despair, fear, and loneliness. And, I was beginning to realize that these experiences weren't (aren't) uncommon for bi-racial children to have. I began intentionally naming how race impacted my experiences and beliefs. I was finally confronting my own internalized oppression, as well as my participation in colorism, as a light-skinned Black woman (this will have to be a future blog post). As silly as this sounds, my active participation in decolonizing my mind, body, and spirit, started with my hair. Black women’s identity and their relationship with their hairstyle is intrinsically linked. One cannot exist without the other. When it comes to hair, most men and women can relate. Most people of all races agonize over how to style it, and in some cases how not to lose it. But not all hair is created equal.
As a young bi-racial girl, I subconsciously found ways to assimilate into the dominant white spaces I was in. Beautiful meant straight, flowy hair. I begged my mom to chemically relax my hair every 6-8 weeks so it could be “straight”. Throughout my childhood, and into adulthood, I spent thousands of dollars to continue suppressing my natural hair texture. There is an underlying message for people of color in a white dominated society. Blend in. Be like us. Look like us. Act like us. As I have matured in my personal acceptance and the embracing of my racial identity despite the dominant cultural norms, one of the physical ways I have expressed this “coming home” is through my journey to “going natural”. The discontinuation of chemically relaxing my hair and wearing it natural in all its glory. Today, I rock the afro 24/7/365. And, I LOVE it.
Recently, in one of my Anti-racism in Urban Education courses on racial identity, we participated in Critical Family History research as our final project. Christine Sleeter, an author, speaker and activist, is credited for using this term which essentially refers to a “process of situating a family’s history within an analysis of larger social relationships of power, particularly racism, colonization, patriarchy, and/or social class.” Christine Sleeter goes on to explain that “a critical family historian uses tools of genealogy as well as historical research to understand how relations of power impacted the family, and how the family participated in, helped to construct, resisted, or simply experienced the larger context.”
She challenges us to investigate our family’s context in the structure of race and class relations, and gives numerous examples of useful questions to explore this framework:
What other socio-cultural groups were around (e.g., in the neighborhood, the town, the county)? As noted in the blog entry What Census Data Reveal about Housing Patterns, you can get quite a bit of useful information to help with this question from the census.
Who wasn’t around and why? Here, you are looking for absences, that may be explained by class or racist laws or policies. For example, when researching some of my ancestry in Illinois during the 1850s, asking who wasn’t there drew my attention to the absence of American Indians and African Americans. Looking into the expulsion of American Indians from Illinois drew my attention to the state’s explicit policy of recruiting and importing Europeans (including my ancestors) to make a white state. Asking about the relative absence of African Americans put me on the trail of a law the Illinois state legislature passed in 1853 prohibiting people of African descent from migrating to Illinois — also for the purpose of making sure Illinois became a white state.
What were relationships between groups? Here, you can ask about power relationships and economic relationships (for instance, who worked for whom). How would those relationships have affected my ancestors’ lives and viewpoints? For example, I came to realize that a family who had immigrated from Europe to Mississippi shortly before the Civil War would have learned how to be white in the context of slavery, which helped me understand why a member of this family became active in anti-Chinese work later in California.
What cultural communities and cultural norms existed? This question prompted me to look into the German American immigrant community my ancestors were members of, and particularly to realize the importance of the German church in sustaining culture and language.
How was work organized, and who organized it? This question may lead you to consider labor unions your ancestors may have participated in, or industrialists your ancestors may have worked for or emulated.
I have always been fascinated by genealogy. Quite a few years ago, I sent in my DNA swab to Ancestry.com so I could learn more about my ethnicity and connect with distant family members. In the wise words of my Auntie Roberta (dad’s sister), knowing who you are is as important as the air we breathe. I’ve even gone a step further and recently participated in a DNA test to explore my African country and ethnic group lineage (this will be a future blog...the suspense is going to kill me!). Even with my strong curiosity in DNA tests, nothing could have prepared me for what I would discover as I worked on my Critical Family History Project. I formed a deeper connection with my dad, and his family. I learned more about my deceased Grandfather than I did in the years I knew him. I developed a sense of gratitude for the sacrifices he made as a young Black man to provide for his family. And, I developed a great sense of pride. I am a proud descendant of the Clover family. A resilient ancestry, that continues to be revealed to me. I cannot wait to continue this journey of exploring my past as a way to be more present.
Ernest Clover, born in 1924.
His family moved to Detroit, MI in 1930 as part of the Great Migration. Georgia at the time was anything but safe for Black people.
My great-uncles (Ernest's brothers) with my great-Grandmother (their mother).
My great-great-great grandparents.
Do we have Indigenous ancestry? Given my great-great grandmothers, and my great-great-great grandmother's features, as well as the horrific history of the genocide and stealing of culture and land of Indigenous tribes across the U.S. it's quite possible we do. The Trail of Tears (from Georgia to Oklahoma) displaced many Indigenous tribes. That, combined with the Great Migration, involved a lot of movement and co-mingling of races and cultures.