Discovering Our Ancestry

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Recently I’ve seen numerous ads on TV for DNA kits promising to help you “discover your true ancestry.” I’ve tuned into the PBS program Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates to see people stunned and enthralled by tidbits of information about ancestors from centuries ago. I’ve even briefly explored the wildly popular website Ancestry.com to see what I could dig up about my own family roots.

There seems to be a craving in our country right now to find out where we came from and more importantly who came before us.  What kind of lives did they live? What kind of people were they? It’s no secret that it’s much harder for African Americans to trace their roots due to the poor records kept by slaveholders in the 1700’s and 1800’s. And even if they were able to trace their roots, what would be left for them to discover about the lives of their ancestors?

What if you did trace your ancestry back to enslaved people, and you had the opportunity to visit the very place your ancestors were enslaved? Would you do it? Even more pressing: What if you had the chance to meet some descendants of the people who’d enslaved your ancestors during that visit? It seems far-fetched and unlikely, but it’s exactly what has recently happened at Prospect Hill Plantation in Jefferson County, Mississippi.

My second novel, Burning Prospects, is based on the true story of the events that took place on this plantation after the death of Isaac Ross. I’ve found the story fascinating ever since I heard it as a child. But in past years, I’ve had the privilege of talking with those who trace their ancestry back to Prospect Hill slaves. They have gone back to the plantation and met with the descendants of the very people who enslaved their ancestors many years ago. Their graciousness has been an inspiration. I wanted to share two articles recently published about a reunion held at Prospect Hill as well as a link to a video about a young man’s solitary visit to the site.

Alan Huffman, author of Mississippi in Africa wrote an article for The Guardian titled ‘This is surreal’: descendants of slaves and slave owners meet on US plantation. It’s a fascinating read with a brief summary of the case that inspired my novel. His book further explores what happened to a group of slaves from Prospect Hill who went to Liberia, so please check out his book if you’d like to know more.

Just today, I saw a link to an article on NEWSONE, posing the question “Would you Meet with the Descendants of Those who Enslaved Your Ancestors?” It references Mr. Huffman’s article in The Guardian, but adds even more background about the people who chose to attend the reunion and why.

Perhaps the most poignant piece on descendants of enslaved people visiting Prospect Hill comes in the form of a documentary film by Blue Magnolia Films. Please take a moment to watch this beautiful story here.

I’d love to hear your comments. Would you go back? Why or why not?

The Power of Language

A man named Alex Tizon wrote an article for the June 2017 issue of The Atlantic magazine detailing the life of the woman he says raised him. He called her “Lola” and she made the journey with his family from the Philippines when the author was 5. It would be a lovely endearing story of a woman dedicated to his family except for one thing–she was essentially his family’s slave–unpaid, overworked, and unable to leave due to an expired visa.

Mr. Tizon died unexpectedly prior to this publication, but his wife was interviewed on NPR about the backlash the family has received after his revelations became public. One interesting thing about this story is the author’s decision to refer to Lola as a slave. In fact the title of the article is “My Family’s Slave.” According to Mr. Tizon’s wife, this terminology was never used to describe her by the family. But as her husband began the process of writing this story, he decided to use the word that best described her status in relationship to his family.

When I wrote Go Forward with Courage, I conducted extensive research about the evacuation of Japanese Americans from the west coast during WW2. I came across discussions about the importance of language–specifically the terms we use as a society to define people and events. Roger Daniels wrote an article, Words Do Matter: A Note on Inappropriate Terminology and the Incarceration of the Japanese AmericansHe makes excellent points about why, as a society, we still use the terms internment in relocation centers rather than incarceration in concentration camps. I get it–we all associate the term concentration camp with Nazi atrocities, making the term practically taboo. But our aversion to using the more correct language only serves to whitewash over the reality of what actually happened to over 100,000 people in our country.

It’s tempting to use lighter, fluffier words to diffuse the negative connotations associated with the harsher, but often more truthful definitions. In the case of Mr. Tizon and his family’s relationship with Lola, his decision to refer to her as his family’s slave seems to suggest that he understood the power of language.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.