Explore You Family Many Africian-American heroes closet to us aren't in the books

February 09, 1997|By Karl W. Hardy

WHEN BLACK History Month was established, I found it interesting that of all the months of the year, February, the shortest month, was chosen as the time to reflect upon the achievements of black people. Another example of black folks' getting the short end of the stick, I thought -- a sentiment no doubt shared by many other black people. But the truth is, the observance was started by the historian Carter G. Woodson in 1926 as Negro History Week. At least we've advanced from a week to a month, albeit the shortest one.

As we observe another Black History Month, I have an idea.

Instead of taking a single month to commemorate the lives and deeds of famous black heroes, let's embark on what may prove to be a lifelong journey of exploration. Let's delve into the history of some black folks whose life stories might not already be in the books, but whose lives nonetheless are testimony to the strength, the perseverance, the grace, the wit, the intelligence and the beauty of black people. I am proposing that we use this month to begin uncovering, sharing and celebrating our family histories. What better heroes are there to honor than the ones in our own families?

I can think of no better time to begin. After all, this is the 20th anniversary of the original telecast of Alex Haley's "Roots," the monumental TV epic directly responsible for my own genealogical pursuits, as well as those of thousands, if not millions, of others. Before the Pulitzer Prize-winning book was published in 1976, followed by the airing of the miniseries in 1977, few people of African ancestry in the United States gave much thought to tracing their family trees. But after "Roots," many Americans of all ethnic backgrounds began looking into their ancestral pasts.

One of my biggest regrets is that I did not meet and talk with Haley, who died in 1992. He reawakened my curiosity and showed me that with dogged determinedness -- if not a bit of luck -- African-Americans can recover a legacy lost over centuries.

Many people, upon learning that I am researching my family trees, ask me why I would want to do such a thing. Some people, black and white, bring up the issue of slavery and wonder why I would deliberately involve myself in a project that would force me to confront that painful subject head-on. Emerge magazine, in its February issue, takes up the question of whether black people are ashamed of slavery.

I, for one, am not ashamed of slavery.

We cannot change what happened, and if anyone should be ashamed, it is those who try to gloss over, even applaud, the crimes of the era. For a first-hand account of slavery and its horrors, I refer you to a couple of compilations of interviews conducted with former slaves: "Weevils in the Wheat: Interviews with Virginia Ex-Slaves," published by the University of Virginia Press, and "Bullwhip Days: The Slaves Remember -- An Oral History," published by Avon Books.

As for why I'm doing my research, there's no short answer to that question.

First of all, I have always had an interest in history, so my family research goes hand in hand with that. It also helps that I have always been family-oriented.

Although I did some brief, rudimentary research in 1977 after "Roots," my work did not take off until the late 1980s after the deaths of my parents. The sense of loss I felt fueled an impassioned pursuit of family history that at times bordered on obsession. I was determined to find and learn about every relative in my family, living and dead. But I had yet to discover the true magnitude of my mission.

Since 1987, I have uncovered hundreds upon hundreds of ancestors, aunts, uncles and cousins. I have traveled to parts of the country I never dreamed I would visit to meet relatives I never knew I had. Although my work is far from over, I have traced my family lines in Virginia back nearly 200 years across seven generations. My journey has been long and exciting, but not without its pitfalls and road bumps.

Not all of the people I've located have been friendly to me or receptive to my research. But the others make up for those few.

There have also been occasions when I've thought about giving up. Generally, those were times when I got stuck tracing a family line. You'll get stumped sometimes, but don't give up. Move on to the next family line. The family lines, if you are at all successful in your search, keep multiplying. Each time you step backward a generation, the family lines double. Each of us has two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, and so on, with each parent representing a separate family line and family name.

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