Summer ritual of family reunions brings the past to the present

July 18, 2005|By Cynthia Tucker

ATLANTA - Remember Roots?

Alex Haley's book - which chronicled generations of descendants of a slave named Kunta Kinte - was made into an enormously popular TV miniseries. After it aired, American families, black, white and brown, started to show a keener interest in distant cousins and long-dead ancestors.

Before the Roots phenomenon, extended families had tended to come together only for weddings and funerals - with funerals the larger draw. But Mr. Haley helped to make an institution of the reunion of extended family. It's now a lively summer ritual, with its own customs and rhythms, catered to by a business sector of budget hotels, tour buses and caterers.

As one branch of my family gathers for its biennial reunion, I've started perusing copies of sepia-toned photographs of Southerners I never knew, trying to decipher a smile, a frown, a faraway look. How did they manage in such difficult circumstances? What were their hopes, dreams and expectations? How did they maintain such a rich cultural life? How did they hold onto their religious faith?

"Mary Robbins, from whom this family is descended, was born a slave in 1854 and mothered six children: Frank, born in 1867; Demus, born in 1873; Hattie, born in 1875; Margaret, born in 1877; Mandy, born in 1882; and Frances, born in 1884. She later married Zeke Jones, who helped raise her children, and whom the children affectionately called `Pa.'"

That's not much, but it's about all Mary's descendants know about her life. (I'm Hattie's great-granddaughter, my mother her granddaughter.) As part of my family's ritual, a descendant will read from a family history gleaned from the memories of older relatives.

"Two of Mary's grandchildren commented on their memories of her. They remembered Grandma Mary as a tall woman who always wore a large white apron and who was an excellent cook. Her grandson Cliff especially remembered her tea cakes. Her granddaughter Irene also remembered her as an excellent cook and that she often invited her pastor ... and his wife ... to dinner."

Black Americans are especially drawn to these family gatherings because the official record has neglected to tell so much of our story. We don't see ourselves in popular culture's version of American history - from Hollywood's selective recollections of the taming of the frontier to iconographic renderings of the small-town South, such as The Andy Griffith Show. It was a story set in a small North Carolina town that was strangely devoid of black people.

Nor do we see much about the contributions of black Americans taught in high school history texts. In some classrooms, slavery is still given scant notice.

I suspect that there are many other reasons for the popularity of these gatherings of extended family. For the descendants of whites who immigrated to these shores fleeing famine and failure, the passage of time allows the freedom to look back at those ancestors without any fear of stigma.

Early generations of immigrant families tended to look only forward, toward assimilation into the American mainstream. They learned English, Anglicized their names and sometimes polished up - as in reinvented - their family pedigrees. The scent of poverty was too near to allow for fond memories of a hard-drinking great-uncle or a headscarf-and-apron-wearing great-grandmother.

But the sacrifices those early immigrants made have paid off in the affluence of their descendants, who can now pay homage to them.

If there was a bootlegger several generations back in the family, he is no longer a well-guarded secret; he's just one of the characters who contributed to the family mythology.

As extended families, we're learning to draw from our collective strengths and laugh about our follies and foibles. When the Robbins clan gathers, we'll do some of both.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun.

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