Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Plantains and Cultural Politics

I headed to Puerto Rico last week hoping to learn more about the island's enslaved ancestry and instead learned a great lesson about the complicated nature of representation in the colonial and post colonial context.
First of all for anyone who doesn't know, Puerto Rico is a US territory. Puerto Ricans are US citizens and they (and we American/main-landers) can travel back and forth with as little as a drivers license or other government issued ID. That is because back in the mid to late 1800's America decided that now that it was no longer a British colony it was time to assert it's new found power on the world stage by colonizing someone else. The new government did not have to look very far. American military commanders and pro-slavery robber barons, starting under Lincoln, wanted control of the islands of the Antillies because of their militarily and economically strategic positions. PR was a gateway to the riches of Latin America, an excellent military outpost, and thanks to slave and forced labor- a pretty excellent wealth generator. The Spanish-American war ensued but in the end Haiti wrestled their independence from all of the colonial powers; Cuba and the Dominican Republic were eventually granted their independence from Spain; and Puerto Rico became an American colony.
Even though PR is now considered a part of America, it is not an official state and its representatives can speak but cannot vote in congress. Kind of like Washington, DC. Their historically disempowered voice in their own affairs has had a huge impact on the country. Even though they are no longer a colony it certainly seems like they are. PR is still a very colonial country (American is better - English is better - Whiter/more European is better). Every where I went in San Juan, and in some of the larger cities, I found myself confused about whether I was actually in PR or the US. My cell phone worked, most people spoke english, the mall had everything from Forever 21 to Jc Penney to Church's Chicken (how dare they import such an awful franchise!) The little strip malls along the highways were just as full of American brands. The prices were comparable even though the wages are lower on the island. American businesses crowded out local venders even in some of the mountain villages. Why was there a Pep Boys in every town?

So I eventually found myself intrigued by and exploring the post/current colonial narrative through the lens of public and institutionalized.

Art Commentary:
The banana like fruit called the plantain is informally considered the national fruit. It popped up in every museum and in street art and was used frequently as a representative of Puerto Rican Culture. The two pieces below are both title Our Daily Bread. The first one was created in 1905 and is considered a masterwork by one of PR's earliest native born artists. Below is a modern artist's reinvention of the image. Plantains are meant to represent the island's poor, rural, more primitive elements (native Taino/indian and/or African roots) while also speaking to a sense of local independence and power (production power, landowning independent peasants).
Artist Ramon Frade's Our Daily Bread
Artist Ramon Frade's Our Daily Bread 1905
Victor Vazquez's "Our Daily Bread" 2009. This image was every where in the art museums and book stores I visited
More plantain art
Fine art in the public space. Below are several images I photographed on a long barrier in a San Juan neighborhood. It was curated by two local art teachers and each piece was created by one of their students. Each references Puerto Rican culture or history.

One thing I did not get a chance to photograph due to time constraints, exhaustion and the incredibly short battery life of my phone, was a guerrilla style street art exhibition. While walking to find a grocery store in a slowly gentrifying neighborhood in San Juan, I noted a space where a building had been nocked down. The small lot consisted of three concrete walls belonging to other rundown buildings. Upon entering the ragged weed covered lot I realized that all three walls were decorated with art. Each piece was given a clearly designated space and each one appeared to have been created by a different artist. Some pieces were spray pained on, others involved stenciling and others were hand painted. I was blown away. They had everything but labels and a docent. I tried to go back to the space on my last day in PR to get pictures but we ran out of time searching for it and decided it was best not to miss our flight home.
If you go to PR in the future definitely check out:
1 Museo de Arte de Ponce
2 The Puerto Rican Gallery of art in San Juan
3 Museo de la Masacre de Ponce - all about a massacre of unarmed Puerto Rican citizens on Palm Sunday by an American led police force. Small but fascinating museum.
And for fun you must go to Vieques and sit on a deserted beach.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Ships of Bondage Exhibition

Last year I worked on my first real exhibition for the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice at Brown University. We installed it at the Center for Public Humanities Carriage House Gallery in the spring of 2013. It was a such a success that a curator from the Iziko Slave Lodge in Capetown South Africa invited us to reinstall it in one of their gallery spaces. I was invited to go along and help with the installation. That is a big story unto itself that I still need to write about. There is so much to say about my experiences working on this wonderful exhibition. For now I wanted to share the mini catalog for the South African version of the exhibition.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Theres No Excuse!

I am posting the poster below in honor of my father's birthday yesterday and his never ending love for Nina Simone.

Nina Simone

I did not always appreciate Nina Simone's music just like I did not always appreciate my father's seemingly constant storytelling. But once I went off to college I started to find new meaning in her music and his stories. Suddenly, I understood exactly what type of strange fruit was hanging from the poplar trees. Suddenly I knew exactly where Welborn street was. 

Children may not always understand the stories we tell them in the moment. They may seem like they are too busy trying to race back to the TV, or impatiently waiting for you to finish speaking so that they can check their text messages. But they are listening. We are listening even when we don't realize it. My father would tell me stories about growing up on the hardscrabble streets of Atlanta's West End. Then years later bits and pieces of his memories would come rushing back to me when I exited Spelman College's wrought iron side gate, waltzed down "the strip" and took a wrong turn down an old street.

I knew who my heroes and heroines were because my parents told me all about them while I was growing up. Even when I was one of the only, or often, the only black kid in the honors and AP classes, I knew exactly who my heroes were. I wasn't looking up to basketball players and movies stars, I was thinking about Harriet Tubman, George Washington Carver, Arnedia Magby, Neil Degrasse Tyson. My parents wrapped me in the strength and the power of my ancestors' memories and pointed out that if so and so the former slave/poverty-raised-child could do something, then I certainly could too. 

Our children's heroes and heroines should be more than the people they see on TV. We should all be looking up to the many incredible people who came before us for strength in the face of the many obstacles that life throws in our way.  

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The "Grandparent Experience" Loving and Loss

I've never had the privilege of having what I like to think of as the "grandparent experience". Well at least I do not remember much about when I did. I've been longing for grandparents, for gray haired old people, who loved and cherished me, for as long as I can remember. And for as long as I can remember I've resented not having them. I had a grandmother who was still living up until a few years ago, but the complicated nature of her relationship with my father and the distance kept us from ever being close. I always felt like she some how couldn't be trusted but not because she had ever done anything personally to me to lose my trust. Just a lot of historic resentments that had soured a relationship long before it could be given an opportunity to blossom.

So I've adopted old people instead. I've tried to chose grandparents to love and listen to who could replace the ones I felt like I should have been given. Replace the ones who were taken away before I had the chance to meet or be conscious of their existence. Then slowly the ones I adopted began to leave me and the old ache and resentment of the original loss sprang anew.

I'm losing one of my adopted grandparents. He is my great great uncle Alphonsa "Fuzz" Cook. He stepped in, unknowingly, to replace the love and kindness I like to imagine I would have received from his older brother Frank. I probably would not have gotten much from Frank. The more I delve into his life the more problematic he becomes. He was a slender, intelligent man who was full of ideas. He pushed hard against the limits set upon him by his race and his poverty but for every small win there were lingering losses that eventually took him down at an early age. There did not appear to be too many people around to shed tears when he was gone. But my uncle Fuzz was different.

My Uncle Fuzz was cautious and hard working. He had a little ice cream stand that he pushed around in front of a bicycle. Then when he was barely old enough he joined the Navy as a cook. He fought his way out of poverty, and out of Atlanta, a city that for him would always be a world of drama, frustrations and familial entanglements that seemed to constantly threaten his sanity. He married a beautiful, feisty young woman named Shirley and he took her around the world. They got away from the crime, the problems, the servant jobs and the segregation. They made a life for themselves and their children in Italy, Germany, Scotland and later Newport, RI.

The uncle Fuzz I grew up visiting was a joy to be with. He was like a chocolate Santa Clause brought to life; tall and strong like an oak but so sweet that you could not help but to love him. I just wanted to nestle myself in his arms and stay there listening and feeling the vibration of his voice as he spoke and especially when he laughed. I'm losing my Uncle Fuzz, we all are. But I will always have my memories of him and the many many stories he told me about his youth and his travels with his beloved wife and children. I will also always have an amazing example of a couple in love. I have never seen two people more in love and loving than Uncle Fuzz and Aunt Shirley. Even their arguments were full of tenderness and "but, Baby I told you I would" and "oh Sugar you know I said I would"..."well you know my Baby is right I did say I would". Of course she knew he forgot and as always she forgave him right away. She would give him a stern look, he would look truly  sorrowful, and she would plant a kiss on his forehead.

I will miss him and it is an honor to do so.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Roots Tech Part 2: The diversity problem and why a 99% white conference is a problem in 2014

Roots Tech 2014

As most people know by now, I am very passionate about genealogy. I think it is important for all people to understand where they came from and how that has effected who they have become. In the last few years genealogy has changed from a  hobby of mine to a way of viewing and engaging the world.  I have begun using genealogy like a sociologist, to understand the modern world, and mainly why Americans treat each other they way they do.

With graduation day fast approaching, I have set my sights on a future career that combines genealogy with the teaching of “warts and all” American history.  My historical focus is on African American history and slavery so I have been working diligently to form myself into as much of an expert as possible on the tracing of enslaved ancestry and understanding the enslaved experience in America. With all that in mind I decided to attend the Roots Tech 2014 in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Roots Tech is considered the premier genealogy technology conference in the country. Every year for the last four years the Mormon Church’s family history research organization, Family Search, has organized the conference and hosted it at the Salt Palace in Salt Lake City, Utah. According to the website, this year it included over 100 exhibitors and vendors, more than 100 classes and labs over four days and 13,000 registered attendees from around the country and around the world. It was also sponsored by several of the biggest genealogy companies in the English speaking world - Ancestry.com, Find My Past, My Heritage and of course Family Search.  In other words I thought this would be the perfect conference to attend. There would be plenty of interesting useful classes, incredible networking opportunities and the chance to use the Mormon Church’s extensive records collection.

For better and for worse Roots Tech did not quite live up to my expectations. That was mostly due to the disturbing lack of racial diversity among presenters, vendors and attendees. I also did not find some of the presentations to be as interesting or engaging as I had hoped. There was however an almost overwhelming number of choices... I'll get back to that later.

The almost complete racial homogeneity was the first thing that caught me off guard about this conference (see photos above and below and from the Family Search blog). I knew it would be mostly white but I had no idea how white the crowd would be until the conference began. Two of the other black attendees and I estimated that there were no more than 15 black people out of close to 9,000 at the Salt Palace (I only counted for the days that I actually attended- Wednesday to Friday). That 15 includes two African men and one African American man who worked for Family Search, two black Mormon lifestyle bloggers who had been invited by Family Search to help with social media outreach, a black man I believe may have been working for one of the vendors, African woman wondering alone in a gorgeous green dutch cloth dress, a very tall man in his early 40's who was also alone, three members of an AAHGS (African American Historical and Genealogical Society) Tennessee chapter, and the most adorable elderly coat check man. 

I remember the coat check man, whose name escapes me, looked up over the pile of coats, his eyes lit up and he exclaimed “Welcome! Welcome! What’s your name?” He had a warm gentle faced, a beautifully full head of gray-white hair and long elegant fingers. He was so excited to see another brown face. “There aren’t too many of us here,” he said, referring to the attendees. I suppose he had been counting too. 

Actually most of us were counting. After being introduced to, or after I introduced myself to, nearly every black person at the conference, one of the first topics of discussion was how few of us there were and how little there was to address our specific needs as researchers of color. Yes obviously we can enjoy the digital scrapbook making presentation or the Google Hangouts for Family History lab. But other than the session on sub-Saharan oral histories or the two presentations in Spanish, there was not a single session, or company that addressed the specific challenges faced by researchers interested in non-European genealogy. And thats a shame. Not just for genealogists of color but also for the major genealogy companies that have chosen to ignore or put minimal effort into a relatively fast growing market.

According to my calculations, persons of visible African descent only accounted for 15 out of the approximately 9,000 people who attended the conference the three days I was in town. In other words black people represented .0016% of the population of the conference. That is .0009% if you only count the registered attendees and not staff. 

  • In 2010, black Americans accounted for 12.6% of the population. 
  • In the year 2000 the US Census polled to find the 15 largest ancestral populations in America. Americans of African descent were the third largest ancestral group in the country behind German's (#1) and Irish (#2).

So where was every body?

I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. 
Or again, you often doubt if you really exist. You wonder whether you aren't simply a phantom in other people's minds. Say, a figure in a nightmare which the sleeper tries with all his strength to destroy. It's when you feel like this that, out of resentment, you begin to bump people back. And, let me confess, you feel that way most of the time. You ache with the need to convince yourself that you do exist in the real world, that you're a part of all the sound and anguish, and you strike out with your fists, you curse and you swear to make them recognize you. And, alas, it's seldom successful. (Ralph Ellison - The Invisible Man: Prologue.2)

Black's in Utah who may have had the easiest time venturing to Salt Lake, account for a measly 1.8% of the population. Utah's AAHGS chapter is mostly elderly, and from what I've been told, almost completely disinterested in technology. But, honestly, being that there was not anything targeted to their research needs, why would they bother driving the 5 minutes or 3 hours to get to the Salt Palace. What really would have made them that much more likely to attend than a black family historian in Maryland, Florida or Ohio?

Side Note:  I also attempted to count the number of Asians. Not including vendors, I counted 10 women of visible Asian descent and two children. I spotted them all walking in two groups. I ended up in meetings during both of the spanish language sessions so I am not able to get a reliable tally for that group.

Family Search does appear to have made some relatively last minute attempts in the last two years to diversify the bloggers they invited to the conference. Unfortunately, despite the variety of African Americans who actively blog through personal and professional sites (see this amazing list thanks to AAGSAR), along with hundreds of active Twitter users, the only black bloggers in 2014 were two Mormon lifestyle bloggers who had not begun their own genealogical research before their initial invitation to the conference last year. They also do not appear to have had much of a following among genealogists or family history hobbyists before they started blogging from Roots Tech. Now to their credit, the women have since begun researching their own family histories, but they are still very new to it. Meanwhile there are dozens of black bloggers with decades of research experience who could have stepped into this obvious gap. It could have been so amazing to have blog posts and interviews coming from beginners and expert researchers. I did have an amazing time with the two lifestyle bloggers, known as Sistas in Zion. They are intelligent, interesting, quick and very funny. They are also the first to admit how little they know about genealogy. They were clearly invited to take part in Roots Tech's social media team rather naively for the sake of diversity.  Yet, once they got in they managed to surprise everyone and score some of the biggest interviews at the conference.

As I briefly mentioned earlier there was a single session that was targeted to those interested in African heritage. It turned out to be my favorite session of the entire conference. Dr. Osei-Aguemang Bonsu hosted a session on the importance of oral histories, and methods used in three countries in West Africa. Family Search has been funding Dr. Bonsu's project over the last five years. His stories were incredibly interesting and moving. He spoke so quickly, and for the first time at the conference I found myself tapping furiously at my Kindle trying to write down every word. Unfortunately, for the many African American social media users tweeting from afar about #RootsTech, the one session made for them was neither recorded or streamed. If I had thought about it ahead of time I would have sat in the front row and made an audio recording on my phone or streamed using my own laptop. There was simply too much important information in this session for it not to be shared with others.
Side note: the reason for this last minute addition to the schedule may have been due in large part to at least one very angry black blogger. She had noted the lack of diversity in the presentation schedule and went straight to Family Search for answers.

Quote of the day - 

I know that part of my problem with the sessions that I did attend was due to the fact that I have been a rather constant user of technology and social media since I was a small child. I am a Millennial after all, unlike at least 98% of the rest of the attendees. As you can guess I stood out at this conference for a lot of reasons (brown skin, Afro, youth...).  Anyway, the tech and social media sessions were mostly targeted toward a much older and less tech savvy audience. One presenter hosted a session on Facebook and attempted to "talk like a cool young person" and massively failed. I was just waiting for him to say something about "hip hoppers" or not sharing photos of your friends if their pants are sagging on the down-low. Anyway despite, the lack of tech in Dr. Bonsu's presentation he was able to keep the audience engaged by bringing them new analog ideas and a fresh perspective. The way I see it, if you are going to present on youth oriented technology, why not have an experienced young person do the presentation. They did later have a college student host a very promising presentation on cross generational social media usage. 

Why is a lack of diversity a problem for Roots Tech and the big genealogy companies that sponsored it?

I think the answers are pretty obvious, but I am assuming that if they were that blatant to Roots Tech's sponsors then they would created a more inclusive event from the very beginning and this entire piece would have been unneeeded. So lets first take a moment to scroll back up to the photos of the Roots Tech audience. Not only is it more than 99% white, it is also mostly of the blue haired variety. Ok that was a bit ageist. But, kind of true. I would venture to estimate that more than half of the approximately 9,000 registered attendees were over 50. I bet at least 1/3 were over 60. That does appear to be relatively representative of the majority of family history enthusiasts. But like all things in America these days, you must diversify or die. In the case of genealogy the death is quite literal since many historical societies are significantly more likely to lose members to death than general waning interest.

In order to not only keep up but increase membership numbers, and cash flow, genealogy companies, non-profits and societies must reach out to younger people and fast growing minority groups. Roots Tech is a technology conference sponsored by companies that make the majority of their money off of technology users. According to a 2010 Pew Research poll, minorities, especially African Americans "outpace whites in their use of social technologies."
Among internet users, seven in ten blacks and English-speaking Latinos use social networking sites—significantly higher than the six in ten whites who do so. Indeed, nearly half of black internet users go to a social networking site on a typical day. Just one third of white internet users do so on a daily basis.

African Americans and American born Latinos are also significantly more likely to use smartphones and tablets to access the internet. This is primarily due a lack of access and/or relatively high cost for computers and internet service. If minority Americans are more likely to use technology than white Americans then why were there so few people of color at such a massive tech conference? It is not just because Roots Tech is a genealogy conference because tech conferences with a variety of focuses, across the country, have also had difficulty attracting minorities. I believe the problem with Roots Tech is that :

  • the companies do not make an honest and true effort of reaching out to people of color and inviting them to come as speakers, vendors or attendees
    • I personally know several black genealogists who speak at other conferences, teach courses on family research or run social media sites dedicated to genealogy. (Liv Taylor- Harris, Bernice Bennet, Michael Henderson, Robin Foster, Luckie Daniels, Wilhelmena Kelly and those are just the names I remembered off the top of my head!) It is a lazy argument to say that Family Search simply could not find anyone to present.
    • there also should have been a push to contact and involve the heads of black genealogy organizations like AAHGS and ... oh wait here is a long list of African American genealogical societies Black Gen Societies
    • why wasn't African Ancestry a vendor at Roots Tech? Were they invited? With only 15 people showing up I suppose it would not have been financially worth the cost of the trip and vendor fees. But if they had participated they likely would have used their own marketing resources to let their network of members and potential members know about the conference.
      • Question: Are there any other genealogy companies run by non whites? At least there are plenty of women running these companies.
  • They think that a token or two is satisfactory
    • I asked a Family Search staff member why there was only one panel for non European ancestored attendees. He said that FS was afraid that if they had too many sessions for African descendants, then Latinos and Asians would want sessions too. Oh no!!! Now wouldn't that have been just awful! (Sarcasm obviously) SHAMEFUL! Just think of how many attendees they lost because people of color felt like this was a conference by and for white people.
    • The one session on oral history in West Africa was not advertised as part of the extensive list of sessions during online registration. Trust me I actually did a word search of the list  for "African" and "Black". Out of the hundred or so sessions there was nothing. I was so surprised to see the one workshop on the calendar once I arrived that I skipped a lab presentation that I had paid extra money for.
  • They do not hire any, or enough people of color - In this case the need for a "Jamaal", as one of my favorite podcasters Elon James White might say, has left the company without a much needed diversity of perspectives. According to White, a "Jamaal" is the person of color who sits at the decision making table and ensures that the company does not maliciously or naively create a product that is offensive or unattractive to POC's (people of color). I like to believe that the vast majority of people these days consciously try not to be offensive to anyone. But sometimes mistakes or misunderstandings happen, especially in a homogeneous environment. For instance, you wouldn't hire an all male marketing team to create a new commercial for tampons right?...or was that on the last episode of Mad Men. Or would you? Either way, its not 1958. There are people of color out their with a great variety of skills, interests and education levels who would be happy to work at these genealogy companies, if only they knew that the positions were available. Lets not even talk about how most hiring is about networking and not your resume (see How Social Networks Drive Black Unemployment). In places like Utah where several of these companies are based, there is only a 2.5 % African American population. So of course there is only one Jamaal (or in Family Search's case Thom and Osei). To increase their staff diversity they have to advertise to audiences of color and they may have to import them to Utah or look for diverse candidates for their satellite offices in other states. 
"They did fail. And it’s the same issue that many media sites have–a staff lacking diversity and sensitivity, so when anything goes down, there’s no one to point out the ignorance. We’ve said it time and time again–every staff needs a Jamal." ~ Elon James White

  • Prohibitive costs - This was an extremely expensive event for me to attend. If it was not for the fact that I used nearly my entire grad student travel budget, provided by Brown University, to pay my way, I would certainly not have been able to attend. The trip including flights, registration, labs, hotel, transportation and food totaled over $850! For 3 days!! And that is with the student discounts! So if it was not for the fact that Brown gives its grad students $1000 stipend to travel to conferences there would have been only 14 black people at the conference. Timing of the conference during Valentines day weekend instead of a federal holiday when the average American has time off from work, was also an issue. Oh and come on, how are you going to host a conference during Black History Month and have almost no Black content? That was a complaint from almost every black person I met.
    • to solve this problem Roots Tech may benefit from traveling instead of hosting the conference in one of the whitest states in the country. We really only made use of the Mormon Church's library for about 4 hours anyway (I think next year if they stay in the same location, they should hold a lock-in. There are so many dedicated genealogists out there who would have loved to bring a sleeping bag to the library and pass out at 4 am among the stacks. It's only once a year right?)
    • Research awards or contests that encourage minority participation and award free/discounted registration and or flights would also bring in more underrepresented minorities and young people. Come on I can think of several ways to bring in more people of color without it making a big dent in the Family Search wallet...actually in the long run these ideas would bring in more money and more than cover the cost of a few prizes. This isn't rocket science.

Roots Tech needs to fix it's diversity problem, and it is a problem. It is a problem because there are thousands of genealogy fans and tech enthusiasts in this country who are of mostly non-European descent who use Family Search, Ancestry.com, My Heritage and others to do their online genealogical research. They pour their hard earned dollars into these companies pockets and they deserve to be catered to. In other words these companies need to continue to diversify their advertisements, staff and records. A few record uploads and nice sentiments during Black History Month is not enough! The shockingly un-diverse attendees in an increasingly diverse nation cannot be and should not be tolerated. If you are going to bring on companies that only have records for Europeans (Find My Past) then why are there no vendors that cater strictly to recent immigrant groups (another growing market), and people of color? Roots Tech and its sponsoring companies can and should do better. They are missing out on an excellent opportunity to increase their memberships (money), build themselves into companies that welcome Americans of all colors, and dispel the myth that genealogy is only for the elderly and white people who can trace their roots to a King of England.

Recommended Reading for anyone interested in increasing the number of minorities in the tech world or at technology conferences:

How I Got 50% Women Speakers at My Tech Conference

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Roots Tech 2014 - Part 1: New Immigrants vs. Old Immigrants

Last week I attended Roots Tech 2014 in Salt Lake City, Utah. Roots Tech is a relatively new annual genealogy technology conference that is hosted by the Mormon Church's Family Search with major sponsorship from Ancestry.com and Findmypast. Last year's boasted "Over 6,700 registered attendees from 49 U.S. states, six Canadian provinces, and 23 additional countries" along with over 120 exhibitors and vendors and more than 100 classes, labs or presentations.

As a young tech savvy student with almost ten years of genealogical research experience; I was more than happy to save my grad student travel funds to spend on this relatively expensive conference. In the end this turned out to be an exciting, eye-opening and frustrating experience. It was certainly worth the money and the time in my current situation but I can now definitely understand why some people were turned off by the event. But, for the sake of organization and flow, I will get to that later.

I landed in the gorgeous city of Salt Lake last Tuesday February 4. It was rather late at night thanks to a long day of flying so I was happy to check into the Airport Inn Hotel. That place was shockingly nice for the price. Plus I received a rather large free breakfast each morning. Hats off to the AIH!

My first day of the conference was the Wednesday Technology Summit. It started off a bit rough for me since even though I had the pleasure of meeting three Roots Tech attendees on the morning train, our lovely conversation about genealogy was momentarily derailed (at least for me anyway) by some ugly comments about modern immigrants. I was still exhausted from the trip/grad school/time change so when the middle aged woman from California went from proudly talking about her Polish immigrant ancestors to the "just any ol body they let in these days,  you know and they don't have to prove anything any more. They just let everybody become a citizen...", well I found myself in a bit of a quandary. I did not know much about the three people I was sharing the train with other than that one was a casual genealogy fan and the other two worked for genealogy companies. As a poor grad student in her final semester, who has a constant eye out for job opportunities, and knows how to code-switch, I knew I had three reaction options:

A) Have a, as the great Dave Chapelle once put it, "when keeping it real goes wrong," moment and completely flip out on the woman for her ignorance, short sightedness and lack of understanding of the history of immigration in this country and how incredibly difficult it continues to be for many wonderful, hard working, tax-paying immigrants to gain their citizenship.

B) Spend the entire rest of the train ride discussing America's many waves of anti-immigrant hysteria that have stretched back to, well, before there was an America. I mean have you seen Gangs of New York? Ok thats a movie, bad example. Have you heard of the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798? Those were signed to keep the French and Irish immigrant populations disenfranchised in America. Ok how about the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 or the Gentleman's Agreement of 1907 which very ungentlemanly fought to keep the Japanese from immigrating to America? Nativists and their sentiments have been demonizing new, unassimilated and culturally "different" peoples for centuries.

"Many scholars have pointed to Americans’ affinity for feeling and displaying an aggressive sense of nationalism, or nativism, as a root cause for this broad anti‐alien sentiment" (Mathison)

That includes my fellow passenger's Polish ancestors. She sat their by the window, proudly expounding on her ancestors immigrant story. One day, while in his tiny Polish home town, he was enlisted to work in Appalachian Mountain mines by a recruiter from a big American mining company. Arriving at Ellis Island alone, he made his way south with other Polish men and set to the hard, dangerous work of mining. Then after the requisite number of years he was able to prove to the American government that he had the financial stability to support not only himself, but his wife and children if only they could join him in America. "You see", she stated proudly, you had to be able to prove that you could make money and be a good supporter before you could bring your family. Now everyone comes right away and"...I think I stopped listening. Yes, yes I know the terrible, uneducated, unskilled, immigrants of today are a burden on the American native tax payer! Perhaps her research stopped, or she chose to ignore the rest of her ancestor's story; the parts that did not fit the lovely narrative of progress, pride and assimilation into American cultural values. The Polish just like almost every other early immigrant group faced some of the same negative stereotyping and bigotry that Mexicans, Vietnamese and Pakistanis receive today. The Polish, like other Eastern European immigrants who arrived between the Civil War and the early 1900's were "considered unassimilable and harmful to the United States’ economic, political, social, and moral progression. They were continuously compared to the desirable ‘old’ European immigrant stocks that came from the British Isles and northwestern European countries between the colonial period up until the Civil War" (Mathison). I could go on... probably ending my lecture with some suggested viewing of the surprisingly educational and compelling documentary - Hillbilly: The Real Story which taught me quite a bit about the history of the various post-colonial populations that have claimed the Appalachian mountains as their home. I say it was surprisingly educational because it was narrated and produced by Billy Ray Cyrus (you know Miley's dad).

Final option...

C) Let my friendly smile fade, momentarily look away, take a deep breath and try to change the subject.

I decided to go with option C because I was too tired and too new to the city to attempt a deep intellectual conversation about American history while also trying to figure out which stop to get off at, in which direction to walk to the convention center, admire the gorgeous mountains, am I going to arrive late to the first session of the day, OMG the mountains are so pretty!!,  consider where to find an inexpensive dinner that night, oh wait did I miss the stop? no its the next one, wait what were we talking about?

I can sometimes be very non-confrontational and downright shy in new environments. Add to that the fact that once I arrived at the convention center I found myself in the minority at such an extreme that I had moments of feeling like A) the mouthpiece for all that is Black and B) a strange oddity to be stared at. The next day I was forced to come out of my shell anyway. There was too much to say and too much to do, to keep quiet. Not to mention there is no hiding when you are highly visible.

Stay tuned for Part 2: Genealogy, Technology & Networking

Mathison, Courtney-Jane. Civil or Hostile?: American Nativism and the Interactions between Migrants in Appalachia, 1865‐1915http://cas.uwo.ca/documents/mrps/MRP%20CMathisonpdf.pdf  

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Why I, a Young Woman of Color, Joined the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR)

Late in October I received a phone call from a strange number. Now I usually don't answer calls from numbers I don't recognize, but for some reason I answered. I am so happy I did. It was Wilhelmina Kelly, founding regent of the Increase Carpenter Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution.
She is so classy
We had been exchanging emails off and on since June when I finally applied for DAR. I had always told myself that if I applied to the DAR I wanted to join her chapter since there are several other black members. I figured that if I was going to join a historically white and, well remembered for being racist organization, then I should make it a little easier on myself by joining a chapter with at least one other black member. I guessed that the women in this chapter might be open and supportive of my application. They may also be more helpful with my struggle to get in since they had already gotten over their own historical and racial hurdles.  Increase Carpenter has four black members that I know of.

As I had hoped Ms. Kelly was very excited about my application and quickly set to work trying to help me negotiate the paperwork process and find all of the proof I needed. Then magically 5 months later DAR's membership committee approved my ancestry! I was in! I couldn't believe it. It takes some women years to find just the right ancestral line. I got in on my first try using a family line I had not even known had actually existed a few months earlier.

I used my Fortson line:
ME - My mother Rachel - grandmother Willie Mae Hall Strickland - great grandfather Johnny "Fox" Hall - great great grandmother Martha Fortson Hall - great great great grandfather William Easton Fortson (white former slave owner who lived with his former slave Mertis Thomas and fathered all 16 of her children) - great great great great grandmother Nancy Ham - great great great great great grandfather John Ham - great great great great great great (6x) grandfather Stephen Ham. Nancy's mother also connects me to another soldier Richard Gatewood.
To find out more about William Fortson, Mertis Thomas and their families please see this blog post Love Across the Battle Lines

Why would a black woman want to join the Daughters of the American Revolution after they publicly excluded black women for almost 70 years?

I get that question a lot, mostly from people of color and others who know about DAR's checkered past.

My answer? Because I have done the research and traced my line to multiple Revolutionary War soldiers. Therefore they have no reason to exclude me. I'm no James Meredith and there were no blue haired old ladies with nooses and colonial era ball gowns trying to chase me away from the archives. DAR has changed quite a bit in the last decade or so. Thanks in great part to some of its earliest black members and their many white allies - women like Wilhelmina Kelly and Olivia Cousins and many others who are passionate and dedicated to OUR shared history as Americans.

For Daughters of the American Revolution, a New Chapter

 I personally like the idea of joining and hopefully helping to change an organization that I am qualified to be a member of, and that is even though they may have in the past rejected me because of my color. Why apply for Harvard or work at the Smithsonian? Just because they did not want us in the past does not mean we should not try to make change and then use the organization/institution/company to make our lives and the lives of others better.

For me DAR is also about the network. A strong genealogy network! It's like getting into a sorority only I don't have to worry about an elderly lady paddling me or making me eat dry oatmeal and walk in a triangle. My initiation ceremony involved hours spent squinting at some 19th century clerks awful handwriting or staring bleary-eyed at 4am at my laptop screen reading document after document until I had my answers…or were they just more questions? (oh crap I just lost another 3 hours I should have been putting toward my archaeology course's reading assignment).

I will be making my re-entry into the full time work world in the next 5 months and I know from experience that it is not what you know but who you know. Being a DAR member, especially as a woman of color, may give me a few bonus points when I apply to genealogy and research jobs. I like to think that this connection helps prove how passionate and dedicated I am to genealogy. When I went back to my internship at the New England Historic Genealogical Society and told the lunch room regulars that I had finally made it in, their jaws dropped. There were a few young white women who had been trying to get in and failing for months. They seemed both surprised and in awe. I figure, if I can get in, then so can they, and so can many women of color looking for a means of reifying their family's long history in this country. Now that DNA is acceptable as evidence we all have an even easier pathway in to this historic organization.

Yesterday, I got up at 5 am after getting home from a salsa concert at 2 am to get on a bus to New York. In one of those random YOLO moments. I figured I might as well make the trek back to my favorite city to attend my first DAR meeting. Some how magically despite my printer not working and the bus being over loaded, oh and then there was the part about it snowing, I made it to Queens.

We met at a restaurant called Brooks 1890. As a pretty much life-time member of the National Alumnae Association of Spelman College - Columbia, MD Chapter, I knew how this whole thing would go. We read minutes, said a few prayers, did the pledge of allegiance to the flag (mmmh I've protested that since middle school so I was hesitating on that) and then jumped into business. There was a history moment and then the ladies were invited to share photos and quick stories about the veterans in their lives/histories. Since I have all my research online I was able to share photos of my great uncle Alphonsa "Fuz" Cook who served during the Korean war as a cook in the Navy. I also spoke on my Confederate veteran ancestor and the many questions I wish I could ask him.

I spent most of the meeting chatting with a young woman named Charlene. We connected instantly since we are both studying some of the most heartbreaking and difficult segments of Black America's history. I'm studying slavery and she is focusing on the American prison system, convict leasing and the rampant lynching of black military veterans in uniform. Whew! Talk about commiseration! I'm not sure anyone else wanted to join our conversation. It was wonderful though! It is always great to find a kindred spirit. We connected through email and Linked In, traded book titles, authors, scholars and info. She is even interested in joining the African American Genealogy Book Club I am co leading on LinkedIn! Very happy to have finally gotten a chance to meet her and the rest of the members who came out despite the snow. We had a wonderful time. Cannot wait for the next meeting in February.

Ok ladies! I'm ready. Pin me!

Any thoughts on whether I should attempt to join the United Daughters of the Confederacy? Colonial Dames?