“Connect. Belong.” The 2018 #RootsTech theme doesn’t only apply to current family members. Our ancestors belong to us in a sense. They are our family. But the reverse is also true. Belonging to ancestors provides us with an impetus to tell their stories, their truths.
I came to this realization during a conversation with the absolutely amazing author and filmmaker, Regina E. Mason, the keynote of RootsTech 2018’s African American Heritage Social. (That’s not hyperbole. She is.) Her book, Life of William Grimes, the Runaway Slave is a researched edition of her great-great-great-grandfather’s autobiography, first published in 1824.
Asked what she thought William Grimes would say to her today, she indicated her left shoulder with a smile. “Oh, he talks to me all the time. He says so many things.”
Without meaning to, I looked down at the blueish branches of veins that meander from my wrists up my forearms. Knowing the stories of my forebearers, I sometimes do that to remind myself of the tough yet loving stock I come from. Belonging to them means I, too, can not just persevere, but flourish.
For Regina, belonging to her three-times great-grandfather, though an honor, sometimes gave root to doubt. She wondered if she could measure up to the task of preserving his legacy for a 21st century audience. (Spoiler alert: She has.)
Belonging to Ancestors: More than a Search for Records
Belonging to ancestors means more than finding their names and dates and life events and preserving those facts. Their lives reach out to us, speak to us, from the past. We advocate for them not to be forgotten. For their lives to have mattered.
For some ancestors, such as Regina Mason’s William Grimes, there’s also the duty to provide them a voice that they may not had during their life times. To preserve their thread in the fabric of the American narrative.
Honoring our Ancestors through Stories
Obviously, we preserve their stories out of a sense of duty or pride. But we have other motives as well. Sometimes, we want to share their stories to inspire others. We want to bestow that sense of belonging to other descendants.
However, belonging to ancestors places a sometimes conflicting burden on what to write. We want to present them in a positive light, one that might stretch the truth here and there.
In my opinion, we should resist that urge.
Glossing over their faults or certain events does them and the descendants they belong to a disservice. It smooths the texture of their lives that readers need to grasp the past.
A sugar-coated varnish over their personalities denies our ancestors’ descendants a chance to know their dimensions, to imagine what it would be like to really know them.