One of Those Lunches

Oh, holy god, I had the most interesting lunch and I want to call all of you on the phone and tell you all about it and have you go, “really?” and I’ll be all “really, and then…” and we laugh and thank the gods of wisdom that we were born eggheads.

But I try not to blog about work so that I can maintain some semblance of anonymity.

So, I won’t.

But let me tell you this.

A tangent in our conversation was about how university libraries in the South are collecting and digitizing records most of us didn’t even know existed, from tax records of plantations to church rolls to ship cargo lists and manifests listing prisoners and their hometowns.

And it is already possible for some African Americans who know what plantations their families were enslaved on to trace their families back to their towns of origin in Africa.  It’s not easy right now, but as these data bases come on-line and the kinks are worked out, it will become so.

In fact, the university library responsible for the ship cargo lists believes that they have and can soon make available to people an almost complete list of every African brought to the United States and into slavery.

For those of you familiar with the issues with African American genealogy (meaning the study of, not the having of), you can see that this is a paradigm shift.  For so long, African Americans interested in genealogy have usually been successful in going only as far back as the plantation their emancipated ancestors left–a short 150 years of family history (by comparison, I can rattle of my matrilinial line farther back than that off the top of my head–Me, my mom, Doris, Teckla, Hulda, Anna, and Inga).

This information has the potential to give people centuries of ancestors and knowledge of where those ancestors were from.

I, of course, am all for expanding folks’ knowledge of their ancestors, just in general.

But this is incredible.  And, as a side note, I think shows how libraries are shifting from being repositories of books to being repositories of knowledge.

4 thoughts on “One of Those Lunches

  1. This will make my mom soooooo happy. She’s a geneaology nut. :)

    I think my family tree does run into a wall about then, at least on that side. It’s kind of funny, actually… if you trace it up a ways, suddenly black folks drop out altogether and my family is white (well, Irish and something slaveowner-y) and Japanese and Cherokee. I had a really funny-shaped family tree when I had to do that project in High School, lemme tell you. (I did it by making a huge poster of an anime princess with big wings, and putting the family names into the feathers. That let you see the branching of the family clearly, and also let me show off my art skills, because I was a showoff.)

  2. The whole situation is peculiar (ha, as if anything in the South about race is not) because on the one hand you have this general cultural amnesia… this persistent belief that, once you trace back to the Civil War, any evidence of enslaved people as people is lost.

    But what these libraries are finding is that there were records (these church records for instance) kept by enslaved people about their lives AND that, because of persistent racism by Southern whites (they didn’t believe they had any reason to be ashamed or hide that their families owned slaves), there are a lot of records of their existence as property that tells us a great deal about who they were as people.

    So, what may happen once this is all pulled together is that we find out that the very population whose been lead to believe there’s no information on their people will find that they have much more information about their dead relatives and what their lives were like than most people have about their relatives. Or, for many of us, of course, we may discover that this ends up being a story of our relatives as well.

    All very cool.

  3. 1) haven’t libraries always been repositories of knowledge? but more interestingly …

    2) I thought people already knew lots of this info was available, if not accessible. Making it accessible is just wonderfully exciting not only to make sure we don’t lose any info but also to spread it around. But, Skip Gates does some of this work tracing the arrival and sale of some of his ancestors in that PBS documentary where he found out he has no genetic linkage to the slave-owning family that has so long been the story the Gates’ tell themselves. It was funny, one cousin even said on camera that “scientific” knowledge won’t change his “historical” knowledge and he’s going to keep telling the same story.

    But anyhow, I think this also says lots about technology and complicity. First, I think that everyone knowing there are these elaborate records, much like there are from Hitler’s machines of slaughter, is important to understanding what all our ancestors were doing back then, how little shame they felt, how normal business it all was. This was all quite ‘civil’ and organized, with the most current technologies used to facilitate efficiency and productivity, which lots of people claim is a new approach to evil that doesn’t happen until the mid 20th century.

    I think it is facinating and can’t wait to find ways to use some of this info in my classroom.

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