Digging for Roots: An American Story
There is an old picture in my baby book. It’s sepia toned and frayed at the edges. Tape holds it to the page and blue ink in my mother’s handwriting points an arrow towards the picture with the title: “Great Grandparents”.
There is another picture in this book, a color photo that isn’t very clear and the title: “Grandma Jiggetts” pointing to a woman smiling slightly in a summer dress. I can’t quite make out the details of her face even though I’ve studied the picture thousands of times. These are the only photos I have of my father’s family.
I started doing genealogical research years ago in a quest to learn something about my heritage. It was easy on my white mother’s side. I easily followed the paper trail to 1500’s Switzerland. It seemed that every day something new and fascinating would pop up. Revolutionary War records, newspaper articles, marriage certificates, obituaries… the sources were overwhelming. I would often call my parents to tell them about it, my Dad would politely listen and then excitedly ask, “What did you find on my side?!”
I spent hours digging through documents online- attempting to find anything. The best I could do was a WW1 draft card for my great grandfather in the photo, Peter Jiggetts. Years went by and every time I’d try to find something I’d hit the same 1880 roadblock. It was like no one existed prior to the 1880 census on my black father’s side. I searched through the slave schedules on the plantations in Virginia and North Carolina where I knew my great great grandparents were slaves but if you’ve ever looked at a slave schedule the only information is the age and gender of the slaves on the plantation. On a plantation with hundreds of slaves, it’s impossible to glean anything from those documents. There’s no way to trace anyone. Just a few months ago I was ecstatic upon finding a marriage certificate for my 3rd great grandparents- the elaborate cursive explains they had been married years prior but upon emancipation went to the courthouse for a legal document to “recognize” their marriage.
With all this in mind, for those who believe removing Confederate monuments is “erasing history,” I have a few points I’d like you to consider:
1. There is a difference between memorializing and remembering. Take a look in a dictionary if you’re not sure what that is. We don’t need to memorialize something to remember it.
2. I can only speak for myself but every US History class I ever took in grade school and beyond discussed the Civil War… things I know for sure- we aren’t in “danger” of forgetting about the confederacy because a statue is gone.
3. Where is your outrage about the complete erasure of millions of Black Americans? Did you learn about that in US History class? No birth certificates, no pictures, not even names on a census record. That’s erasure of history.
I had a college professor who explained that culture is never created in a vacuum. The monuments we erect and keep say something about who we were and who we are. We are a nation built on white supremacist ideology. I visited the Whitney Plantation last fall after presenting at the Pacific Education Group’s “National Summit for Courageous Conversations About Race” in New Orleans, Louisiana. Keep in mind the Whitney Plantation is a privately funded museum (not a national monument) and it was the first museum in America solely dedicated to slavery (it opened in 2015). Our guide, Cheryl, started the tour by telling us that there are no marked graves on this plantation. Which, she said, means everywhere is a potential grave. Cheryl also discussed the environmental racism that goes on in this same area today — affecting mostly Black residents. She described how many funerals she attends on a weekly basis — losing friends and family members to cancer and other illnesses. It was no surprise to me that when COVID-19 first hit Louisiana, that this same area was hit hard again.
WPA interviews are etched into granite walls bearing the names of Louisiana slaves. When I later looked at a picture I took at one of the memorials, I saw my reflection in the granite.
I have 2 masters degrees and I teach literature and writing in a predominately white high school in the northern suburbs of Chicago. Less than 200 years ago in this same spot in Louisiana, I legally was not considered a human being and certainly was not allowed to pick up a pen and paper. And here I was, visiting a plantation/slavery museum with my Japanese American and Iranian American colleagues. Even on the worst days I must remember: I am my ancestors’ wildest dreams. But then the wake up call is never far away. Whether it is James Byrd Jr., Ricky Byrdsong, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor or George Floyd — we are consistently reminded that systemic racism and white supremacy reign supreme in this country. To pretend otherwise is to be foolish. Until this nation can reckon with our past, we will never move forward.
Let this sit with you: We live in a country that didn’t recognize my ancestors as human beings yet pays homage to confederate leaders through statues throughout our country and notably, in our nation’s capitol.
So, President Trump and others, I’m sorry if you’re sad that a statue memorializing people who wanted to continue the institution of slavery is gone or “under siege”. But you have a lot of learning to do. Those monuments are anything but “beautiful” for millions of Americans- millions who are part of the country whom you put your hand on a bible and took an oath to protect. Mitch Landrieu said it well a few years ago in New Orleans, “These statues are not just stone and metal. They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for.” I would now argue that Landrieu could be tougher here. Let’s all be honest, anyone who is really upset about a confederate statue coming down should be labeled a traitor. To honor confederate war “heroes” is to honor and enable domestic terrorists.
I have looked at the picture of my grandmother and great grandparents thousands of times wondering what their lives were like. My great grandparents, the first “free” generation born in Virginia. My grandmother, moving from North Carolina to New York City to get out of the Jim Crow South and eventually settling with her husband, my grandfather Floyd, in Quogue, NY to raise her 2 youngest sons (the youngest being my father Danny, who would go on to graduate from Harvard). There may not be pictures and records of their achievements but I’m in awe of their stories. Their stories are as American as it gets. They worked hard and made a better life for their children, grandchildren and so on. Their legacy is eternal.
I feel saddened about our country, the continued disgusting words coming from our nation’s “leader” and the subsequent silence of so many white people in my life in response. But then I think of my ancestors. I may not know their names or birthdays. I do not know the details of their stories on those rural plantations. But I know if they could persevere through the horrors of slavery and Jim Crow, I can stand up, speak truth to power and teach my sons to do the same.