Wednesday, February 22, 2012

What's in a Slave Name?

Through my family history research I've come to know (virtually) my cousin Ardis. We met when I found someone online researching Squire Turner (1793-1871). I'm keen to know as much as I can about this gr-gr-grand uncle who worked so hard to defeat emancipationists as Kentucky gathered for a Constitutional Convention in 1850. It surprised the heck out of me to discover an African American woman was looking into this character.

Ardis is likely descended from a rape by Turner of one of his many slaves. Ardis and I have chosen to be 'related by slavery.' We likely both descend from 'Trading Tom Turner (1764-1847).

It's a difficult thing to prove.

What I did not appreciate, as I busied myself with collecting, sorting through and making sense of data pulled from court records, published family histories, and actual historical texts in some cases, is how easy I have it. Sure, I'm working with tiny and frustratingly incomplete data sets, but I'd never really considered how sparse slave records are.

Some of you might have seen Ron Allen's piece, Priscilla's Story, on NBC. (It includes an interview with Edward Ball, author of Slaves in the Family.) Allen claims Priscilla's is the only story documenting lineage from a free child stolen from her people in Africa ... all the way to contemporary, living Americans.

Could such documented history really be so rare? Given the psychic scars left among torn-apart families, a compelling desire to know and to heal must have produced a body of complete and extensive accounts.

Consider how difficult it is to research slave ancestry. Family units were fractured by slave auctions of individual family members as well as capricious, unreported murder or (like Martha Custis Washington) a complete unwillingness to acknowledge a person's own kin ... living in squalor a hundred yards away on Slave Row. Whether a mother was worked to death, died of disease, or was sold off; her children may never have realized they did not descend from the woman who raised them.

I felt compelled to blog about this when I read a well-intentioned white man, chiding fellow genealogists for using secondary sources in their research; implying that their labor was less significant for their failure to cite more of the official record. I found myself writing:
"Our whole endeavor is speculative: I don't for a moment think that, just because a government put it in a document, a fact has more veracity than if it came from a lyric in a folksong - especially if the dominant culture has a vested interest in deceiving its populace."
And I got to thinking about the deep desires among our cousins, to know as much of their Africa-to-America history as they can, and of the tremendous odds of having that curiosity fully quenched. What an ache.

Whether it was through arrogance or shame or simple neglect, my ancestors did little to record the lives of slaves they'd forbidden to become literate. I suspect my people were breeding some of their slave stock for brute strength, docility and low intelligence. I assume they contemplated no future where free men and women would one day be curious about their lineage. While they were keen to document the lineage of the finest mules they bred, my ancestors did less to publicize the name of a child's father, brought in from a neighboring farm to serve as a stud. How difficult is genealogy for descendants of children who were kept from ever touching their parents?

Genealogy angel Dr. William L. Smith drew my attention to a 4-page tool, The Historical Biographer's Guide to the Research Process. Mill's Identity Triangulation Model encourages even certified smart people believe identity is more than a name on a federal form.
"It is every known detail of a human life. Identity is determined by triangulating three things: persona, relationships, and origin."
Whether you and I are busy mining databases running on huge computer farms or thumbing through musty leaves stored in granite courthouses, we benefit from men and women who taxed themselves to build vaults and employ archivists over intervening generations. Great social endeavor went into preserving many of the records I have discovered.

Was it more than benign neglect that kept the record of millions of slaves so sparse?

If we are to live soundly in the present, we would do well to acknowledge the reality of our past. We may owe a debt of gratitude to people like my cousin Ardis, who labor under tremendous disadvantages when re-creating ancestors' identity. Brothers and sisters, calling for reparations after the inter-generational horrors of slavery, have sensitised me to appreciate how emotionally difficult this search must be.

My cousins know with certainty that identity is more than a name. The surname they bear could have been imposed by men who treated their ancestors as property. A slave name burns in a way that simulates the branding iron my ancestors likely employed as a right of ownership, as a means of establishing identity.

1 comment:

  1. I just found your website through Geneabloggers. Welcome to Geneabloggers.

    Regards, Jim
    Genealogy Blog at Hidden Genealogy Nuggets


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