As I stood on the land where my Ancestors walked – the awe that used to fill me in the early years of my genealogy research had gradually been supplanted with a sense of muted expectation as many of the roadblocks that presented themselves over the years often gave way to a breakthrough – giving a faux impression that connecting of the various branches of the family tree was a seamless process.
Over the years my family members affectionately gave me the moniker of the “Ancestor Whisperer,” because it was said…
“Dead or alive, if they are related to us, Shun will find them.”
The rolling hills in this small Northeast Alabama town where my family and I gathered represented nearly 200 years of shared history from the maternal line of my family tree.
The land where my Great Grandparents built a home in the midst of the Great Depression still stands and is in the hands of my family.
Ignoring the humidity and popping of my knees – I knelt and said a silent prayer while placing my hands on the ground to let the Ancestors know that their children had gathered to acknowledge the foundation that they had laid – an inexhaustible love of family that has sustained us for generations.
I couldn’t help but to smile as I recalled every dismissive comment that I fielded from the time that I committed to follow the winding roots of my Family Tree wherever it lead.
“Black people in America can only go back 2 generations or 3 generations at most.”
“There are better things to do with your time.”
“You are opening yourself up to a world of heartache.”
“You are better off hiring someone to do that.
“How long are you going to maintain this fucking hobby of yours?”
“You do know other people in the family have tried, but there isn’t anything to find.”
I’d be disingenuous if I didn’t acknowledge that the commentary fed doubts that began to wear on me, but fate saw fit to intercede in the form of my Mother who told my Great Uncle Calvin of my intentions.
One night, the phone rang and contrary to my general distaste for talking on the phone after business hours – I slid the answer button to take the call – it was my Great Uncle Calvin on the other end and he didn’t waste any time after we exchanged salutations, cutting straight to the chase:
“Nephew, I heard you were tracing the family tree, good I…”
I tried to interject, but Unc wasn’t having none of my shit on that night.
“You better get this history while you can, go get a notebook and a pen, I’ll wait, I know you got them laying all around the place…”
So, I obeyed…
And that night, my Uncle and I talked for a couple of hours and over the course of 5 years and some change…
We conversed incessantly about the history of the family and his memories of his parents, Aunts, Uncles and cousins, it was his insight in concert with the recollections his 3 surviving siblings (My Grandmother, Uncle Kenneth and Aunt Irene) that proved to be pivotal in my research.
I tried to absorb all of the stories – as he let me know where the assorted pockets of our family were around the country, telling me who I needed to speak to and what names to reference. Back in his truck driving days, he would plot his routes based on where the pockets of our family were.
“I would find out where our people were and I would go to them… I’m gonna need you to do the same nephew,” he said.
Upon hearing him say this, I immediately pushed back on this request, reminding him of my distaste for long drives, citing my family responsibilities, my career.
Ay Unc, that’s some extra stuff that I can’t manage, I…”
And his response was something that will stay with me for the rest of my life:
“Shit nephew, if you ain’t gonna take the torch, then what you got hands for?”
There was a slight pause on my end before I answered…
“Okay, I got you Unc…”
Before my Uncle passed a couple months ago…
During one of our last conversations – I queried him on some elements of Family History, there was a pause on his end as he replied:
“I was gonna ask you the same question… I’ve given you all that I’ve got, this is your torch now and you need to make sure that it stays lit for the family, you hear me?”
I heard him loud and clear…
Those stories that my Elders told me…
Those recollections that my Grandmother (as she creeps up on the century mark) still regales me with to this day – always had a hold on me and I am duty bound to ensure that these stories are live on – to guide the steps of my family.
What did I know about the Ancients?
As I gaze at the aged pictures of my Ancestors, I always feel as if they are looking back at me with a mandate that has stretched through the generations.
So, I chose to listen to their whispers and I resolved that their stories would be told.
As my Ancestors were taken from the shores of Benin, Togo and Cameroon they pushed back against the futile attempts to have their humanity euthanized in the South under the heel of America’s Original Sin and despite the obstacles that availed themselves – their children persevered.
But, I’m grateful that I stayed the course as I’ve found myself in the process – discovering that…
Love is the truly the conduit to immortality and history repeats, especially in families.