I get jealous every time I catch Henry Louis Gates’ Faces of America special—and yes I’ve watched it enough times to recite Yo Yo Ma, Eva Longoria, and Mario Batali’s family histories from memory. I’ve always been obsessed with genealogy and I’ve longed for the ability to connect with generations before me in an effort to solidify my place in the world.
You know, the way that Beyonce, Tina, and Agnèz Deréon have that whole fashion designer connection, or how the Kennedy’s have been in politics since the late 1800s, or the English acting dynasty, the Redgrave’s—I’ve longed for a blueprint that gives me the basic direction that I should move in, on top of an already established foundation of ancestral success.
I’ve wondered was there a great writer somewhere in my family’s past, or women who were, at times, unreasonably independent, or someone who had the courage to move to a new city where they didn’t know a soul—something that explains how I came to be who I am and gives me assurance that I’m on the right path.
In college I had a project in my ethnic literature course where I had to trace my roots. Diverted by family members with short-term memories (and memories they chose to forget), I took to the web. I found little, but I did come across a deposition concerning my paternal great-great-great grandfather, Church Tipton’s, attempt to get a disability pension after serving in the the US Colored Troops.
Church eventually died before the pension was granted—you can imagine the amount of bureaucracy—so a “Special Examiner” was given the task of determining whether my great-great-great grandmother Ellen (the claimant) was his legal widow.
He wrote: “This claimant is one of the cleanest neatest negro women I nearly ever saw to be living on a farm. She is honest, reliable and is believed to be virtuous by those who know her best. The evidence herewith is deemed sufficient to show that she and the soldier were married by a ceremony, but without a license, during slavery times and lived together continuously, except the time he was in the army, until he died since which time she has not remarried.” Read more