Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Finding Oprah's Roots (copy)

One of the perks of being a librarian is the simple act of helping others. I help patrons find tax forms. I help them research the side effects of certain medications, and I provide books for learning and pleasure. I even help them connect the limbs on their family trees.

As a public librarian, I just loved helping a patron from Texas or Colorado research their lineage. We pulled out all the marriage license and census documents and then looked alphabetically for last names. They became excited as they discovered new, unknown to them, uncles and aunts.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have the same positive experience when working with African American patrons. I was eager to help them, but I lacked essential information to move further back than 1870. Our best bet was to use the last name and see if any white families had other than family members listed. If their race was marked black, they might, and might is a big word here, be kin.

Mississippi records, like many southern states, had a lackadaisical attitude toward black race record keeping prior to the 1900s. When African Americans were included in the list of others, they were recorded with nicknames. Amazingly, these nicknames were white generated, and they may or may not have been the name a person actually went by.

What happens when the richest woman in America decides she wants to research her roots? Does Oprah, raised dirt poor in the small Mississippi town of Kosciusko, have the same challenge a Chicagoan sitting in the Como Public Library has? Yes, even Oprah hits the same Civil War/Reconstruction period which becomes genealogy’s dead end.

Thanks to Henry Louis Gates, Jr., author of Finding Oprah’s Roots: Finding Your Own, I now have an informative little book to explain the problems and suggest other routes. All the money in the world cannot ensure accurate and researchable records. One really has to rely on family knowledge and lore to push past the annoying gap.

What paper records lack, can be made up in a cheek swab. Thanks to DNA results, genealogy researchers can now trace heritage back to true African roots. Oprah once thought of herself as a proud Zulu warrior, but her DNA said differently. As she now comes to terms with her Kpelle heritage, we are all the better for her journey. This is an excellent book for anyone ready to dive into the history of their people.

6 comments:

jmnlman said...

It always amused me to no end about her Zulu claim. Obviously she never actually did any research since they were never transported as slaves. That being said the PBS special that this is based around was very interesting.

Maggie said...

It's funny what people are willing to believe when they lack information otherwise. Until proven different I can remain the long lost heir of the Queen. ;D

Lynne said...

I decided a few years ago that I wanted to be Irish. I traced my grandfather's name to a county in Ireland. I found that some from that county had emigrated to Philadelphia (where my grandfather was from). I don't know if there was any connection, but that was close enough for me. I AM IRISH!

And I bow to you, Princess Maggie!

Maggie said...

Lynne, in this area, we have a woman who has traced her roots back to Pocahontas. My maiden name is Smith and I liked to tease her about being the descendant of John. ;)

Nyssaneala said...

It's interesting to read about the difficulties, and achievements, that others face when tracing their roots. Being adopted, my biological genealogy tracking dead ends at about 1979. :) The DNA technique is intriguing.

Maggie said...

Nyssaneala, my grandmother is real evasive about her side of the family. She always tells me to look at my grandfather's lineage. My theories, she either was adopted (she came to Gallatin from Oklahoma late 20's) or she is afraid I will find out my great-grandfather spent time in jail. So, I'm hitting a deadend by my own family.