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.