When tragedy has a name

The Milky Way stretched across the clear night sky. Over the vast expanse thousands of individual stars were discernible. To my right, Polaris. Vega, almost straight overhead. From the multitude above me I could identify only a few. Astronomers, though, know many others by name. Knowing a star by its name makes a difference in how you look at the night sky, I’ve decided.

Recently I had the privilege to lead a concurrent session at the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society Conference. About 250 (I’m estimating) amateur genealogists gathered to learn more about how to trace their ancestry. By “amateur” I’m not implying these are beginners. No, they’re quite sophisticated in searching data-bases, locating cemeteries, and combing all kinds of records. Over and over I witnessed the satisfaction, delight too, of attendees who have identified slave ancestors. In many cases family oral histories have led genealogists to search manumission papers, ownership records of slaveholders whose surnames slaves took upon emancipation, military records of the United States Colored Troops, and Social Security Applications.

A name. Sally, female slave on XTZ Plantation, mother of Mr. G.’s grandfather. Willy, male slave on UVW Plantation, father of Mrs. L.’s great grandmother. Not simply a slave, but a real person, a woman or man who breathed and labored and loved. That, I think, must be the reward of searching for ancestors, finding a name. So that slavery becomes not just a historical event, where millions suffered and died, but central to a personal narrative.

A name. Malala Yousafzai. We Americans have shaken our heads in sympathy for Muslim girls denied an education by the Taliban. Along comes the story of a sixteen-year-old Pakistani girl shot because she spoke out on behalf of girls wanting to attend school. Not a faceless girl but a real one.

The photos of children in Sudan and Ethiopia, in Sao Paulo and Port-au-Prince—like the stars overhead their names are unknown to us. Polar bears and Bengal tigers are disappearing. We know no polar bears or Bengal tigers by name.

When stars or people or animals have names, they matter more. A people captured and enslaved, girls denied an education, children starving, animals facing extinction.

Many in our community lack good medical care. Children go to school hungry. Veterans suffer from PTSD. Women are battered by husbands or boyfriends. The mentally ill sleep under bridges.

What would happen if we learned their names?

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7 thoughts on “When tragedy has a name

  1. Absolutely BEAUTIFUL!

    Nancy, THANK YOU so much for calling my attention to your blog (I’ve enjoyed my visit here very much) and for you writing about your experiences with what sounds like a fascinating group of genealogist at the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society Conference! I can sense the excitement and I was even there . . . ROFL!!! But I must say that your post here brings to mind a statement that Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. made Tuesday night during the first episode of “The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross” —

    “For nearly all African Americans, including me, our original ancestors will remain anonymous and invisible . . . ”

    To a point his statement is true especially when I look at my online family tree and I have no names ofr my 4x great-grandparents and so on to add due to slavery (which was a tragedy indeed). But anonymity and invisible is just not acceptable, and therefore I will continue to search for a name of . . . a woman or man who — breathed, labored, loved, and gave me life.

    Again, THANK YOU!

    • claimingkin,
      Thanks for visiting my website.Reading on your blog about finding your ancestors’ wedding records leaves me in awe of the hard work you genealogists do.I missed the first episode of MANY RIVERS TO CROSS but plan to tape and view the rest.

      Is there any way to respond/subscribe to your blog without signing up for a whole new network?

      Nancy

      • It is a pleasure visiting you here! I must admit, finding ancestors’ vital records the further back I go in my family tree gets tricky. Ah, but when I do find them I get goosebumps just holding the documents in my hand . . . I feel absolutely giddy over my cherished find!

        You can actually view the first episode online at PBS:
        http://video.pbs.org/video/2365103337/

        You are welcome to subscribe to my blog by RSS feed, or by email at this link – http://feeds.feedburner.com/ClaimingKin. I do apologize if you had any problems commenting on my blog. I do use Disqus, a comment management software that is by far one of the best applications I have found to keep track of engaging discussions on my blog and via social networks too.

        THANK YOU for connecting with me via Twitter and I look forward to more discussions with you to come!

  2. Absolutely BEAUTIFUL!

    Nancy, THANK YOU so much for calling my attention to your blog (I’ve enjoyed my visit here very much) and for you writing about your experiences with what sounds like a fascinating group of genealogist at the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society Conference! I can sense the excitement and I wasn’t even there . . . ROFL!!! But I must say that your post here brings to mind a statement that Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. made Tuesday night during the first episode of “The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross” —

    “For nearly all African Americans, including me, our original ancestors will remain anonymous and invisible . . . ”

    To a point his statement is true especially when I look at my online family tree and I have no names for my 4x great-grandparents and so on to add due to slavery (which was a tragedy indeed). But anonymity and invisible is just not acceptable, and therefore I will continue to search for a name of . . . a woman or man who — breathed, labored, loved, and gave me life.

    Again, THANK YOU!

  3. YES, Nancy! How very much a part of me is my “name.” Thanks for your truly poetic piece!
    Maybe you’d like to read a wonderful book–maybe you’ve already read it: Someone Knows MY Name by Lawrence Hill. MISS you & Jim! ///Bonnie

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