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?