Most black people that are around my age, that I know, have no idea of the name of their great grandparents. Their parents never discussed their parents. Their grandparents, who most likely are no longer alive, never told them stories about their parents. As a result, the only people that could answer questions about ancestry are gone. So what? Why is this important? Well those are some good questions. Questions that I asked myself when I got interested in genealogy.
Let me start with a little bit of my personal history. I am black, I was born in Canada, and my parents are Jamaican immigrants. I’m a child of the 80s and grew up in the 90s. This was transitional period in Toronto public schools. The generation before mine consisted of mostly white students, but the generation of students that began to enter the school system when I did was a mixed community. There were Asians, Africans, Indians, Middle Easterners, Europeans, and people of Caribbean decent in my classes. Culturally, I don’t think the school system was equipped to make curriculum relevant to all students. Case in point, the coat of arms incident….
I was in fourth grade and was asked to bring in my family’s coat of arms to present to the class. I’m black, my ancestors were slaves, ‘wi nuh ave dat’ (we don’t have that). I think I ended up bringing in the Jamaican coat of arms, but I remember being fascinated that the white kids had personal family coats of arms that were passed down through the centuries. I think that was the first time that I really thought that I would love to know more about my ancestors. I realized that I must have come from somewhere. My interest was sparked but I was in fourth grade, all I wanted to do was play outside and watch tv. Where is a 9-year-old going to get that information… there was no internet back then.
So, although my interest was sparked I didn’t really do much to keep the fire going. Even at a very young age I was into learning about the civil rights movement and the plights that black people had to endure. I remember seeing a Public Enemy hip hop video with various black iconography in it and asking my mom what that was all about. From that point on I became fascinated with the civil rights movement. I learned about Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and many of the great men and women of the movement. However, as great as those people were, they were not a direct part of my personal Jamaican history.
Many years later while in university I was able to watch Roots. That was absolutely life changing for me. Soon after watching Roots I was able to watch the complete docu-series African American Lives with Professor Skip Gates. This set me off and running. I watched every season of African American Lives, and his other show Finding Your Roots. While I watched I became more and more motivated to do this for myself. The revelations in this show for Skip’s guests had me feeling like these ancestors were my very own. I determined to do my best to find as much as I could. I wasn’t sure where to start but I knew that if these people could find all of this information, I too should be able to do the same… I was somewhat wrong in that assumption.
I started out on free ancestry.com. I had no money to pay for the full service, so I got nowhere. I somehow happened upon familysearch.org and doors were open that I never knew existed. I also wrote to the genealogical institute in Jamaica and had them perform a search for me that ended up resulting in providing me with information that I already had. It felt like a waste of money, but it did reveal the name of an ancestor that I didn’t know. I’ll share more about this in later posts.
Between familysearch.org, Ancestry.com, and MyHeritage.com my family tree has ballooned to over 200 people. I’m able to trace my family back approximately 4 generations, even though when I began all I knew were the names of my grandparents. I was even able to find the names of a few of my slave ancestors. Amazing!
It was somewhere around this time that I happened upon this amazing documentary about slavery in Jamaica on YouTube. It discussed the Beckford family and their slaves and how brutal slavery was on the island. I realized that the fact that I am alive is a miracle; I wrote about why all this matters to me in a previous post. Based on the paper trail, I know that my ancestors must have been some amazing people to survive all the hardships that came their way. I have their blood running through my veins, I inherited their DNA, I am them. They made me. The lessons that they learned were passed unconsciously down from generation to generation and live in me. I feel like the more that I can learn about them the better I can understand my grandparents, parents and even myself. So please join me on this journey as I uncover all that I can, and as I share my methods of finding Caribbean, European, and African geological records online.