Have you ever been to Ellis Island? It is a remarkably moving place. I envy my friends who can go there and trace their family's arrival in the United States. All they need to know is the name of one of their ancestors who immigrated to this country, type that name into a computer—and, like magic, they can access a record of the day on which that person arrived here!
Unfortunately, there is no Ellis Island for those of us who are descendants of survivors of the African slave trade. Our ancestors were brought to this country against their will. Upon arrival they were stripped of their history, their family ties, their cultural and linguistic identities. And we, their ancestors, have been unable to learn much about our African heritage until very, very recently.
This fact has shaped me as a person and as a scholar. I have been obsessed with my family tree since I was a boy, when I regretted the fact that the slave past had robbed me of so much knowledge of my ancestors—of the privilege of knowing even their names. My grandfather Edward Gates died in 1960, when I was ten years old. Following his funeral, my father showed me my grandfather's scrapbooks. And there, buried in those yellowing pages of newsprint, was an obituary—the obituary, to my astonishment, of the oldest Gates ancestor, our matriarch, an ex-slave named Jane Gates. "An estimable colored woman," the obituary said, also mentioning that she had been a midwife. I wanted to know how I got here from there, from the mysterious and shadowy preserve of slavery in the depths of the black past. I became obsessed with my family tree, and peppered my father with questions about the names and dates of my ancestors, which I dutifully wrote down in a notebook.
I knew I had white ancestors. My father, his six brothers, and their sister, were clearly part white. I wanted to learn the names of both my black and white ancestors. As I got older, I especially wanted to learn the name of our white patriarch, the white man who impregnated my great-great grandmother, Jane Gates. I especially wanted to see my white ancestors' coat of arms! I remember as a child, we used to look at ads in the back of magazines encouraging the reader to send in his or her name and receive by return mail, for twenty dollars or so, one of those colorful European coats of arms, the sort one would see hanging on the wall of a castle in England. I thought about ordering one for the Gates family. I knew it wouldn't have anything to do with me, necessarily, but who knew for sure? Slavery had robbed "the means of knowing," as the great black abolitionist Frederick Douglass once put it, from most black people who were descended from a white ancestor.
I even allowed myself to dream about learning the name of the very tribe my black ancestors had come from in Africa. (I have to confess to certain delusions of grandeur: I was hoping we were descended from African chiefs, not just any old Africans! And who wouldn't want to be? And if I didn't come from African chiefs, then I certainly wanted an Indian chief in my family's past!) When Alex Haley's Roots came along in 1977, I had a serious case of roots envy. I became an historian, in part I think, out of this desire to know myself more fully—which, of course, over time became a desire to understand others as well, to learn about the past of my people, my black kinsmen, and, through their stories, to learn about the past of the African American people, and, ultimately, the past of my nation—at least my own genealogical tributary of this nation. Finding my own roots has been my lifelong quest ever since my grandfather's funeral.
I now keep my family tree framed on a wall in my kitchen. I glance at it at least once every day. It gives me a sense of satisfaction that is difficult to explain. But it does: just being able to read the names of several of my third and fourth great-grandmothers and grandfathers places me in the world just as surely, in its way, as does my birth certificate.
This past Christmas, I gave my daughters copies of the family tree. Their eyes glazed over when they saw them. But I didn't mind. They'll never have to worry about the things I found myself worrying about after my grandfather's funeral when I was ten, things like who my grandfather's grandfather was? The truth is that my daughters probably don't even care! They can take these things for granted. But perhaps their children will care, or their children's children. And when those children begin asking questions, they'll have the answers I struggled so many years to find.
So whether my children now care about their family past is immaterial for now. The record of that past will wait for them, hanging on the wall of our kitchen for everyone to see if ever they want to; their family lineage has been established for all time. This is who we are as a family, and nobody in our family, ever again, has to wonder about their origins. These are some of the reasons that led me to partner with OUP in the creation of the African American Studies Center, which in some ways operates as a genealogical tree for all black people, showing where we came from, where we've been, and where we're going through the individual stories of the people whose biographies are or will be in AASC. That is the power of biography and genealogy. And that, for an African American, is a marvelous thing.
With all best wishes,
Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Editor in Chief Oxford
African American Studies Center