The popularity of shows like “Finding Your Roots” and the ability to unlock centuries worth of genetic information with advanced DNA testing have turned many African Americans into aspiring genealogists with hopes of having a family tree on par with Alex Haley’s famed “Roots” epic. Before you hit the road in search of your family’s story via death certificates, marriage licenses and long forgotten family trunks, get tips from New York Times best-selling author Lalita Tademy.
Her 2001 Oprah Book Club selection Cane River (Grand General Publishing; $13.95) is a historical novel that documented her own family’s diverse Louisiana roots. That book and her follow-up, Red River (Grand General Publishing; $13.99), required years of research and visits to various libraries, courthouses and churches important to her family’s story. Tademy sat down with BlackEnterprise.com to share her insights and to help you plan the most productive genealogy trip possible.
Rein in your expectations
If your sole purpose in constructing your family tree is to have that Alex Haley moment when he’s in Africa and local villagers are singing to him about his family’s pre-slavery history, Tademy has some words of advice for you. “Get over yourself,” she says with a laugh. “You are probably not going to be able to cross the water. You will probably not be able to trace back to an African village via documentation. What you do is start from yourself. Sometimes you have to make intuitive leaps. You have to assume something is true and move forward.”
Talk to your fellow family historians
Start with the resources you have on hand before you embark on trip to the various clapboard churches and dusty record rooms of your family’s native towns. “Find another family historian. Usually for every branch, there is at least one family historian. Link up with them and you go doubly prepared,” Tademy says.
Exhaust your armchair research
With so much data and archives available online today, there is a lot of information to be gathered from the comfort of your computer chair. Sites such as Ancestry.com are a treasure trove of information. “Census work which goes back to 1870 for black people, helps you define the county or parish to where your people come from. That’s critical when you want to find courthouse records because you need to be in the right county,” notes Tademy.
“Be prepared to hit all of the local sources—churches, courthouses, cemeteries, libraries. Know the librarian by name and make an appointment with that person,” Tademy advises. “Also get in touch with the local genealogy society. They were so helpful to me in my search. They live to help people find their ancestors.”
Be a top-notch interviewer
Flex a little journalistic muscle and interview your family members (starting with the oldest first) and don’t forget neighbors who also might have pertinent information. “Record the interviews if you can,” Tademy says. “You never know when you will stumble upon something invaluable. One of the best stories I got was when I had two reluctant family members who just would not stay focused on what I was asking them. I put them in the same room and then they started showing off for one another. They were self correcting. It was great! Understand your person and how to make them feel comfortable enough to open up.”
Understand the gray area of “truth” in family histories
“Sometimes you will find contradictions between the family lore and the ‘facts’ you find via documents. Both can and do have tremendous errors. You can’t always trust what you find in the official records. You can’t believe family stories either. The only thing that kept me sane was that there is a grain of truth in all of this somewhere. I can only believe things that I can verify in a few different directions,” Tademy says. In other words, do it for the love, not the undisputed facts.