When I read the New York Times article last week about Michelle Obama’s ancestry, the fact that her family lore had suspected a white relative for years underscored the importance of gathering oral history. For blacks, the paper trail often runs cold since many slave births and deaths weren’t documented. Even my grandmother, born in 1910 never had a birth certificate. This was the case for many poor people (not just blacks) as well as those born in very rural areas around the turn of the century.
It’s easy for family history in general, but the history of African Americans in particular to die with our ancestors. That’s why I’m so grateful for all the story tellers in my life like my grandfather Martin Ford, and my grandmothers, Lillie Mae Ford and Louise Coleman Walton. When Martin and Lillie Mae were alive, they were generous with their stories of their lives in segregated Mississippi and Louisiana, and Louise at 93 continues to regale me with her tales of picking cotton and potatoes as a sharecropper, first in Oklahoma and then in California often with my mother, then just a baby in tow.
I’ve inherited my grandparents’ storytelling genes and for the next two weeks, I have the privilege of spending uninterrupted time spinning tales at a beautiful hilltop artist’s colony in Amherst Virginia. While I’m here at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, I hope to work on a fictionalized version of my maternal grandparents’ adventures. (No one would believe the true stories). So, I’ll turn this story over to my fourth cousin, Monique and let her tell you how we found each other in our parallel quests for our family’s history.