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We Are Who We Came From

Oprah Winfrey didn't find out that she had another sister until she was well into her fifties. Why? Probably because her mother didn't want to tell her because she felt shame, guilt, or both. Think of how much time they missed out on. Oprah's mother and some of my older relatives are of the same generation, and I'd like to share a little something with them:

Get over yourselves, for your children's sake.

I have a relative who is tight-lipped about family history because of some deeply held need to protect and preserve the memory of a relative long departed, a relative that the members of my generation would be presumed to pass judgment on if our true family history were laid bare. That unwillingness to talk about family history makes it difficult, if not almost impossible, to do genealogical research to find out about an entire branch of my family. That entire branch is lost to me because older family members think that by holding back family history, they are preserving family secrets.

Let it go, for goodness' sake.

For starters, much of our current family history can be laid bare by a simple resort to second-grade math. It doesn't take a Stanford engineer to do the math and figure out that most of our parents weren't walking leisurely down the marriage aisle, but running down the aisle racing a fetus' entry into the world. (All those Reno weddings in the '50's kinda gave it away, folks.) But guess what? We don't care.

Because my parents' generation was rather, well, prolific, I have had at any point over 50 first cousins. And guess what, elders? We talk. We talk about all we heard as children from your family discussions in hushed tones when you thought we weren't listening, or the stuff you blurted out when you were drunk. We remember. And we talk. But guess what? We don't care.

Why? One, because we're in no position to judge, and two, because we just want to know who we came from.

I'm on the tail end of the Baby Boom. My generation embraced casual sex, hip-hop, rampant consumerism (designer jeans, anyone?) and drugs. We are the parents of the first generation of crack babies. The only war we fought was the War on Drugs, and we lost that one. Willingly.

Think about it -- are we really in any position to judge our parents and their parents, who came through Jim Crow, two World Wars, and the Civil Rights Movement, albeit somewhat scarred? I don't think so. When we think of what my parents' generation and their forebears survived, we're sitting in awe, not in judgment. That African Americans were able to preserve even some semblance of family after slavery is a testament to our resilience. Unlike my parents' generation, which is the "Don't air your dirty laundry" generation, my generation is the "I don't judge" generation. And we don't.

So when you hold back on family history because you think we'll judge you or our ancestors, you're wrong. We just want to know who we come from. We are who we came from, and if we don't know who we came from, we don't really know ourselves. If you've ever done genealogical research on African American families, you know how hard it is -- names were blithely misspelled in census records, many African Americans didn't know when they were born, families were torn asunder and stitched back together in ways not always recognizable to census takers, many of whom I assume to have been white during the 1800's. In order to know who we came from, we need clues, anything -- locations, dates, military service. Anything.

Furthermore, we have a right to know who we came from. And if you brought us into the world, you have an obligation to tell us. When you withhold family history, you withhold identity, our identity. That is no one's right, not even yours.

So, to Oprah's mom and older members of my family, you do your progeny a disservice when you don't discuss family history, no matter how tawdry or shameful you think it might be. Clearly none of you have spent much time on Facebook lately.

Please. Start talking. Before it's too late.


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