In all of us there is a hunger, marrow-deep, to know our heritage – to know who we are and where we have come from. Without this enriching knowledge, there is a hollow yearning. No matter what our attainments in life, there is still a vacuum, an emptiness, and the most disquieting loneliness.
This quote from Alex Haley, author of Roots, struck a nerve for me. It made sense of the immense satisfaction my research team and I feel when we present people with their family history. To feed a person’s deep hunger for knowledge about themselves is a real privilege and one that gives us great pleasure.
Often, the yearning to know about our past begins to gnaw at us when we reach middle age – when the realisation dawns that we have lived half our life already and that we are, in fact, mortal. Unless you believe in an afterlife as I do, mortality can be hard to accept. Will your life here on earth simply come to an end? Will all the pain, joy and achievement, all the striving, working and loving that has gone on over your lifetime just cease to exist? I’m sure that this thought leads to the ‘vacuum’ and ‘emptiness’ that Haley refers to in his quote and with that emptiness comes the feeling of being very alone. This is, perhaps, the primary reason why we search out our ancestors. Subconsciously, we are looking for our tribe, a group of people who were like us; who shared our experiences, our struggles and our hopes. Genealogy provides us with a bridge to those people.
Haley’s novel, Roots, was written after he traced his own ancestry through six generations – slaves and freedmen, farmers and architects – back to Africa. It was there he discovered Kunta Kinte. This young man, who had been torn from his home in the Gambia in 1767 and taken to the slave markets of the New World, held the key to Haley’s past. Kinte’s struggles, his perseverance and courage must have encouraged Haley to find those own traits in himself as he faced both racism in his American homeland and Nazism when he served in the United States Coast Guards during World War Two. Resurrecting Kinte’s life and struggle through a novel must have brought Haley hope that his own life would also mean something to the generations to come and that there was a purpose in all the suffering that he experienced. Hayley’s past spoke to him about his future.
Personally, I found it very comforting to see my name on a family tree for the first time. I was at the very bottom of the chart, with just my children’s names beneath me, but as I traced up through my grandparents and their parents and grandparents, who have all died, I realised that I was part of a great tribe of people, that we belonged to each other and that, one day, my name would also be higher up the tree, with descendants beneath and relatives on all sides. I imagined the struggles that my predecessors had gone through, the achievements, the kindnesses, the losses and the heartaches and knew that I could find some of their strength in me to tackle my own obstacles in life.
The challenge that came was: What I would be remembered for? What would they say about old grandma Drake in generations to come? That question has been a great motivator for me to live every day with renewed purpose. I’m probably not going to end up rich or famous, discover new lands or medicines, or even make the evening news. Perhaps I’ll be remembered as the one who pieced together and recorded the names of my small clan; someone who built a bridge between the past and the future for my own family. That would be enough for me.
Discussion: How would you like to be remembered by generations to come? Has any one character from your ancestry particularly inspired you?