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Knowing Your Past: It's A Privilege!

I am very fortunate to have been able to discover many generations of my family. On my paternal side, despite early setbacks due to missing information, I have been able to track back over 40 generations which is incredible. I have only been able to do this due to the myriad of ancestors who were nobles, or otherwise well documented historical figures.

On my maternal side, my luck has not been the same. My maternal grandmother's side of the family, the side that I thought I had known best, has sat at a roadblock now for 20 years. My maternal grandmother's father's (my great-grandfather) side of the family hits a dead end at his father. Even so, I have been able to discover a great deal about my maternal great-grandfather's family.

Even though I have been stuck on finding my maternal great-grandfather's family, I still consider myself very fortunate to have been able to find out so much about my direct and extended ancestors, something that a lot of people cannot do.

I have been watching the PBS genealogy show "Finding Your Roots" for quite some time, and this show has taught me a lot about how difficult - if not impossible - it is for millions of people to discover the story of their ancestors. "Finding Your Roots" has celebrity guests on the show, and they attempt to piece together the genealogy of their guests. Often then have African-American guests on the show, and it is this particular demographic that faces some of the greatest challenges in discovering their own family's history. Why? It's due to slavery, an abhorrent scar on the face of our history which continued in America until December 18, 1865. The UK & its colonies, including Canada, abolished slavery in 1834.

The laws making slavery illegal in Canada and the US are less than 200 years old (188 years in Canada and 157 years in the US). 1865 was not really that long ago when we are talking about the number of generations in a family. My maternal great-great grandparents were born between 1840 and 1870, and my paternal great-great grandparents were born between 1840 and 1861. That means that going back 3 generations in my own family, many of my great-great grandparents were born while slavery was still in place in the US, and only a few years after slavery had been abolished in the UK and Canada.

Why do I mention this? I mention this because millions of people of African descent cannot trace their family history back this far, and tracing their roots back through more generations is even more difficult, or even impossible. This is due to the way that their ancestors - slaves - were treated as property. Their ancestors were bought and sold, their families torn apart and scattered throughout states, provinces and countries that participated in the vile slave trade. Slaves were not seen as people; they were mere possessions of their "owners" - their family history did not matter so records were often not kept, and if they were, they were identified only by age and a first name.

For hundreds of years Europeans bought and sold slaves, treating these people as mere property. During this dark period in our history, families were torn apart as slave "owners" (I hate using that phrase as I don't believe that anyone can or should own another human being) sold children and parents to new owners. Imagine having your child or parent sold and taken away from you, never to be seen again. It must have been horrific.

For people of African descent in North America and Europe, these diabolical practices have left millions with little chance of building a family tree beyond a few generations. This is shown time and time again on shows such as "Finding Your Roots" and documented in countless articles. For anyone descended from slaves, this has to be a constant reminder of the pain and horrors that their ancestors went through.

Now that DNA testing is widely available, many people descended from slaves are able to at least find other genetic matches. This will never replace a written history of their families, but hopefully this science will help them identify some of their long-lost family members.

On last night's episode of "Finding Your Roots", it was mentioned that a very significant percentage of African Americans carry up to 25% European DNA. This European (read: white) DNA could have occurred in many ways, but in a large number of cases, it was most likely due to a white slave owner, or son of the slave owner, having children with a black slave woman. In some cases this may have been the result of an illicit affair (it was illegal for mixed races to marry until the late 1960s in many US states), but most likely the offspring were the product of rape.

In my immediate family, back as far as I have been able to research, I am glad that I have not found an immediate ancestor who was a slave owner. However, I have found distant cousins who "owned" slaves, and that may explain some of my DNA matches. For people like myself that have DNA matches to individuals who are not of European descent, I ask that you do not deny this connection and, if asked, offer whatever help and information you can to other DNA matches. Everyone deserves to know where they come from, and the information that you have may just be the information that your match is looking for.


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