Motivational Monday: Writing my Family’s History

This week, Brain, Child magazine is featuring an essay that I wrote for them several years ago.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but the topic of the essay was the impetus for me to start tracing my family tree.  Somewhere along the line of going back into my family’s past, after  starting this blog, finding real live family members as well as artifacts on my family, I decided to write a memoir. (God willing) I”m in the home stretch.  Finishing a project is always much more difficult for me than beginning, so it was a nice little sign from the universe when Brain, Child decided to feature the piece that got me going on this journey in the first place.  You can read the essay here:

I got an extra dose of inspiration last Friday when I had the great pleasure of hosting a book club that included the author of the book we were discussing.  Our club’s pick this month was the New York Times bestseller “Orphan Train,” by Christina Baker Kline.  The night was such a treat:  The novel takes a forgotten part of American history and weaves it into a compelling journey.  The author brought her dad along.  I got to ask a question about her book’s structure which I thought  worked so well, something I”m struggling with in my own memoir.

The night was inspiring.  Her obvious passion and enthusiasm for the real life orphan train riders that she met in the course of researching her book stoked a flame that’s been waning in me. For your own bit of inspiration, here’s the book trailer:

Celebrating Kwanzaa (and Shakespeare)

My daughters celebrating the last night of Kwanzaa, 2008

This is the second year in a row that our family is celebrating Kwanzaa. My daughters love taking turns lighting the beautifully carved kinara and drinking from its matching unity cup at the beginning of each of the seven nights of the ceremony. My husband loves helping them with the kinara and I love setting out all the Kwanzaa symbols on the mkekes that my daughters made out of construction paper last year.

We’re building our own traditions as we go along into this 40 year old celebration of African American heritage, one of which is to go around the table and say what the principle of the evening means to us. (Kwanzaa is based on seven principles: umoja - unity, kujichagulia – self-determination, ujima - collective work and responsibility, ujamaa - cooperative economics, nia – purpose, kuumba – creativity, and imani – faith).

Since we’re still new at Kwanzaa, I wanted to make sure the girls remembered the real purpose of the celebration which is not, as I’m sure they hoped, another way of getting more gifts. So on the first night this year, I asked them if they knew why we celebrated.

“Family unity,” the youngest exclaimed.

“To honor our African ancestors,” the oldest one added.

Both right. For me it’s to reclaim what we lost in the middle passage when our ancestors were brought here as slaves: our African language, our African traditions and our African names.

My youngest daughter wanted to know if Tempy was really my great great grandmother’s name since our ancestor’s African names were lost. It’s a good question. While I know from census reports that Tempy was born in Louisiana and not Africa, there’s no way for me to know who gave Tempy her name, if it was her parents who could have been more closely connected to their African roots or if it was her white master. Her last name, Burton was most likely her first master’s surname, something I’m still investigating. I’ve seen some documents where she is referred to as Tempy Burton Stuart, the final name belonging to her final masters, Elizabeth and Col. W.R. Stuart. But it’s the Burton name that has endured and wherever it came from, it’s weaved its way through our family tree. Burton was my great grandmother Josephine’s surname, my great uncle’s first name, and my father’s middle name.

My family continues this tradition of honoring our ancestors on both sides of our tree by carrying on their names. My youngest daughter and I have the same middle name, shared with my maternal grandmother, Louise Walton. My oldest daughter’s middle name honors my maternal great grandmother, Marie Anderson as well as my mother in law, Claire Marie Kurtti. Incidentally, my great grandmother Marie’s real name was Lucy, but she didn’t like it so she changed it. That’s self-determination for you, or kujichagulia – Kwanzaa’s second principle.

“What’s in a name?” Juliet asked in Shakespeare’s play with the profundity reserved for teenagers hopelessly in love. For her and Romeo, their last names sealed their tragic fates. For Malcolm X, his last name Little, was the sore reminder of the man who held his ancestors in bondage, so he dropped it and went with X instead. For Temple Burton, her last name let her Civil War era world know who she belonged to. For me, my last names Burton, Stuart, Ford and now Kurtti are a road map over the terrain my family has traveled through slavery into emancipation, along the craggy paths of reconstruction and now in the uncharted waters of the present where, with all of this history blowing at my back, I can move forward with a quick and certain step and decide for myself who I will be.

For more information about Kwanzaa, check out the official website at www.officialkwanzaawebsite.org.

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