This morning, Beyoncé’s September cover of Vogue magazine was released. Beyoncé and her team, led by Tyler Mitchell, her handpicked 23-year-old photographer, exercised extraordinary control over the issue, from the cover to even the captions of each photograph. And it was with that control that Beyoncé invited Vogue’s readers to understand her without impediment.
The issue includes Beyoncé in Her Own Words, as she discusses experiences that range from pregnancy and body acceptance to the importance of legacy for her and her children. But perhaps most potent is one of Beyoncé’s shortest reflections: “I researched my ancestry recently and learned that I come from a slave owner who fell in love with and married a slave.”
It is this research, this understanding of where we come from, that will aid black people in, as Beyoncé says, “connecting to the past”. Living our lives informed by the history that “makes us both bruised and beautiful” will likely be the only way for us to begin reconciling with our past. Without this history, we live in danger of allowing narratives we didn’t generate telling our stories for us.
When armed with these narratives, we can start to rectify past injustices. For instance, in 2016, Georgetown University announced it would offer “preferential treatment in the admissions process to prospective students descended from enslaved people owned by the university”. Georgetown’s own archival and ancestral research, in partnership with genealogists, revealed that 272 slaves were sold by Georgetown to keep the school’s budgetary house in order.
Georgetown wasn’t alone in this discovery. By 2016, well over a dozen other prestigious institutions had begun interrogating their own sordid histories with slavery.
Exploring ancestry isn’t just an activity assumed by the academic institutions. In fact, it has become a popular activity for many Americans. According to the MIT Technology Review, in 2017, “genetic genealogy tests more than doubled” and “now exceeds 12m”. And with PBS specials like Finding Your Roots, hosted by Skip Gates, ancestral roots exploration has become more accessible.
But Tony Burroughs, founder of the Center for Black Genealogy, warns that “tracing African American ancestry can be particularly difficult”. Colonialism and slavery have made unearthing ancestral roots slightly more difficult for countless African Americans.
Enter the Robert Frederick Smith Explore Your Family History center at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The center is on the second floor of the museum and is a place where people can “find digital resources related to family history, receive expert guidance on how to conduct genealogical research”. Robert Smith, now the richest black person in the United States, funded this effort to “capture all of the records of the African American experience”.
While the collection isn’t exhaustive and more needs to be done, the true benefits of these digitized records, for Smith, lie in the living nature of the records and the unprecedented levels of accessibility to them. These records live on through the Community Curation online platform, which enables “participants to share their stories by uploading digitized photographs and video”. For Smith, “the real beauty is to give everybody a chance to put their family’s history and their narrative as part of the US here in a place that is accessible”.
Beyoncé’s mention of her ancestry might have passed us by in the visual splendor of the cover issue. But make no mistake: it mattered. Discovering who we are, what injustices we endured and at whose hands creates the necessary pretext for reconciliation. For Beyoncé, her ancestry unearthed an opportunity to disrupt “generational curses” and to ensure her children can live “less complicated lives”. For Georgetown, their look back ensured greater efforts toward education parity among races by offering preferential admissions treatment. And for the countless many who will visit the Smith Center, it may mean piecing together their family’s permanent place in the building of this country.
Rediscovering, reclaiming and reconciling our ancestral history comprises a noble enterprise in defining for ourselves who we are and hope to be, by telling the world who we’ve been.
Source: BEYONCE new