Identity. Do you know what makes you who you are? Do you know where you come from or your family history? Due to slavery, many Black people don’t know a lot of their ancestry, especially prior to the 1870 census. Pew Research noted that the records of slaves were handwritten, not maintained, or simply lost. Because of this, there are many people who could be walking right past a family member and not even know it. Some may say that all our Identity was taken away from us, our history, our lineage, and our DNA, because of slavery.
There were many slave owners that had children with their female slaves. The children that were born were not acknowledged as the slave owner’s child but became property of the slave owner since they were inherently black. This was also due to the one drop rule. According to PBS, this rule was defined during the Jim Crow era which meant that if you had a single drop of Black blood in you, then you were considered Black. There was also a double standard. According to the National Archives, if children were born to a slave mother, they would automatically become slaves themselves, but if they were born to a White mother and had a slave father, they would then be exempt from being slaves themselves. It was also easier and cheaper for slave owners to have slave children than to go buy slaves.
So much of our identity comes from slavery which could explain why there is so much division in the Black race to this day. Even color has shaped our identity and has played a major role in how we view people, even within the Black race. For example, if you were darker, it was noted that you were a field slave. If you were light skinned, then you were a house slave. This division could have also contributed to the creation of colorism, which happens when someone is discriminatory against individuals who are dark skinned and who come from the same racial group. For example, you may have heard the term Creole, which comes out of Louisiana. Individuals who are called Creole usually are mixed from different ethnic backgrounds that make up Africa, French, and Spanish colonists. These individuals are typically light skinned and have a resemblance of Caucasian features. It is through instances like this that continues to create a great divide in the black community and the everlasting question of who is considered Black?
Knowing who we are is important as it can answer many questions that we may have about ourselves. It can also save us. If you know your family has a history of certain health challenges, being informed of that knowledge can help you in the long run. It may help prevent an illness or help you know what to look for in case a health issue arises.
Pew Research conducted a study on Black identity and how much history do Black individuals know regarding slavery and their ancestral background. When it came down to how many Blacks used online services to help them learn more about their background, 43% of individuals used online sites and mail in services such as 23andme and AncestryDNA. In addition, 76% of the individuals surveyed said they have spoken with relatives to learn more about their history. If you have an elder in your family, talk to them. People who have been around a long time can be the missing piece to solve the family puzzle. Even if they may not have all the answers, they may give you a clue or a nugget that helps steer you in the right direction.
When it comes to Black history, this can also be a factor in helping you understand who you are and your family background. History has played a vital role in the identity of Black people. It is the one place where you can learn about your ancestry whether you know who your family members are or not. History paints the picture of what our ancestors had to fight for and go through to try to obtain a better life. It is through history that we learn about their resilience, their strength, and their motivation to fight. If we don’t know history, and if we aren’t passing history down to our kids, we are enslaving their future. When it came down to racial history, Pew Research noted that 51% of Black adults felt informed about the history of Black people in the U.S. Additionally, 37% felt somewhat informed, and 11% felt a little informed or not informed at all.
We live in a world that wants to ban books about race, hatred, racism, and so much more. We live in a world that thinks we can simply erase hundreds of years of oppression and just start over as if none of it happened. We can’t do that. We can’t allow legislation to take away a part of our identity. And we can’t depend on our schools to teach our kids about our history. Yes, slavery was horrible. Yes, racism existed and still exists now, but it is a part of our story. Black people have been through a lot over the years, but we are resilient, and we can overcome whatever we are faced with. The past has taught us that.
One of the greatest things about our time is technology. There is no reason for anyone to not be informed about Black history in the United States. If you don’t know your history, it’s because you have chosen not to be informed. We must depend on the past, so that we can shape our future. We have an opportunity to shape change in the way that still includes us and our identity. Like James Baldwin said, “If you know whence you came, there is really no limit to where you can go.”