Family History for People of Color

The following guest post is by Michelle Franzoni Thorley. You can follow her extraordinary work about family history, race, generational trauma, and art at @flora_familiar on Instagram.

For many years members of my church would invite or sometimes guilt people into participating in family history.  Because family history is rewarding and really you have nothing to lose, right? Well, family history for POC and mixed race people can be very difficult. There are layers of generational trauma and oppression to deal with.  

Before I get into this, let me share an experience with you. I am an _Anne of Green Gables_ super-fan. I adore the series and I have actually read everything written by Lucy Maud Montgomery. I know Lucy struggled with depression and I felt I understood many of the complex emotions expressed in Anne. We were “kindred spirits.” That was until I read “Tannis of the Flats.” This short story about a young mixed race woman named Tannis. Here is a direct quote from the book:

 “Old Auguste was black and ugly and notoriously bad-tempered…Tannis’ great-grandmother had been a Cree squaw who married a French trapper… Auguste married a woman whose mother was a French half-breed and whose father was a pure-bred Highland Scotchman. The result of this atrocious mixture was its justification.” – Tannis of the Flats

I had to face the fact that Lucy and I were not “kindred spirits” after all.  She would not have seen a mixed race person like me as a friend.

While my pretend relationship with a complete stranger was sad for me, my connections and relationships with my ancestors was even more heartbreaking.  

I have always had a difficult time connecting to my male ancestors.  They made many mistakes that have had lasting generational effects. I have always tried to connect with my female ancestors because they seemed easier. Most of my female ancestors do not have documented histories or journals, but there are a few women that do. In some of these entries I have found racist remarks similar to that of Lucy Montgomery.   

How do you think it feels to know that your ancestors would have been ashamed of your very existence? Being mixed race means you are never going to make everyone happy. You are never enough for either side.  

You may be thinking that those words came from a different time and culture and that those women didn’t really mean what they wrote. But for me, writing and doing racist things out of a racist culture is still racism. I believe that what you do and what you say is a great reflection of who you are.  

Every Dia de Los Muertos, I think about how many of my ancestors on my ofrenda would not be happy about associating with an “Indian” holiday. Maybe they are “rolling over in their graves” at the thought of my mixed race existence. But I remember them anyway. I put them on my ofrenda as a way to give them a chance to change. I take them to the temple so that they can be cleansed from the blood and sins of their racist generation. Family history can be deeply sad for POC. It’s complicated. It’s hard emotional work. For me the hard work has been worth it. I am healing old wounds so my children won’t have to, or at least we can walk through difficult subjects together. I want my children to accept and feel proud of their family story. I am passing on a more loving and accepting family for the future.  

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7 Responses

  1. Patty Johnson says:

    Cleansed from the blood and sins of their racist generation. Powerful words, I’ve never thought of it that way before. Wow!

  2. Violadiva says:

    Michelle, Thank you for sharing this post! I admire the work you’re doing to heal the inter-generational trauma in your family, and for the strength you’re showing in standing in your voice and power. So well done ❤️

  3. Chiaroscuro says:

    Thank you! Appreciated your post sharing your complicated perspective on family history. Also, the reminder we all have work to heal our family stories.

  4. April says:

    So much yes! When I try to imagine a heavenly reunion of all of my ancestors I can’t see anything but violence. Part of my ancestors were colonizers that believed in white supremacy. Others were colonized and dispossessed of their lands and homes. Others were brought to Mexico as slaves. I imagine the colonizers would be disappointed I am not more white and delightsome. And that for my other ancestors my skin tone would represent rape and oppression perpetrated by the white ancestors. I imagine my brown and black ancestors might want some restorative justice, reparations or revenge. And I also struggle with the legacy of male ancestors that engaged in marital rape, polygamy, and murder and how that violence hurt my female ancestors. It is all so complicated!
    Too many family history testimonies sound like white supremacy humble bragging. “I am so blessed to be the daughter of white pioneers and super white Scandinavian ancestors.” It translates to me into something like ” I am so blessed that my white ancestors joined with your white ancestors to oppress and murder your other nonwhite ancestors.” On the white side of my family researching our history is also part of establishing bonafides for belonging to exclusive white groups like Daughters of Utah Pioneers or descendants of the Mayflower and that feels like me colluding in more white supremacy.
    Thank you for naming the complexity of family history for people of color and sharing your lived experience. And I too hope that in learning the history some ancestors are healed or made a little more whole by acts of rememberance.

  5. Ziff says:

    Thanks for sharing this, Michelle. I can’t imagine the heartbreak you’ve described, but I appreciate learning about it. I’m glad to hear that you’re improving things for generations that follow you.

  6. Bro. Jones says:

    Thanks for sharing. I’ve often joked that my family has a wildly diverse set of ancestors who will be united in the eternities by shared disappointment in their liberal, mixed-race descendants. In more hopeful moments, I imagine everyone in the afterlife being pleasantly surprised that they’re all related. But I’m snarkier than you, I think–when people have tried to cozy up to me and get me into family history, I reply something like, “Oh, I have many branches of the family. There’s the extended family I don’t have in Poland (thanks, Hitler!), the illiterate peasants in Asia who have no recorded history prior to three generations ago, and a whole bunch of African American folks who don’t have all that much written down prior to the mid-19th century for some reason I just can’t place at the moment. Which part would you like to learn more about?”

    • Teresa Hart says:

      I can so relate to your snarkier side being half Cherokee and gotten non-joy from both Sides. Isn’t it delightsome when strangers are weird about your heritage like
      You had a choice? And like you exist just to offend them and want you to just shut up because you are making them uncomfortable in their privileged live. I mean how dare me bring it up?

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