During the nearly one year that I spent in Haiti, there was one question that I was asked every single day, multiple times a day: “Ayisyen ou ye?” Are you Haitian? When I’d say no, I’m American, most would look surprised. After pausing for a moment, they’d then ask if my mother or father are Haitian, and when I replied no to both, they’d ask if my grandparents are Haitian. Again, I’d respond no. Some people thought I was lying – something I never quite understood. (Why would I lie in Haiti about being Haitian?) Others would look at me quizzically and asked why I looked Haitian if I wasn’t. (Much to my surprise, there are many Haitians who are unaware that African slaves existed in other countries.)
Although I’m not Haitian, there is a strong sense of kinship I feel with the Haitian people. Perhaps because of our shared origins, being in Haiti felt like home to me. There were many elements of the culture that had a ring of familiarity, and looking into the faces of Haitian people was often like looking at a family portrait. But the more people asked if I was Haitian, some insisting that their query had less to do with my skin color and more to do with the way I spoke Creole and carried myself, the more I began to wonder if I in fact had ancestral ties to the country.
I’ve always wondered about my ancestors and wanted to learn more about the people that survived the transatlantic journey from Africa to the New World, then endured the harsh conditions of life as a slave and second-class citizen. So in the late 1990s, I began conducting genealogy research to learn more about my family’s history. Over the last 15 years I’ve spent countless hours combing through census reports, obituaries, death and birth certificates, as well as talking with family, distant relatives and the family who owned the land on which my family sharecropped. Based on that research, I learned a lot that I and other family members didn’t know. Additionally, I was able to confirm long-standing rumors/speculation of Native American (Choctaw) ancestry. But perhaps the most interesting piece of information was from a DNA test my mom took. According to the test results, we share ancestry with the Yoruba people in current day Nigeria. (The DNA test my mom took was from African Ancestry and only traced maternal genetic ancestry. A male family member can take the test to trace paternal genetic ancestry.)
Despite having this information, however, I still don’t feel as though I know much about my ancestors; especially the stories behind the people. I often dream about being able to trace their exact journey from Africa to the United States and learn all the details about the challenges they faced along the way. But I know how impossible that is. Instead, I’m left to speculation.
History suggests that my ancestors likely spent time in the Caribbean before being shipped off to the southern United States. And the Yoruba people didn’t only exist in Nigeria. There’s a large group of them next door in the Republic of Benin (formerly Dahomey), where many Haitians can trace their African ancestry. Hmmm…makes me wonder.
Questions from Haitians about my ancestral background have re-ignited my desire to learn about past generations of my family. As such, I plan to resume my genealogy research. I know it will be a challenge, but I’m sure what I’m able to find out about myself and my family will make it all worth it. Stay tuned…