[ gree-oh, gree-oh, gree-ot ]
a member of a hereditary caste among the peoples of western Africa whose function is to keep an oral history of the tribe or village and to entertain with stories, poems, songs, dances, etc. Origin < French, earlier guiriot, perhaps ultimately < Portuguese criado domestic servant, altered in W African coastal creoles
Dictionary.com Unabridged, based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, ©Random House, Inc.
I am not a griot in the traditional sense of the word, right? I am not West African (though my DNA says that some of my people came from there). I do not entertain with songs or dance, though I have been known to write a poem or two. I don’t occupy a formal and special role in my family as an advisor or instrumentalist. Practically speaking, however, I am a griot in the sense that I preserve my ancestors’ history and record their stories in my mind and on paper. I speak their lives through my words and share their struggles and their victories with the children who never got to know them. I am passing along a tradition that I have inherited from my grandmothers and hope to pass on to my children. I am a historian. I am a storyteller. I am a genealogist.
In the summer of 2018, my husband wanted to use our family vacation time to visit some civil war and civil rights sites. We decided to call our trip Civil Pursuits. We visited one plantation, two Civil War military parks, and three civil rights museums throughout Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee. One of the most impactful experiences was going through the Two Mississippi Museums, particularly the Mississippi Museum of Civil Rights. Walking through the 8 rooms documenting the history of blacks in the United States from the arrival of the first slaves to the present day, I saw my ancestors everywhere!
I wondered about the Igbo tribesmen who were caught and sold into hands guiding slave ships to the coasts of Virginia. I shuddered to think about my distant grandmother who was bred to provide her master more laborers for the cotton fields of Louisiana. I mourned for her daughter who screamed as her own family was being wrenched apart for distribution to her master’s children upon his death. I imagined my great-great grandmother’s brothers’ being lynched because they stood up to an overseer who berated their mother. I wondered what perils my black, Civil War veteran faced as he fled his plantation to join the Union and how and why he travelled from North Carolina to Texas in the months following emancipation. I wondered why my white, West Virginia, Civil War-veteran ancestors fought for the Confederacy and how they confronted the defeat and re-established themselves afterward. My heart swelled with pride to reflect on my great-grandfather’s contributions to his community as a business owner, with his day time corner store and night time juke joint. What was it like for my grandmother to be the valedictorian of her class at Phyllis Wheatley High School at an age when black-only schools were the norm and a source of pride and joy for our people? The photos of the 1968 March on Washington reminded me of photos I had seen in my grandparents’ house – had my father been there – what was that like for him? Remembering my time in college, there was that one march protesting the Hopwood Decision…What was my contribution to history? What more impact will I have?
What a wonderful adventure it was to take this Civil Pursuits trip with my own little family and carry my ancestors with me, in a sense. It made me want to delve even deeper into the mysteries of my genealogy research and contextualize my findings in a meaningful way. With this blog, I intend to present vignettes of my relatives in light of social and historical trends of yesterday and today, and in view of what lies ahead tomorrow. I also intend to present information about how you can explore your own family history and be inspired by it. I invite you to join me on this story-telling journey.