Your family tree is waiting

And it might be getting impatient. Now is the time!

Lost histories and forgotten ancestors just shouldn’t be a thing. So I’m in the business of getting family trees started. Check out the new pages of Black  Girl Gone, Seeking Ancestors, to learn about my family history research services. And once you’re ready for some answers of your own, let’s get started on your family tree.

Special offer for Black Girl Gone readers! 
Blog subscribers: receive a 10% discount if you submit a research request before August 31, 2014

Toni Morrison’s Bench by the Road
Sullivan’s Island, SC
http://www.tonimorrisonsociety.org/bench.html

Also, I remain committed to the powerful benefits of genealogy for young people with my nonprofit, Ancestors unKnown. (Stay tuned for an exciting reboot over there that’s coming soon.)

 

 

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Fears, doubts, inspirations and pink Cadillacs

I may have made some mistakes. But isn’t there some sort of saying about life being about taking risks, making a mess of things, and somehow coming out on top – or happier – or wiser – or some shit like that? If not, such a saying should exist.

I was in the U.S. for a couple of months a little while ago. I traveled quite a bit while there, getting to see lots (though not all) of the important people, including my Mom. It was at my Mom’s when I started to have some doubts about returning to Amsterdam. In a safe refuge where I was fed, emotionally supported, and understood the language spoken, I wondered if it was time to close the chapter and wrap up the fantasy of living in the Netherlands.Perhaps all signs were directing me back to a stable and U.S.-based reality.

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Ups and downs of starting up

I haven’t been doing much traveling recently. I’m pretty much staying still in my modest, rented apartment in Paramaribo, Suriname.  Having placed myself on a tight weekly budget, and with lots of work to do, I figure as little movement as possible is my best option.  Now you’re probably picturing me locked in a room, trying to turn straw into gold.  If so, you’re not far off. It’s just…where’s Rumpelstiltskin when you need him?

So I’m here working on the nonprofit startup, Ancestors unKnown.  Maybe you’ve heard about it?  Introducing young people to family history research and the commonly overlooked history of the African Diaspora.  That’s the vision.  And it’s definitely becoming a reality, beginning here in Suriname and Charleston, S.C.

comic reflections

(from facebook)

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A graduate has arrived

Have you ever driven an incredibly long distance? You sat  in the same position for far too long. You contemplated turning back at one point after you had already gone too far. Your vision started to blur as you fought the road doze. You wondered if the destination was was even worth it – why were you even going, again? You even considered just giving up and moving into that Motel 6 right there, making a new life in a town that may or may not be named after a klan member. But you kept going.

You know that feeling when you finally arrive and take that first step out of the driver seat?

Ahhhhhhhhhh.

Your muscles ache. Your ass is numb. And your brain is fuzzy. But you’ve arrived. No matter that it’s 2am and no one is awake to greet you. That first real (and audible) stretch of freedom is all you really needed anyway.

Well, congratulations. You know what it’s like to complete a Master’s degree. (I imagine a PhD would be more like arriving at the destination only to hop on a sailboat to cross the Atlantic?)

So, yes. Finally I am finished with school (for good this time – really, no more!).  A bit later than expected – technically I finished at the end of February 2013, when it was supposed to be more like August or September 2012. But this allowed one (and now two) trips to Suriname. And then things didn’t go as smoothly as I had hoped – I felt miserable quite a lot.  And I procrastinated just as much in my 30s as I did in my 20s…what can I say? Some things just don’t change.

But it was worth it.  Even if just to get on the cover, inside, and back of the University’s grad school brochure.  Supahstar.

2013 GSSS Brochure

After all of the writing, and reading, and ugh – all the thinking, it was worth it.  I finished what I started.  When the University sent me that email to let me know everything was processed and my diploma was printed, it marked an official end to the chapter that started this little, gigantic journey.

And when my friend sent me photos of my diploma (she picked it up since I’m not in Amsterdam), although I had already moved on to focus on Ancestors unKnown, I finally felt that relief of arrival.  

So I took a damn good and well-deserved stretch. But, ya know, my ass might still be numb.

BlackGirlDiploma - Gefeliciteerd!

BlackGirlDiploma – Gefeliciteerd!

Feeling pretty damn satisfied

I have this “I can’t wait until…” thing. Like, “I can’t wait to go home for Christmas break;” “I can’t wait till graduation;” “Oooh, I can’t wait to take a break from working;” and the most recent biggie: “I can’t wait to finish this damn thesis.” I’m constantly looking forward to something. Relatively happy, but for this one nagging circumstance that stands between me and ultimate happiness. When the objectives are achieved, I think there’s usually a moment (whether that’s actually a moment or several months) of celebrated achievement. Graduations from both undergrad and law school were acknowledged by spending a couple of months in Ghana, for example.  But for the most part, I spend my time anticipating something better.

The school I couldn’t wait to get into became the school from which I couldn’t wait to graduate. And the city to which I couldn’t wait to move became the city I couldn’t wait to leave (I’m not talking about Amsterdam here, promise). Kind of like a traveling version of “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction.”

But I think most of my anticipated next steps were actual upgrades, whether strategic or indulgent. And after getting through the recent full-time student dysfunction, I think I reached a real clearing.  Maybe there really was some sense to my madness.  Nowadays I’m spending about 90% of my productive time on turning my nonprofit fantasy into a real thing, splitting my time between research in the archives, meeting with remarkably brilliant and inspiring people, and doing laptop-type work from home – oftentimes outside on the porch  (maybe another 5% of productive time is spent on naps – I have no reason to be dishonest).  This was definitely the outcome I couldn’t wait for as I drudged through every forced word of my thesis (about a topic I love, mind you).  But could this also be one of the main points I’ve been anxious to reach all along?  

Living in a place I genuinely enjoy and feeling entirely on purpose, I’m finally feeling pretty damn satisfied.

Not to say I’m not still looking forward to the day I don’t have to worry about money. And absolutely by no means has everything fallen into place seamlessly.  I just have to remember to enjoy those challenges.  These are the types of problems for which I’ve been waiting!

And now, since I’ve been silent for an extended period, I’ll share a mostly unrelated story:

A few nights ago I went to an event in the center of town.  I walked the half mile (or so) to the bus stop.  And I took the bus (1.60 SRD).  The buses are essentially vans – if you appreciate a Ghana reference, they’re like decent tro-tros without the mates.  Vague stop locations, uncomfortable middle seats that require constantly lifting your seat to get out of the way, and a relatively cheap fare paid when exiting. Everyone seems to know what’s going on, even when it’s completely unclear.  And I always feel like the only one anxiously looking over my shoulder when an unexpected turn is made, strategically plotting my exit strategy.

But anyway, there are a couple of bus routes that now make me feel like a local. So I was relatively confident on this night, flagging the poorly lit and barely distinguishable bus after dark. Although sometimes I get on and sit down in one of the awkward middle seats before I realize that I’ve walked irrevocably far from a preferred seat, this time I got a window seat in one of the ideal rows – right by the door and only an arm’s reach from the driver.  But as I settled into the best seat I had ever gotten, I became aware of a strange silence. Everyone was super still, looking forward. It felt kind of eerie – too calm.

But I wasn’t finished reflecting on the weird quiet people before Pebbles started singing “Mercedes Boy.”  It turns out this bus had driven straight out of my 80s-music-loving subconscious.  And it took every ounce of power I had not to dance through the whole ride. Eventually I reached my stop and had to leave the most favorite-weirdo-80s-bus-of-my-dreams during “Don’t Disturb This Groove.”  Bizarrely, it was the first stop the bus made since I had gotten on.  And when I got off, the bus waited at least 45 seconds before pulling off. I could still faintly hear the music as I turned the corner.

After the event, I hoped to retrieve my 80s-dream-bus bliss on another reasonably priced ride home.  But someone offered to drive me.  And for a second I actually thought, “damn, I couldn’t wait to take the bus.”

A new audience

For the first time in a very long time, I wasn’t unhappy to be somewhere at 9 a.m. on a Saturday.  Believe it or not, I was even early.  At the National Archives of Suriname, I was meeting the participants in the local genealogy project for the first time.

When I was in Suriname last year, I developed the project in partnership with two organizations: Naks, well-known for its education and celebration of Afro-Surinamese cultural heritage, and Evangelische Broeder Gemeente in Suriname (EBGS), responsible for the archives of Suriname’s Moravian Church.  Both groups are invested in history, ancestors, education, and young people.  And each group has its own youth audience. So it made sense to approach them with the idea of introducing genealogy research to a new audience of Afro-Surinamese young people, combining the extensive archives of EBGS and the historical knowledge of Naks.  

Although logical, the plan wasn’t without concerns.  Mainly, the two groups don’t typically work together.  The church group is typically opposed to the African history side of things, choosing the teachings of the missionaries in their approach to education, perpetuating beliefs that  African ancestors = non-Christian =  bad (I’m going to do my best to stay neutral here, since these are my friends).  Since Naks openly celebrates traditions that are rooted in African heritage, they have a tendency to rub the Christians the wrong way. You know, with the voodoo and all.

But both groups assured me this would be a perfect opportunity for a bridge to mend an arbitrary divide.  If young people from Naks and EBGS could come together to learn about a common Surinamese history, while identifying their ancestors and where they come from, a step could be made in a new direction.  Everyone (well, at least the decision makers) was on-board to cooperate and experiment with the new partnership.

My other concern had nothing to do with Suriname, but young people everywhere.  I wasn’t so sure the passion for genealogy research would translate for a non-retiree audience.  I pictured teenagers losing their eyesight from deeply-committed eye-rolls, incapable of seeing documents that were not produced by and/or for their phones. And I feared history and ancestors would be rejected by a forward-thinking generation.  My insecurities had me convinced I was too idealistic in thinking young lives could be impacted and changed through knowledge of the past.  But again, Naks and EBGS assured me their young people would get it.  They assured me it would work.

So in spite of my unplanned return to Amsterdam, planning for the project continued. Thirteen participants were identified for a pilot run of the project, 5 from Naks and 8 from EBGS.  They kicked-off with a special event back in November.  And the bi-monthly sessions began in January, alternating between genealogy research with EBGS and Surinamese cultural heritage workshops with Naks.  I had been receiving updates and general assurances that things were “going well.”  But I still wondered if they were just keeping secret the fact that the young people were bored to tears – that is, when they weren’t sparring with crucifixes and voodoo dolls.

Now that I’m back in Suriname, Saturday was my first opportunity to see it firsthand – see my idea come to life, see it actually working.  So I woke up early.

Not all of the participants were there, 3 or 4 were missing, I think.  And not all of them are young, with ages ranging from late teens to early 30s.  But that didn’t matter even a little bit (at least they were under 70, right?).  I couldn’t have been happier to see them.

To begin the research process, they had already spoken with their families, arriving at this session with hand-written notes on their family trees.  They introduced themselves and explained their interest in their ancestry, and why they wanted to know where they came from (most of this was in Dutch –  I did my best to follow).  They listened intently to the brief lecture/explanation from the Archives staff.  They welcomed me and my brief introduction with smiles (and embarrassing applause).  They broke into groups and helped each other comb through the census archives.  They chatted with me and answered my random questions enthusiastically.  They took vigorous notes.  They even went over time and continued to research.  And although I was looking at them carefully, I didn’t see one yawn or eye-roll.  They actually seemed interested. And when the session ended, they planned to return on their own time to continue researching.

It was like a dream come true.  Beyond the empowerment of these young people to do their own research and learn the value of their own histories, I was excited for their ancestors. Finally recognized.  Finally going to be known.

Gosh, I cried a little when I got home.

So now what?

I can’t count how many times I’ve been asked this question.  It’s a good one. And folks seem worried.  School is basically finished (actually, it’s not until this month ends. but that’s a story I’d rather not get into).  And school was my reason/pretext for moving to Amsterdam.  Without school as my gravity, I find myself suspended in an area of uncertainty. Where to go? What to do? Who to be? How to find that wealthy benefactor to support the fulfillment of my remaining dreams?  Yeah, folks are definitely worried.

But from my point of view, this is freedom at its best. The next steps are up to me – and only me.  Of course I need to feed myself, sleep under a roof (most days), and maintain basic levels of hygiene.  But outside of these responsibilities of adulthood, which sometimes can be achieved creatively, I can go almost anywhere.  This is when I finally get to dance outside of that commonly-mentioned box, which my thinking already escaped long ago.  And it’s going to be like one of those James Brown-fancy footwork-shimmy shake-wipe the sweat off my face-type of dances.

I’ve made some decisions about what I want in the coming months, years, and lifetimes.  Some I’ve known for quite some time, such as wanting to create opportunities and broaden the horizons of young Black people.  Others have evolved over time, like my belief in the impact of genealogy research.  And now, here I am, being pushed, guided, and supported right into the opportunities that will allow me to live an adult life I love.  Having suspended the fear of uncertainty, I’m happy to realize that the universe has been working in my favor (even on the days I’m not).

In The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho has countless quotes that resonate.  In this instance, I think of this: “When someone makes a decision, [s]he is really diving into a strong current that will carry [her] to places [s]he had never dreamed of when [s]he first made the decision.” Yes. Yes, indeed.

So back in November, shortly after I returned to the Netherlands from Suriname, I regretted not being able to stay for the implementation of a youth ancestry research project I had designed.  I wondered how I was going to find and afford a place to stay in Amsterdam after January.  And I received an incredible offer: return to Suriname…on us (well, the plane ticket)…for as long as you’re willing to stay and work on this project.

Awwww yeah. Offer accepted.

From there, life got tougher in Amsterdam, as if the city was pushing me away.  Zora died.  The drains in my apartment started spewing other people’s poo (literally). My bike was stolen.  Money was low (well, that was nothing new – but you get the point).  I needed a break.  I was ready to go.  Not forever.  Just for a few months – say, maybe seven.

So now what?  Well, I have returned to Suriname, of course.  On Friday, the day after my birthday (not necessarily relevant – just important that you know), I began my seven-month stay.  I’ll be working on this local ancestry project.  I’ll be looking for some sustainable income. And I’ll be laying the groundwork for my very own organization that will introduce young Black people to their ancestors and new perspectives of history.  And I’ll be absorbing as much warmth as Suriname is willing to share.

Once I’m finished here in September, I plan to return to Amsterdam.  But while I continue to dance on the path outside of the box, as Coelho pointed out, next I might be carried to places I never dreamed of.  So who knows?  I’m just continuing to take this sometimes intimidating, usually nerve-wracking, always satisfying journey one step at a time.

So no more questions, please.

(just kidding. you can ask me questions. just don’t be surprised if you’re not satisfied with my answer.)