Rachel L. Mordecai
As Erna Brodber reminds us, “Bloodlines are dear to everyone.”1 My interest in genealogy stems from my current book project, a study of Caribbean family sagas – or perhaps the reverse is true. Perhaps I began thinking about family sagas because I am, as it would seem a lot of people are, obsessed with the “begat” trope, as old as the Book of Genesis and probably older, which explains people’s existence by reference to other people and creates webs of diachronic and synchronic (af)filiation. The ubiquity of this fascination is richly evidenced by the persistent popularity of genealogical research and genetic testing as both personal project (investigating one’s own heritage) and spectator sport (watching this process play out for others in everything from YouTube videos to television series on PBS and the BBC). And of course, genealogy can be instrumentalized, sometimes to pernicious effect – from Rachel Manley’s reference to the black ancestor who supplied “in the world of Caribbean politics, the family’s legitimizing genetic credential,”2 to the ADOS movement currently dividing the US-based black population by advocating that reparations be reserved only for those who can prove descendancy from a person enslaved in the United States.3
Obviously, this is not a peculiarly Caribbean phenomenon, yet it arguably acquires a particular shape and force in the Caribbean context. Kamau Brathwaite’s 1996 essay “Note(s) on Caribbean Cosmology” – among its many affordances – demonstrates that some portion, at least, of the contemporary Caribbean’s intellectual and cultural project can be broadly described as a search for origins. That is, we spend a lot of time trying to trace and explain who we are. Collectively, culturally. So Brathwaite spends a lot of time in this essay naming current Caribbean cultural phenomena and explaining them with reference to their roots. He also voices (or perhaps ventriloquizes) in that essay a simultaneous desire for and anxiety about individual genealogical knowledge: “while I struggle in my family to discern a clear line of four or five generations, my ChineseJamaica [sic] friend calmly says that he traces back 500 generations – so you can see the kind of arithmetic his culture has to do – and does!”4
As at least one of the artifacts below reveals, personal genealogical information is not necessarily more readily available to Chinese Caribbean people than to others in the region. My point here is rather that Brathwaite enshrines a call for knowledge of one’s personal ancestry within a broader essay on the collective cultural ancestry of the Caribbean, reminding us that these endeavors (the individual and the collective) are intertwined and mutually co-constituting – and, it should be said, similarly fraught. A central question my book asks is: What traces do Caribbean family sagas bear of their emergence from a collision zone between the obsession with origins and the gaps, erasures and distortions of Caribbean history? It seems to me that the digital artifacts gathered here also reward this kind of interrogation.
Genealogy is fraught in the Caribbean context because of the region’s originary catastrophes and displacements: colonialism, the genocide of indigenous people, the enslavement of Africans and indenture of Asians. All created ruptures – some more absolute than others – in connection, kinship webs, knowledge of ancestry: the founts that feed genealogical practice. These ruptures are further exacerbated by plantation logics; there are multiple factors at work here, but these stand out: i) record-keeping practices predicated on treating people as no more than units of labour; ii) misnaming and renaming practices;5 iii) patterns of sexual and reproductive exploitation. The record-keeping improves at various points (different points in the very distinct historical trajectories of the different countries and territories) so that it can better track the family histories of a broader set of Caribbean peoples. But, as Dionne Brand powerfully conveys in A Map to the Door of No Return, the original displacements persist, arguably haunting all genealogical projects in one way or another.6 What does genealogy mean in a region where entire populations of enslaved people were never recorded by name in written documents, where genealogical records are sparse for much of the population even after that point, where the complex and dynamic practices that create families and kinship networks are (or were until very recently) pathologized far more often than they are respected, investigated and documented?
In academia we speak often about literary and intellectual genealogies: how specific ideas or pieces of work are indebted to the thought or work that preceded them. The collection I have assembled here explicitly sidesteps that usage to focus on the more quotidian understanding of the word: the practice by which an individual’s ancestry and kinship are traced, and the body of information resulting from that process. My intention is that these links should help us think about the work that genealogy gets asked to do in the Caribbean and in Caribbean studies, the personal, professional and institutional purposes that it is called upon to serve, and the conditions under which it labours – conditions, as I note above, produced by the historical processes that are themselves the origin story of the contemporary Caribbean. The traces of these conditions can be observed throughout the following collection in the recurrence of three motifs: i) the intersection of personal genealogical interests with collective and national(ist) projects; ii) genealogy figured as antidote to a perceived lack or absence; and iii) the deployment of speculation and improvisation as strategies for redressing archival insufficiency.
Curatorial Note: A digital – largely graphic and interactive – representation of archival research carried out by Richard S. Dunn, the site uses recovered genealogies of enslaved families to frame a comparative historical argument about slavery in two locations (Jamaica and Virginia, USA), producing transnational conceptual connections between the Caribbean and the US. It reproduces the same genealogical information (for six families across two plantations) in multiple formats: Dunn’s hand-drawn family tree for one family; interactive family trees for all families, with each node linking to a mini-biography of the named person; family lists; and finally a brief analysis. Mining the information from plantation inventories, the text describes the project as “interpreting … against the grain” (improvisation) in response to “bare [archival] traces” (lack) and posits itself as pushing back against plantation logics of “proprietary accounting” – and yet this kind of document (inventory, ledger) is where the genealogies of New World black people so often begin.
Curatorial Note: Baksh’s video, in which she reveals the results of her Ancestry DNA test, evidences all three major themes of this collection: how personal genealogical projects proceed from a perceived lack; how they are entangled with national(ist) projects; and how they employ speculation and improvisation in the face of archival insufficiency. Baksh reveals a wish to reconnect with a South Asian ancestral heritage from which she feels removed, and also to confront attempts to position her outside Guyanese identity: “It hurts my heart when my own Guyanese people don’t think I’m Guyanese.” As a response, the video and its paratext are replete with nationalist traces, including quoting the national motto. It ends by decrying the insufficient detail about South Asian genetic heritage in the test results, and describes the improvisational strategies Baksh uses to compensate, including crowd-sourcing: “If you guys have any comments or more information of what you think my ethnicity may be,” the description says, “I’d love to read them!”
Curatorial Note: Composed primarily of transcriptions of archival documents, this site is the kind of artifact that comes readily to mind when thinking of “genealogy”: a portal through which people search records for traces of their ancestors. It figures genealogy as a worthy project – including lots of advice and how-to’s, it is intended as a resource for genealogical research in general, beyond the use of the site itself. Similar projects are to be found in Barbados, the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and elsewhere but unlike those, this is largely the work of one person, emerging out of Jackson’s personal genealogical interests; it includes a biography and a second biography (called “Biography 2”) about her spiritual journey. Here again, however, we see genealogy as a work of personal identity-construction entangled with national(ist) narratives: the site includes many maps and images with no clear connection to genealogical research, and the first page opens with a potted history of the country and foregrounds the national motto.
Title: Banque Numérique des Patrimoines Martiniquais
Creator: Collectivité territoriale de la Martinique, Direction des Affaires Culturelles, Naoned Systèmes - Logiciel Mnesys, and Naomis
Steward: Collectivité territoriale de la Martinique
Curatorial Note: This site incorporates a section on genealogical records into a broader project dedicated to preservation of the communal Martinican patrimony – here again, a signal that family genealogy is implicitly imbricated with nationalist projects. Under “Services – Public” the site offers a downloadable “Guide to Genealogical Research in Martinique” and specifically foregrounds opportunities to redress gaps produced by enslavement’s effect on genealogy, with sidebar links like “Finding your slave ancestors.” It offers details about the archive to which this link applies, noting that it comprises registers “used to record the civil status of the freed population. They go back to July 1848. This is when family names were given to the slaves, who previously did not have one.”
Curatorial Note: A “how-to” guide for Chinese-Caribbean people seeking to do genealogical research, framed within personal narrative and family artefacts (photos, etc), this page reproduces Wong Lewis’ correspondence with the UK National Archives as she sought materials pertaining to her ancestors who were indentured in the Caribbean. The second-person direct address of the opening – “Have you searched for your Caribbean Chinese Diaspora ancestors?” – a mode to which the post returns at the end, implicitly figures genealogy as a worthy, even virtuous project, and situates that project within a regional, rather than national, context. The page is part of a many-faceted multimedia enterprise (filmmaking, audio documentary, etc), a significant portion of which revolves around stories of Wong Lewis’ ancestors. Her film From Harlem to Shanghai, linked in the sidebar of multiple pages of the site, puts her recovered family story at the intersection of Caribbean post-slavery indenture and US slavery.
Curatorial Note: Like the previous site, this functions at the intersection of personal and professional genealogical projects. Fernandez-Sacco describes (on the “About” page) the genealogical journey to learn about her Puerto Rican forebears, through which she discovered Boriken Taíno ancestry along with European “military men and their slaveholding families” and “North and West Africans and into the Middle East.” Thus, the site enacts multiple border crossings: across nations, races and languages. Positioning Fernandez-Sacco as a genealogy professional, the site foregrounds her links with Black ProGen – a US-based project to “research and document the lives of POC stateside and beyond” – and her publications, which include a two-part essay on her family ancestry and the research she did to unearth it. The “About” page ends with an injunction: “Remember, genealogy is the democratization of history. Get those stories out there! Busca sus raices, encuentra su gente!”
Title: “Caribbean Family Sagas and the Critique of Genealogy”
Creator: Rachel L. Mordecai
Steward: Rachel L. Mordecai
Curatorial Note: An interim stage between a conference paper and the prologue to my monograph, this essay lays out – with specific reference to the family-tree diagrams of Caribbean family-saga novels – many of the same thoughts about genealogy that are contained in my curatorial statement above. The themes of perceived lack, archival insufficiency, and speculation/improvisation as strategies are all present. That Erna Brodber gets both first and last word – from her non-fiction book Woodside quoted in the curatorial statement to her novel Nothing’s Mat which closes the essay linked here – not only speaks to the brilliance of Brodber’s thinking on archives, family-formation, and genealogical practice, but also presses us to consider whether all roads through Caribbean genealogy ultimately lead (or at least bend) toward fiction.
Rachel L. Mordecai teaches Caribbean literature and culture at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her book Citizenship Under Pressure: The 1970s in Jamaican Literature and Culture (UWI Press, 2014) investigates the role of expressive culture in negotiating and memorializing the politically tumultuous and culturally vibrant 1970s in Jamaica. She is currently at work on a monograph on Caribbean family sagas.
Brand, Dionne. A Map to the Door of No Return: Notes to Belonging. Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 2001.
Brathwaite, Kamau. “Note(s) on Caribbean Cosmology.” River City 16.2 (1996): 1-17.
Brodber, Erna. Woodside, Pear Tree Grove P.O. Kingston: University of the West Indies Press, 2004.
Lowery, Wesley. “Which Black Americans Should Get Reparations?” The Washington Post, September 18, 2019. Accessed 2 December 2020.
Manley, Rachel. Slipstream: A Daughter Remembers. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2001.
Image used under a Pixabay license