Published On: Sun, Aug 14th, 2011

To Do List: Dig For Roots to the Family Tree

House on Sugar Beach by Helene CooperDuring Liberia’s civil war in the 1990s and early 2000s, I thought the two [or three or more] warring sides were all descendants of the freed American slaves who “founded” the country. I felt disappointed that the freed American slaves’ country had essentially self-destructed in the worst way. Blood diamonds, child soldiers, Charles Taylor — you couldn’t make this stuff up and it was playing out for the world to shake its head and say, “I told you so…”

And then I started reading more about African history and Liberia specifically. Come to find out, those freed American slaves, led by Elijah Johnson, landed in west African in 1820 and immediately began a campaign of hijacking the land from the natives and creating the country of Liberia, subjecting the millions of people already there to their rule. These freed American slaves and their descendants became the elite, the upper class, the rulers of the subservient and unfortunate families and tribes who existed there for thousands of years.

Several months ago I read Agnes Fallah Kamara-Umunna’s book And Still Peace Did Not Come about her life growing up in Liberia during its chaotic civil war days. From her book, as well as a few others I’ve read, I started to conclude that Liberia’s issues actually started when the first group of freed American slaves washed up ashore some 180 years ago.

Taking the perspective of a native, it became easy to say the “Congo People,” as the descendants of the freed American slaves were called, were the root of the issue. They were no better than those who enslaved them back in America. Well, they were a lesser evil.

But then, I just finished reading The House at Sugar Beach by Helene Cooper, a descendant of Elijah Johnson himself. She tells her story of growing up in Liberia just as all hell was about to break out and what life was like as she and her family fled Liberia back to America.

But it’s a book deeper than one woman’s story or the history of a country in turmoil. Being half-Black and half-Korean [aka Koreagro, Blasian, BlacKorean, whatever] myself, the search for her identity was profound. One moment she’s of top shelf in a country where her great-great-great-great-grandfather was known by all; the next she’s a foreigner at Dudley High School in Greensboro, NC, [just down the street from North Carolina A&T] resting at the bottom of the food chain, eating her lunches in the library with no friends. Her fall from grace was immediate and impossible for me to wrap my mind around.

As her life went from Knoxville to bouncing around North Carolina to becoming a Tar Heel to becoming a journalism who one day nearly gets killed while reporting in Iraq for the Wall Street Journal, she became less a Liberian and evolved into an American in mind, body and soul. Liberia went from home to that country across the big pond. Slowly who she was born as no longer existed. She was more affected by 9/11 than the Liberian civil war.

While you order her book to take the journey from Sugar Beach to America to Iraq then back to Liberia in search of her sister that she essentially suppressed out of her life, I’m going to get to my point.

African AncestryAgnes Fallah Kamara-Umunna is a Liberian from the Gio tribe. Helene’s sister was Bassa. And recently my homeboy Daz learned he’s a descendant from the Kpelle tribe of Liberia [and the Djola people of Guinea-Bissau] through African Ancestry. Daz blogs about his discovery and it has fueled my curiosity of where my roots were planted.

Several years ago while visiting my dad in Arizona, he told me our family comes from slaves in Orange, VA. All this time I thought we were natives of New Jersey where the majority of my family lives. Since I’ve moved to Washington, DC, I’ve met more Gaines’ than anywhere else; because I’ve never met another Gaines; because the Gaines’ are from this area; because we’re descendants from the slaves owned by a Mr. Gaines [a white guy, not the guy from “A Different World”] and took the name as one by one they were freed.

Some of the Gaines’ I met could be a distant cousin. If not, somewhere back in time, their great-great-great-great-grandparents probably shared a shovel with my great-great-great-great-grandparents. And got whipped together. Maybe even escaped together.

Who knows!? The problem is no one was blogging about who they were before they were captured by the black locals in Africa and sold to the white businessmen showing up from Europe to buy people to sell in America. And if there are any receipts listing where the products came from, they’re not being stored in the National Archives.

After reading Helene Cooper’s moving story about her Liberian identity and especially with Daz’ recent discovery of where his roots were planted, I’m now more curious than ever of my genetic code’s birthplace. Unlike Helene Cooper who knew her family tree back to the “founder” of Liberia, I get confused as soon as I get to my great grandmother. And since none of my grandparents are with us on either side of my family, my only resources are only two generation away.

Maybe I have Liberian genes connected with Daz or Helene Cooper or Agnes Fallah Kamara-Umunna. Or maybe my tree will lead me to the same people who brought us Mobutu Sese Seko Nkuku Ngbendu wa Za Banga or Thomas Isidore Noël Sankara or even Charles Taylor himself?

There’s only one way to find out, so I’ll be calling African Ancestry for my DNA kit and let’s see where this thing takes me.

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About the Author

David Gaines

- David Gaines is a Washington, DC, resident transplanted from North Carolina whose dream career was a newspaper writer but settled for the recruiting industry and simply blogging about whatever thoughts crosses his mind.

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