Last Road to Freedom



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"Sorko. Sorko. Tell them they must never stray 
from the path of the ancestors and their spirits."

                                                                                             --Sercie (Songhay Chief of the Spirit World)
                                                                                                From Fusion of the Worlds by Paul Stoller

  
Writing History, Doing Genealogy:
Envisioning a More Complex and Dynamic Universe

 The above quotation comes from the writing (Fusion of the Worlds) of ethnographer Paul Stoller, who spent many years among the Songhay in Niger. In his books, Stoller takes pains to represent authentically the universe of the Songhay people to a modern audience. Like that of other ancient cultures, the Songhay universe is one in which there is only a thin line between the social world of humans and the spirit world of Gods, ancestors, and other forces periodically called upon for various purposes including veneration and consultation. Stoller describes as "a fusion of worlds" both the Songhay perspective that the spirit world is a part of everyday life and the regular practice of engaging spirit forces.

   Stoller's research I think challenges the practice of writing history, as well as the art of writing itself, by encouraging writers in the West, especially university-trained historians, to newly consider what it means to engage history--to discover unpublished documents, to handle artifacts, to analyze and interpret peoples and the things they leave behind. Stoller's idea of fused worlds unsettles the notion of the objective researcher working alone, by recognizing, instead, a role for spiritual forces in the process of discovery. For anyone who ever seriously entertained the idea of a muse, the notion that practitioners of various stripes are inspired from higher realms and assisted as well, is not new. Stoller suggests, moreover, that the work of those identified in the West as historians and in African cultures as griots is expected--maybe even demanded--by the ancestors. It is dangerous, Sercie, Chief of the Songhay spirit world, warns to stray from the path of the ancestors, or to forget them. Therefore, in the universe of the Songhay, there is a named spirit family to represent each period of Songhay experience.

   I am interested in how today's moderns, especially Americans, who sometimes have a hatred of the past and who ironically also like to commodify (and other ways oversimplify) it, might use the present upsurge of interest in genealogy to (1) re-perceive a relationship between past and present, (2) re-evaluate the significance of ancestry in the lives of the living, as well as in history (human action within a universe), (3) continually reconsider what it means to learn or to know (and whether one should and/or does experience these not just through the head but through the body, and (4) reconsider what in fact constitutes the human self or subjectivity by asking the question: how singular or individual are we (if our ancestors are at all times watching our doings and are in other ways active in the world)? Writer Amy Tan speaks beautifully about her mother's perspective influenced by Chinese roots. For Tan's mother, every single thing that happens on earth has a mystical (yet sometimes knowable) reason beyond earth. Tan explains that for some Chinese the origin of situations is the attitude and the actions of ancestors. 

   But how does one acknowledge ancestors he or she has perhaps not known in this lifetime? And how does one fight against a culture that imposes uni-dimensionality (the idea that there is only one realm that matters, one way of thinking, and one way of learning that matter most)? How does one begin to resurrect one's ancestors? There are many answers especially to this last question and countless organizations ready to assist the novice genealogist (among which I still count myself). I think also that it doesn't take long before a new family researcher discovers that intuition and hunches that lead to incredible, in many cases completely unexpected, finds are born at the intersection of our actions on earth and the unfolding of time and its intentions (in a higher realm). This is the most satisfying way in which I explain how it is that I came upon a record that promises to put many African Americans and many whites as well, who descend from slave owners, in contact with their pasts relative to slavery.

   I became acquainted with the Register of Freedmen in 2009 while visiting the National Archives in Washington, D.C. in search of a different record. The ROF contains the names of over three thousand former African American slaves who lived for a time at Camp Shiloh in Memphis, Tennessee during the Civil War. This record has been on microfilm since 2004, and the entire record set (Pre-bureau Records) was introduced to the public by archivist Reginald Washington, who pointed me in its direction. Though there are over three thousand persons represented in this record, how serendipitous it seems to me that five of my family members are named therein. What were the chances? How many factors had to come together for (a) this particular record to be microfilmed when others have not been, for (b) me to become interested in family history and to travel to D.C., for (c) Mr. Washington to be available during my visit, for (d) my ancestors to have traveled to Memphis rather than to have stayed on their owner's plantation, for (e) them to have been at Camp Shiloh when there were four other camps in Memphis (only Shiloh has a discovered record of the Memphis camps), and for (f) them to have lived long enough to have their names recorded?

   A partial transcription of the ROF has been available on the Last Road site since 2010. I have not yet begun to analyze this amazing record, but back in March I got the notion to tweet each day 
 the name of one "registrant" (person whose name is recorded in this record). As I've done so, I've also attempted to find said person, someone's ancestor, in the 1870 Census (recently made accessible by Family Search and by Ancestry.com). As of May, I have tweeted more than fifty names, and it took that long for me to find one freedman obviously alive and accounted for five years following the end of the war. I add then Green Allen and his probable sister Nancy Allen to four of my own ancestors who appear in the ROF and who are in 1870 still living. With each tweet, whether I discover an ancestor alive in 1870 or connect these fugitives to their living descendants, there is I think both an awakening (or singing in the thought of psychoanalyst Clarissa Pinkola Estes) of the bones of the ancestors and a reinvigoration of my own sense of self. I trust so much that this grassroots activity will also awaken the identities of others.

   Perhaps needless to say, I feel called to this work, but beyond transcription and digitization (making information previously available in other formats available in digital form), I hope to rethink education, language arts and social studies, in light of the access to untold long obscure records digitization is providing young and old alike. This computing phenomenon, together with the advent of Web 2.0, urges people of all ages to become producers--rather than mere consumers--of knowledge. Above all, the kinds of applications that millions of people now have literally at their fingertips should mean that there will no longer be a one hundred and fifty year (and longer) wait for publication of records directly related to the histories of the world's peoples. Instead, everyday citizens will in coming years will be able, like the Songhay, to deeply engage--fuse--the world of the past with that of the present by digitizing records that are important to them and to others, and they will write and tweet! They are doing so already. This is not the American cosmology as we have known it.