Blog Post

The Whale's Hand: Clinging to the Surface


 Five ancestors named in the 1863 Register of Freedmen

 It's been just a little over a year ago that I found my ancestors' names in the Register of Freedmen. The story of how I came to this all-important information is certainly worth telling, but I'll do that another time soon. In this post, I just want to describe how I experienced the names at first sight.

I should say that I had not visited the Archives for the purpose of finding the names of ancestors. Only after my initial purpose met a dead end did I turn to the Register. It was a Tuesday morning as I recall when I sat down to look at this census, and I had not been before the microfilm machine more than thirty minutes when on the screen in front of me were their names. My first reaction was to quickly turn my head away, and an inner voice questioned what my eyes saw: "No. No. You did not just see the names of your family." I would have turned away even longer had I not been somewhat anxious about getting the most out of the self-financed research trip.

Returning my eyes to the screen, I glanced at the names then sat way back in my chair. I shook my head in opposition. I glanced at the screen again and searched for some way to nullify the possibility that the names I read were connected to me. There were five names, a thirty year old mother and four prepubescent children. Unable to instantly decipher the name of the first child, I rejected the record in its entirety. I was relieved. I sat back again. Then, I realized that the name that I had hoped was Pam was in fact Sam, short for Samuel, whom I knew to be a great-great uncle, brother to my own Great Grandfather Robert, whose name was just beneath his older brother's. Next was Mary, whose name was unfamiliar. I could have again rejected the record based on my not having knowledge of a Mary, but beneath her name was the undeniable family name with which I had become very familiar--Walker.

I share this experience for many reasons but mainly to suggest that family research involves a changing consciousness, and the process, which may not be natural, does not come easily. I, for one, can attest to mounting both what appear to be inherent and learned resistances in the face of information that offered a deeper sense of identity, based on my connection to the past. After almost twenty years of conducting family history research, I can say from the experience that it takes me no less than five years and in some cases much longer to absorb the truths that "new" information holds for me and for others.

This personal apprehension may prove to be typical for people whose families have not endowed them with very much knowledge about their families' pasts, and my guess would be that for Americans in general, acculturated to so many past-denying habits, behaviors, and rhetorics, that such a project as the Somebody Signed My Name Transcription Project might be rejected by some out of hand and that those for whom it may strike an inner chord may still find themselves embarking on a very slow process of "deepening" senses of time and identity.

The embedded, digitized photo is of the original record in which my ancestors' names appear. In the year since I found it, I have written blog posts and Facebook posts on it as a part of my process of claiming, absorbing, deepening, and re-identifying. I, like others, am interested in the role that both images and writing--in our digital age--play in meaning making and identification.



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