Blog Post

Six Degrees of Separation

 

I feel like I took a giant leap forward today in my work on The Eaton-Bailey-Williams Freedpeople's Transcription Project. I met for lunch with a recent Rust College graduate, Cherlinca Boyd, to interest her in becoming involved in the project. Cherlinca majored in mathematics undergrad and is now headed to Oklahoma State University to work on a doctorate in statistics. I became aware of her talent last winter when she presented research she had conducted as a Ronald McNair scholar at the University of Mississippi. Upon my arrival at Rust, I had been looking for a young person with her expertise, and my eyes were opened to her skills at just the right time I think.

I am working on The Register from many aspects, most of which I am not going to mention here because it would take too long, but always from the start of this project I have had a yearning to know of other African Americans who are connected to The Register. In the last four years, I have met several people and others, who, even when they have not found a direct connection have been convinced that they are nonetheless linked. I wrote earlier of being blown away by the fact that both my husband and I are connected to the record--the slave owner of his first great grandmother Katie Gatewood Cunningham being listed and my second great grandmother being listed with four of her children and their former owner. Even more mindblowing is the fact that I learned that one of my students, conducting his own family history research when he was in my composition and research class, discovered that Katie is a common ancestor to himself and to my spouse. The student had entered my class a stranger. 

Cherlinca gave me many ways to think about these "coincidences," mathematical ways that I am still trying to understand as I put my math skills and mathematical thinking to rest after I passed my last algebra class over twenty years ago. In fact, lately, I have been thinking mystically about coincidence, not believing that unexpected connections are random and unexplainable but, rather, that they suggest order of a scientific sort--planetary alignments, for instance. My spouse likes this explanation for our meeting thirty years ago at our small college in Alabama; he translates the likelihood of our meeting as destiny. There have been times when I have rejected that romantic notion, but I am beginnng to believe that he has been right all along, and Cherlinca's explanation of the theory of Six Degrees of Separation makes me all the more a believer.

She explains that there are perhaps six intermediaries (my word) or perhaps fewer between one person and another. She used President Obama as an example, saying that I may know someone who knows someone who knows someone, etc. who has shaken hands with Obama. As it turns out, my nephew was recently at The Press Club, so in this case there are less than six degrees separting me from our head of state. 

I have, as I've said, wanted to know how many descendants (living and dead but especially living) of the freedpeople listed in the Register there are. One way to get at a number (but maybe not the big number) very quickly is to begin with me and my spouse. We would count all of his family members living and dead and all of mine, right? I haven't done the counting yet, but obviously we are talking hundreds of folk already. And, we would throw in as well my student who shares Katie Gatewood as an ancestor. 

But back to my other question, how it was that I came to meet and marry (the marrying part is a more difficult question perhaps not mathematically solvable but it certainly is intriguing). What were, back in '83, our degrees of separation? Well, he and I both had ancestors who were enslaved (by different owners I think) in Marshall County, Mississippi, more specifically, near Old Hudsonville going toward Slayden (in his case) and probably, in my case, going toward Salem. (Not yet exactly sure the lay of the land.) So, we both knew people who had lived in the nineteenth century in the same area; question is whether the ancestors who we knew also knew each other. My spouse also insists that his grandfather's ancestors were Hulls. The probability (he isn't making this up) of this being the case is high, and if this is the case, then the number of people between us who connect us is multiplied, my paternal family having been owned by the Hulls. All of this makes certain sense I think, yet it still is experienced by me as strange, and maybe my fear of accepting the fact (?) that "strangers" may be so easily connected to one another is explained by the influence growing up in such an individualistic culture has on one's thinking.

Mulling over this also begins to raise political-social questions like what are the implications of proving just how related we are? In what ways is the social contract reimagined if I am not as much an individual as a cousin, descendant of the same plantation whether descending from owner or slave? To what am I an heir? Class action litigation comes to mind, and of course African Americans have been asking for reparations and being denied them for a long time. But, then, most of us have not known before now who owned us. Researching The Register doesn't suggest necessarily that blacks are going to go looking for restitution now from descendants of identified slave owners. This is not my intention for this work. I want nothing from the Hulls or related families--Herndons, Dabneys, Minors--except perhaps more information. I'm simply saying that when I think in the terms Cherlinca introduced me to today I see people differently, as deeply connected, and this new reality urges me to question not just the extent to which and ways in which we are perhaps all related but what knowledge of these connections means for rethinking ways in which we might be responsible to each other.

I am so excited to have Cherlinca join me in making the many connections that will soon reveal themselves. They have of course existed for some time, but it took my finding The Register, my going to work at Rust, and a few points in between for this to come into fruition.

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