In my morning class, when we read the Times article about Michelle Obama’s “shocking” family tree, we had a conversation about the issue of family histories, about Jefferson and Hemings, about the “important American story” Megan Smolenyak is trying to tell for black people in this country.
“Why might it be hard for African Americans to trace their family histories,” I asked after we’d been talking for a while
Tanya, one of my sweetest, funniest and most endearing teens, had the answer. She was so sure she had the answer. She was ready to explode with it. So I called on her, “Ok, Tanya. Why might researching family history be hard for black people?”
“Because they all look alike?”
” … “
Yeah, I didn’t have anything to say. The class took a collective, scandalized little gasp of a breath, as they all waited to see what I’d do. My brain wasn’t ready for that response, however, so there wasn’t anything to do in that moment but smile, give Tanya a little hug and say, “Trust me that that’s not the reason.” I assured her we’d have that conversation another time, because it was BIG and I didn’t want to get so far away from the article we were supposed to be discussing.
Because we all look alike? Oh dear. Oh dear to the 100th power! I have to say it wouldn’t surprise me as much to hear someone my age say this. But a 17-year-old? What is that?
I walked into class the next day with some photocopies:
I gave each table a set of these pictures and asked them to try to figure out what these women have in common. There were all kinds of guesses. (Someone even imagined that I had magically gotten my hands on photos of Michelle Obama’s family!) Everyone was certain the order in which I’d handed out the photos wasn’t correct, so I said we should look at them from oldest to youngest and I held up the pioneer-looking woman and then I held up the ladies with the Andrews Sisters hair and then the glam photo of the young woman in the cardigan … and then I pointed to myself. Because, of course, all these women are my ancestors: my mother (glam photo), Mildred and my grandmother (Andrews Sisters) and my great-grandmother (pioneer woman).
As one student pointed out: “Even in one family, you don’t all look alike.”