My Relentless Search to Find My Family’s African American ‘Eve’
Unearthing her origins required keen detective work and diligence
SAY MY NAME! To honor the memory, sacrifice, and very being of our ancestors, we say their name. If we don’t know their name, they may call to us to seek it out.
Popcorn ready, I was on the couch, feet up and glued to the TV. Valerie Jarrett, President Obama’s senior adviser, was being featured on Finding Your Roots, the PBS TV show that helps celebrities explore their family history. I was watching this particular episode because our own family drums had beaten, via the frequently used family group text, to give everyone the heads-up to tune in because Valerie’s great-great-grandfather Henry Taylor is also ours. So we were anticipating hearing details about our own family history. Midway through the show, the host, Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, “revealed” Henry Taylor’s name to Valerie, along with the fact that Angus Taylor, a White North Carolina landholder and enslaver, was both Henry Taylor’s owner and father.
This was not a revelation for us, however. My grandmother and her sisters had passed knowledge of their grandfather Henry Taylor down to my generation. We even had a family reunion called “The Descendants of Henry Taylor” in 1999 and again in 2017. But what Skip Gates failed to reveal, and what no living soul knew, was the name of Henry Taylor’s mother. Although Gates provided extensive details about Henry Taylor’s White father and his ancestors, he explained that his mother was most likely enslaved by his father, and her identity was unknown.
And there this anonymous enslaved woman’s story ended — along with any link to the African origins of this branch of our family tree. Possibly our first African female ancestor on U.S. soil, our “African American Eve” who brought us into existence, was relegated to obscurity. We knew nothing about her, her life, her sacrifice, her story. But that night in 2014, she called out to me: “Say my name and honor me.” But to do that, I would first have to find her name.
Slavery. The original identity theft. This depraved system not only ripped individuals from the grounding of our ethnic culture and identity in West Africa, but also negated our ability to preserve any…