Sunday, March 14, 2010

Who Do You Think You Are? Part 2-- An American Tragedy

To continue in the venue of last week's post, I thought I would critique the show from Friday night, which featured Emmitt Smith.  I believe he is a football player for the Dallas Cowboys, and I found him a very personable, interesting person.  In fact, I was rooting for him all the way.

This episode was far more emotional than the Sarah Jessica Parker one last week.  I was choking up in a couple of parts of the show because although I consciously know the tragic history of slavery in the United States, it isn't really brought home until you watch someone dig through a past of horrors.  It was clear how bittersweet the genealogical research was for Emmitt -- on the one hand happy to find information, but also clearly in pain at learning what happened to his ancestors.  Seeing the marriage records marked "Colored People" was one example.  He said he had never seen segregation himself, so for him to see the archives marked in such a manner brought him face-to-face with the tragic history of our country.  And if that wasn't hard enough to see, it gets better... or worse, actually.

Emmitt is able to trace back to an ancestor who belonged to Alexander Puryear in Alabama.  He reads a will written by the wife, Mary, and we see values listed to property -- furniture listed with the slaves and dollar values next to each "item."  But he also learns that his ancestor, Mariah, was lucky because she was listed with her family as one unit.  She would not be split up from her children the way was often the case for slaves.  He also knows from a previous census search that Mariah and her son Prince Albert are listed as Mulatto, meaning they have white blood.  This is likely because there is a slave owner in the mix.  Emmitt wants to learn who Mariah's father is, and he follows Alexander Puryear's trail to where he would have taken ownership of her -- in Virginia. 

When Emmitt arrives in Mecklenberg County, Virginia, he sees exactly where his ancestors would have been sold, and he also learns the truth of his ancestor, Mariah.  She is listed in a property deed book as being transferred at the age of 11 from Samuel Puryear to his son Alexander.  This was often the case when a child was fathered by a slave owner because the child's presence offended the slave owner's wife.  But then, here comes the shocking part... and I need to preface this by saying that I thought I knew a lot about American history, and of course I knew about slave owners having their way with female slaves, but I had never heard they bred slaves the way they bred horses.  The shock/pain/anger was a clear flicker in Emmitt's eyes, and it was also one of those moments where my jaw literally dropped.  The historian pulls out a pedigree for a throughbred line of horses.  Samuel Puryear bred such horses, and the lineages of the horses went back centuries to Europe, all documented in a book.  As he bred horses, he also bred slaves, apparantly a common practice back then.  So, yes, he was Mariah's father, only there was no book describing any African lineage.  The reason?  African slaves did not have the same value as Andalusian bred horses.

The show nears its end with Emmitt's DNA test results, where he is told he has some white blood and Native American as well.  He is also 81% African, and the DNA expert says this is one of the highest African results she had ever seen; she had never seen a 100% African-American (another reminder of the "racial cleansing" that was obviously rampant).  The silver lining in all this is that the DNA expert is able to pinpoint his ancestors came from Benin in Africa.  Emmitt goes to Benin, and we learn the history of the slave trade, and even more sadly, we learn it is still happening there today when he visits an orphanage of children saved from child trafficking and slavery.  Wow!

I really enjoyed this show despite the sadness of it, too.  Particularly sad was the fact that Emmitt could not go back farther.  There are only so many African-American records that were kept.  However, distasteful as it may be, he does have one white ancestor he could continue to pursue into history.  What a double-edged sword that must be.

If you want to watch any missed episodes, click here.

No comments:

Post a Comment