A Virtual Family: Finding Your Genealogy

On Saturday morning, June 18th, I found myself in the Admiral’s Club at Miami International Airport, killing time with my friend, Professor Lawrence Bobo. After settling in a quiet, unoccupied area that just happened to be near the bar, I fired up my iPad to continue reading Ralph Ellison’s classic novel, “Invisible Man.” Larry went off to get us something to drink. I heard a man ask him if I was who I was, and then I heard Larry respond that indeed I was that man. I kept reading, hoping to avoid being disturbed; we had just learned that our flight was delayed, with no end in sight to that delay, and that kind of uncertainty is irritating.

A few minutes later, I became aware of someone’s shadow, hovering. It was the bartender. As I glanced up from Chapter Ten of the novel, attempting to be as polite as I could while dismissing him at the same time so that I could get back to Ellison’s amazing novel, I couldn’t help but notice that this man had a rather dark complexion for a white man; “swarthy,” Shakespeare would have called it. He was obviously not black or of recent African descent. (I say “recent” because we are all of distant African descent, some 50,000 years ago, of course, since the ancestors of the entire human community migrated about of eastern Africa at about that time.) Or, I should say, if he was of recent African descent, then his complexion, facial features, and hair texture had fooled me completely. But he was dark, dark with what they used to call a “Roman Nose.”

He introduced himself to me then told me how much he enjoyed watching our series on genealogy and genetics. And how the series had inspired him to go online at Ancestry.com to trace his own ancestors. Then he told me how he had gone to Naples, looked in a phone book, I believe, and had gone to visit a family listed with his same surname. When he answered the door, a woman told him to wait a bit. Soon, he told me, a slew of folks arrived who looked just like him! And, miraculously, it turned out that a genealogist had actually traced his family tree back not only back to his first immigrant ancestors who migrated to America, but all the way back to the 12th century! They had even compiled their research into a book, a copy of which Peter is the proud possessor! Now, he is just as determined to trace his mother’s family back to its origins in Sicily.

What amazes me about this story is how much pleasure—joy, really—that recounting this tale of discovery brought to this wonderfully warm and generous man. I think he enjoyed recounting it to me almost as much as he enjoyed the actual experience. I marvel at that because this is how I feel, every time we give one of our guests the gift of reuniting them—or meeting for the first time, really—dozens and dozens of their ancestors, what we might call their “virtual family,” all the people on their family tree, people they can never meet but whose experiences and their stories about those experiences, whose triumphs and tragedies, whose joy and pain, and some of their tics and habits of mind, their customs, family traditions, and habits, and, inevitably, long stretches of their DNA, have all recombined (as geneticists say of the DNA you inherit from your ancestors) and blended to make you, well, you—the marvelously complex person that you have become, related to but unique not only on your family tree, but in all of human history, a being greater than the sum of her or his parts. And it is the pleasure I derive from identifying and, metaphorically, resurrecting those “parts” of another person’s past—those parts of themselves, those long-lost ancestors to whom we introduce each of our guests, that motivates every genealogist and historian of anyone’s family, and motivates me to make these series for PBS. And what a rare privilege this is.