Embracing Foundations of Our Own

In the late 1990s, my mother's fascination with genealogy hit its peak. She traveled to her father's hometown in the Slovak Republic

In the late 1990s, my mother's fascination with genealogy hit its peak. She traveled to her father's hometown in the Slovak Republic, developed friendships with distant relatives and, on her mother's side, amassed a collection of wills, birth records and obituaries that reached back two centuries and east to Spotsylvania County, Va.

Spotsylvania County plays prominently as a setting in the story of Kunte Kinte, the slave whose heart remained free and protagonist of the novel Roots.

We never spoke about this, though I feel certain that it was Roots that awakened her interest in the dead. That our family — some of whom owned slaves and might have even had contact with Kunte — had a link to Alex Haley's inspiring book must have moved her greatly.

Her Old Country connections with people who shared common ancestors were even more important. She immersed herself in Slovak culture and art, which to me was a strange, useless set of artifacts. I couldn't see why she would invest so much in learning a language and customs that had little practical use.

After Mom died in 2007, I was left with mountains of books, thousands of pages of files that I gifted to libraries according to her wishes and the question of what all this research meant.

Earlier this week I watched a performance by the Bi-Okoto Drum and Dance Theatre, and it occurred to me that an exploration of your family roots is really figuring out how you fit into the greater heritage we all share.

Bi-Okoto is made up of cultural and historical ambassadors whose work transports their audiences to Africa, sharing in bits of the continent's language and traditions.

Members of the Walnut Hills-based troop performed at the Contemporary Arts Center's 44, a free lunchtime performance series that runs every Monday.

Bi-Okoto's presentation style was geared toward the children who were present — performances were loaded with gobs of interactivity and questions as to what different dance steps and drumming styles represent — but their work informed and enriched the adults as well.

A harvest dance mimicked the movements of the plow, sowing seeds and hauling grain. It all seemed obvious in the moment, but you wouldn't spot it without the background narrative and the gentle interrogation.

This guided experience lifted ethnic rhythms and movements from the flatness of stereotypes into three dimensions. I think that's what any good genealogist attempts: to make the foreign and forgotten become real and human, even if it's just for a moment.

There was and is a lot to be learned from our family history. I'm really curious to see letters — if any still exist — that were sent between my Slovak great grandfather and his wife, who were separated by a world war and a decade of time. What did that do to their relationship? How does that echo through my family now?

I don't think I'll find answers to these questions, but many other odd family quirks and the origins of family virtues and failings are a little clearer to me now.

The Jungian insight that comes from opening family history books bears a lot of fruit, some of which can be handy in understanding ourselves. But time travel of this sort also has its costs.

It's easy to want to be there rather than here. I've seen an almost perverse, voyeuristic aspect arise in me that's like discovering someone's journal. It's hard to pull away from personal histories, where there's nothing to lose (everyone is dead) and the game of "what if" is always afoot.

I've known people who have become overfocused on these foundations to the expense of the now. And isn't that the Frankensteinian moral to all those time travel stories?

Cultural and historical learning is so much easier than following up and acting on this knowledge of self. If these experiences by proxy — taking us back to Europe, Africa and Asia — have value, it's because we're doing more than just watching. If the cultural currency we earn in these endeavors means anything, it's because we spend it.


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