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A Personal Story of Tracing Roots

ED GORDON, host:

But you don't need a DNA test to learn more about your family. Just grab a tape recorder and sit down with your grandmother or a great uncle. Our elders can often give us a fascinating glimpse into the past. And all you have to do is ask. That's exactly what NPR's Farai Chideya did.

Ms. MARY CATHERINE STOKES (Grandmother of Farai Chideya): That's the thing that blooms most with me, my earliest memories. And surprisingly, there was my grandmother.

FARAI CHIDEYA reporting:

That was my grandmother, Mary Catherine Stokes. She had had colon cancer for about three years, but it had reached a point where the complications were as bad as the disease itself. And so I'd made a promise to myself, not so much to her, that I would go down and audio tape her life story. And in the hospital room I finally made good on that promise.

Ms. STOKES: We lived on the second floor that had one of those balconies like you see in New Orleans, that iron grill. And there was nobody there but my grandmother and myself. After we had dinner, she would tell me to bring my stool out, and she had a chair out there, and as she braided my hair, she reminisced.

CHIDEYA: I wanted to know how my grandfather, Oliver, met my grandmother, Mary Catherine, and it turns out that the key was that their grandmothers were friends.

Ms. STOKES: So Oliver was the one who would walk his grandmother home, and he'd come up on a summer's night, and his grandmother still talking, he'd sit on the steps. And the next thing you know, he's sitting in my parlor talking. My mother thought the sun rose and set in him. She loved my husband. I think she loved him more than I did. And he was keen on that too. He knew that bringing her little gifts when he brought me candy or something mattered, and Mama just loved all of them.

CHIDEYA: The rest, as they say, is history. In my case, the history means my grandmother and grandfather's six children and then all of their grandchildren. Family history is hot these days. There's a bunch of universities trying to acquire a family collection of letters that date back for 200 years, but not all of us--especially African-Americans--have that kind of archive in our families. Instead, what we have is living history: the people who we love have stories that we need to hear.

Ms. STOKES: In those days, being six years old, I didn't go to kindergarten. I went right to the first grade, and I can remember being so thrilled to be able to read, and I'd stretch out on the floor on Sunday mornings and read all the comic strips and such.

CHIDEYA: As it turns out, my own family tree includes sailors, domestics, farmers, carpenters and then there's Uncle Webster. He was my grandmother's uncle, and he was a circus midget, which I guess was a sensible thing to do when you found out that you were a black man who was only going to be three-and-a-half feet tall.

But back to my grandmother. She tirelessly fought discrimination: at work, in the Girl Scouts, at her children's schools--but she didn't let it make her bitter.

Ms. STOKES: We've come a long way since the things I'm talking about, but I am not bitter against white people--and this is a very trite thing--in fact, some of my best friends are white people.

CHIDEYA: That hospital stay turned out to be the beginning of a short and quick decline before her death. I was too heartbroken to really spend too much time listening to the tapes, so I put them away, and then I found them again this winter. I decided that, in addition to all of the other store-bought gifts that I would give my family, I wanted to make copies of these tapes and give them out to all the people who loved her so much.

Of course, when she was growing up, my grandmother didn't have a tape recorder, but she held tight to the tales of her grandmother's grit and determination.

Ms. STOKES: She seldom talked about it, but she remembers one of the most bitter falls was when he threatened to hit her because he came home and found a package inside the house, and he wanted to know where it came from, and she said, the postman brought it up. He said, didn't I tell you that no men are supposed to get on this porch when I'm not home? And he threatened her, and she said she had a pan full of lard, and he came toward her, and she said, if you come one step nearer, I'm gonna put this pan of hot lard in your face. He backed off and looked at her, and my grandmother said he never threatened her again. Maybe that's where I got a little of my fighting from, my grandmother, because I loved her dearly.

CHIDEYA: I know that I got plenty of fight from my grandmother, and I loved her dearly, and I still do.

ED GORDON, host:

That was NPR's Farai Chideya. You can see a picture of Farai's grandmother, Catherine, learn more about the PBS series African-American Lives and hear an extended interview with Henry Louis Gates. It's all on our website at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.