By DeWayne Wickham
The library is closed.
I just lost the last direct link to my family's past. Arline Jackson, my 89-year-old aunt, died Saturday, a few days after suffering brain damage from a fall. She was the last to die of the seven children born to my maternal grandmother. My mother, who died when I was just eight, was the first.
Aunt Arline (pronounced Ar-leen) was my family's storyteller. She spurred my interest in tracing the roots of my family when she told me about my maternal great-grandfather, William Howe, a man of deep chocolate complexion who mysteriously lived in Guam in the closing years of the 19th century before settling in southern Maryland.
She caused me to search for more information about a white man who was only known to her as O'Leary, who fathered her dad - and to undergo a DNA ancestry search that discovered my family tree has roots in Sierra Leone and Western Europe.
Aunt Arline was the primary source for the information about my family that I included in a book about my troubled childhood. She told me my father, John T. Wickham, was drafted into the Army during World War II and served in the 366th Infantry. That information helped me discover that HE was part of a largely forgotten chapter of military history. In 1944, my father answered a call to fill vacancies in combat units during heavy fighting in Europe and became one of a small group of black soldiers to serve in a white combat unit when he joined the 12th Armored Division, more than three years before President Truman officially ordered desegregation of this nation's military.
Sadly, no one ever thought to sit my aunt down in front of a camera to capture her telling stories of the many people and events that shaped our family during her nearly nine decades of life. So all that remains of the rich history she possessed are the memories of what she shared with me and other family members.
I thought about all of this as I watched NBC's new addition to television's stable of reality shows the night my aunt was moved from a hospital to the hospice where she spent the last hours of life. The program, which is called “Who Do You Think You Are?,” is network television's exploration (some might say "exploitation") of the ancestry of some prominent people.
The first show followed actress Sarah Jessica Parker as she searched her mother's branch of their family tree and found she had links to a California gold miner and a defendant in a Salem witch trial. While some critics focused more on the actress than the stories her search uncovered, I was nearly as enthralled in learning about her relatives as I was with the stories Aunt Arline told me.
Too often, it seems, people define themselves in the narrowest of ways. While we easily identify with a racial, religious or ethnic group, we tend not to know much about the complex and intimate textures of our identities. We haven't peered under the bark of our family tree deep enough to expose the varied generations of ancestors who contributed to our gene pool.
I suspect if more of us did, if more of us mined the knowledge of our family's aging storyteller - before that library closes - we'd find there is more that connects us than divides us. And that, I think, was the point of all those stories my Aunt Arline told me.