Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Supported by
Has it really been a year since the last Focus on Nevada Photo Contest? Plus, for this year’s look at nightlife in Nevada’s biggest city, we decided to turn the lens on those communities that are big enough to sway markets, but too small to be mainstream — LGBTQ+ individuals, seniors, those under 21 and other non-drinkers.

Heritage Project

Illustration: Mia Saine
Desert Companion

What a school assignment taught me about ancestry, slavery, and the need for hard truths in history classes

"Abigail, we can escape to the North.”

On April 2, 2019, released an ad titled “Inseparable,” where a white man holds a ring and proclaims his love to a Black woman. “There’s a place we can be together,” he tells her after she expresses hesitation, with the actress giving her scene partner a stiff shrug and the beginning of a protest. “Will you leave with me?” he asks. It’s something out of a Civil War-era romantic drama; if their story continued, I’m pretty sure the white guy would end up dying in his Black lover’s arms à la West Side Story.

Understandably, the response to this ad was swift and brutal. “We have serious questions on why @Ancestry thought this was a good idea,” tweeted the Georgia NAACP. eventually pulled the ad and released an apology for “any offense that the ad may have caused.”

Sponsor Message

Around the same time, my mom, who had sent her DNA for analysis two years earlier, started receiving notifications about DNA matches from distant white relatives. My mom, a light-skinned Black woman with green eyes, obviously knew that there was some white in her, despite both her parents being Black. But to her horror, the result said that she was approximately 38 percent white, mostly from the United Kingdom. It disgusted her to the point where she yelled at me when I rounded the percentage to 40. “I don’t want any more,” she said.

Two years later, while I sat with her and drank coffee, I watched a news story about a crowd of white parents protesting Critical Race Theory (CRT) at a high school in Reno. That same year, news broke of a Black mother suing Democracy Prep Nevada charter school in Las Vegas after her half-white son received a failing grade for a sociology course led by a teacher who “ … blatantly justif(ies) racism against white people,” according to an email she sent to the school. I wondered: Where were these people when I was a kid?

I was born in 1997 in Phoenix. Frequently, my brothers and I were among a small handful of Black children, if not the only two, in primarily white classes. More than one classmate asked me if I had a “bad sunburn” because of my skin tone. My mom and dad, having grown up in Los Angeles and Charlottesville, Virginia, respectively, did not share our experience. Yet they were not ignorant of their children’s situation.

My favorite subject growing up was history. Stories of the past fascinated me, and when teachers read from our textbooks, my imagination would run wild. Throughout school, I saw myself as part of a larger tapestry, especially when we discussed the Civil War and slavery. We talked about the Atlantic slave trade and how it was shaped like a triangle. I learned that slaves sang while they picked cotton. And most importantly, I learned that they were Black. A favorite fantasy of mine was of being a runaway slave who infiltrated the frontlines of the Confederacy with Harriet Tubman and helped the Union succeed. For a fifth-grade activity, I made a paper doll of my character wearing a ragged purple floral skirt, and my teacher hung it up on the wall. Most of the other dolls were soldiers and nurses.

In fourth grade, my teacher assigned what she called a “heritage project,” meant to help us get to know our global lineages and share them with the rest of the school. I was ecstatic. My parents never really talked about our family history beyond our grandparents, so I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to set out and find the truth for myself. My teacher even told us we could look up our family records online!
I couldn’t wait to get home and tell my mom.

Sponsor Message

Being about nine at the time, I didn’t know how to look things up on the internet, but my mom has always been a computer whiz. So,
I asked for her help with the project. However, instead of saying, “Sure, Maegan,” and sitting at my computer, she simply told me, “Your dad’s side is from Virginia.”

I may have been a child, but I knew damn well that Virginia was a state, not a foreign country. But no matter how many times
I pressed her, she repeated the same thing: “You’re from Virginia.” Annoyed, I eventually gave up. I was stuck with Virginia as my family’s home country. So, while everyone else in my class was gluing pictures of their grandmother’s pelmeni on construction paper, I was looking up facts about a state half of my classmates had visited. A fan of birds, I added several pictures of native bird species around the state flag to make my poster look “exotic.”

And, of course, there was a required presentation. Every fourth-grade class had to stand in a line wearing cultural clothes and tell the entire school where their family was from while our principal held a microphone to our faces. Fittingly, I was among the last few kids to present. I wore my regular clothes, but my mom added a faux-fur vest that
I didn’t usually wear (to add some culture, I guess). When my principal gave me the mic, I said, “I’m from Virginia! Brrr!” I even pretended to shiver. My principal gave me an awkward chuckle and moved on to the next student.

Three years later, my seventh-grade teacher assigned another heritage project — a class requirement, of course. Instead of feeling excited, I was annoyed. At this point, I felt ashamed of my ignorance — how hard is it to find out where you’re from? However, I wasn’t nine anymore. I knew how to look things up online, so I took it upon myself to find my ancestry.

Since my mother always talked about my dad’s side of the family, I decided to look for her side. Following my teacher’s advice to look up our parents’ last names and work from there, I typed in my mother’s maiden name and spent the night scouring the internet. Eventually, I came upon some relevant information: the name of a British-owned plantation.

Sponsor Message

There it was. Never had I felt so accomplished. I had finally solved a mystery that had eluded me for years; I could finally tell people about my family’s history. Well, at least half of it. With this new information, I excitedly texted my mother, “Grandad is British!” along with the plantation’s Wikipedia page. I couldn’t help but feel a bit smug, honestly believing she would thank me for my diligence. Instead, she responded with a simple, “We’ll talk about this later.”

I always knew we weren’t 100 percent Black, because I have working eyes and a mirror. So, at the time, I thought that my grandad, a heavy-duty diesel mechanic from Texas who fried fish and played dominos, must have had British roots. I thought that his family (probably his dad’s side) had come from England and fallen in love in America. His parents (and my grandmother’s) were Black, so that had to be the case.

I thought my family’s story was like everyone else’s in my class; a search for a new life. Then, my mom sat me down and told me the truth. Most of my ancestors did not sail across the Atlantic in search of a better life, nor was my mother’s last name (or my father’s) a sign of our heritage. Our ancestors were bought and enslaved. No record of them existed until after they were freed. Every time her kids were asked to do one of these heritage projects, my mom contacted our teachers. If she couldn’t get us excused from the assignment, she offered a compromise. We couldn’t make a presentation on America, so we would focus on an area where our family had the most history: Virginia.

As much as I would love to think otherwise, my ancestors weren’t living in that ad. I have gone to many a family function, and every single person there was Black, save the occasional nonblack friend or partner. No one in my family has heard a harrowing tale of how my granddad’s great grandmother was swept off her feet by the plantation owner’s son under a starry sky one warm summer night. There are no records or memories of a happy union, but there is plenty of evidence of slaveowners’ viciousness. I know what may lie within that unspoken space.

My situation isn’t unique — many Black Americans have a nagging percentage of whiteness in their family tree. While not every single case is the byproduct of slavery, there are too many such cases to ignore.
As I mentioned, my dad is from Charlottesville, where Monticello stands next to its reflective manmade pond. From my experience, it’s not uncommon to hear whispers and speculation within Black families who have Virginia roots. My own dad has told me in passing that we might be related to Sally Hemings and, consequently, Thomas Jefferson. It’s unconfirmed, but the possibility makes me ill. I don’t want any more.

Although the plantation stamped with my mom’s maiden name is vacant, her digital family tree still sprouts new branches — new distant relatives logging on, new white people we’ve never met scattered throughout the South. I have nothing against those people at all; they aren’t responsible for what their ancestors did. But I, respectfully, want nothing to do with them. Because, at one point, half of my family was systematically abused by the other half. Even if the people who owned my family were kind, even if they fell in love and ran away, even if Hemings and Jefferson were both in love, the truth remains just as Monticello’s official website puts it, when discussing Hemings’ life: “Enslaved women had no legal right to consent. Their masters owned their labor, their bodies, and their children.”

Resources from different perspectives of American history are more accessible than ever, so there are few excuses for epistemological blind spots. We must look straight into this country’s shameful wounds, not to sow division or guilt, but to find honesty. After all, many families like mine across the country have had to be honest with themselves for centuries. Consider, for instance, my oldest brother’s heritage project from 1995, when he was in sixth grade. Under the section labeled “Immigration to the United States,” he wrote two simple sentences: “My family’s ancestors were brought to this country on slave ships against their will. There were no immigration records for slaves.” ✦