by Du’Charm Archer
Our 9th grade history teacher started the class with, “Write down where your family is originally from. Trace your family back as far as you can.” Pencils to paper, everyone began writing. I wrote down that my dad’s side is from St. Kitts by way of St. Thomas and that my mom’s side is originally from Georgia, and like many, moved to Detroit during the Great Migration. I wrote down, “Africa,” and then stopped – silence amidst a cacophony of moving pencils.
When we were asked to share, my classmates were very specific, “My grandmother is Swedish and German,” “My grandfather is from Sicily,” “My mother’s family is from Seoul, Korea,” “My great-great grandparents were both born in Guadalajara.” My peers talked about which eastern European ancestors changed their name when they came to the United States and mentioned the exact years their family members came through Ellis or Angel Islands. There was even one classmate who proudly traced her ancestors back to the Mayflower.
Like my classmates, I grew up hearing stories of my ancestors, both those in my family and the larger Black family. However, the more I heard my classmates speak, the more I realized, I was the only student who, when tracing my history back, traced it back to a continent instead of a country or city. I did not know my forefathers’ names or where exactly they lived before and upon arrival to the Americas. A wave of emotions passed through me, discomfort, anger, frustration and ultimately sadness regarding how much of my family and collective history was stolen and seemingly untraceable.
Over the next decade, I read, traveled, took classes, went to lectures, watched documentaries, soul searched and asked questions of my parents, grandparents, great-great aunts and uncles to relearn and reclaim my birthright – knowledge of my history. Still, even after learning and experiencing the vibrant traditions and stories of my ancestors from west to east Africa, Brazil, Europe, the Caribbean and North America, there continued to be a silence within me that rang with the voices, names and narratives of all that I still did not know.
When I was asked to write the curriculum for Ancestors unKnown, I did not hesitate and began this labor of love that same day. As a teacher, in particular a teacher of Global History at a boy’s high school in Harlem, I always created my own materials, but saw how Black Diasporic history (and the history of people of color overall) was absent in mainstream curricula. In a textbook with over 1,000 pages there were a few paragraphs about slavery, a short chapter on the Civil Rights Movement (highlighting the same names and information we hear each year), and a few sentences on apartheid in South Africa.
This is a huge, but not accidental, oversight on the part of textbook companies and curriculum writers. This exclusion ignores the multi-dimensional history of people of African descent, while painting a grossly inaccurate picture of world history. Generations of people are and have been left in the dark, misled under the pretense of falsehoods guided by the omission of truth. Where is the torch of truth, of honor, of redemption?
Ancestors unKnown is a shining light for students in Suriname and South Carolina and will soon expand across the globe. By providing a space for students to research their family history and the collective history of people of African descent, Ancestors unKnown challenges traditional curricula and pedagogy and enables students to learn the stories, songs, traditions and names of those that have allowed them to exist today. Ancestors unKnown defies the limitations of knowledge and identity that so many 9th graders like myself once accepted as true. It allows us to reclaim and rewrite the stories that have been erased in our memories and textbooks because truly, we are the ones our ancestors have been waiting for.