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Monday, July 14, 2008

Being Scholarly and Studying History with “Skip” Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr.

Hey all, I survived the week at the Gilder Lehrman seminar at Harvard University and am now behind the “Iron Curtain!” I am at another week long seminar learning about Religion in American History. Right now we are discussing Native American beliefs and how religion was used to acculturate Native Americans. When that did not work, they were pretty much killed. I really love Native American studies, so the lecture is extremely interesting! I only had two days to relax when I got home and here I am! I can’t really complain…at least I get paid to go to school as opposed to paying to go. Also, I do not have to present to my colleagues where most of the time I am expected to do so. The only problem I AM having today is that ALL blogs (yep even mine!) are blocked here at the Orange County Office of Education, meaning I can’t read yours OR respond! This really sucks! I will have to post this later!

I must say studying with Dr. Gates was a really amazing experience! I cannot express how fortunate that I have been able to study with some of best professors in the world. When I went to Harvard, I got to study under Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. “Skip”. Skip is probably one of the well-educated and interesting African American scholars in the world. I mean it....he is funny and quirky but oh so intelligent! He is not pretentious at all and insists on being called his nickname of Skip. It was a huge honor to be selected for the first institute he has ever done where he works with teachers to use and develop lesson plans for his new resource: The African American National Biography. I was one of three people out of 33 total participants who won the set! The set costs like 1,000 so I must have have crazy good luck or something. About two years ago, I won an amazingly beautiful cherry wood bookcase from the Kathy Ireland Collection. I was at an AA convention and they were raffling off a bunch of stuff. I won the grand prize and I had only entered to get the area rug. The guy who delivered the bookcase gave me a rug too! I guess that should have been a sign of good things to come huh?

Some of you may be familiar with Skip's work. He has hosted multiple PBS specials called “African American Lives” which focus on genealogy, oral history, family stories and DNA analysis to trace lineage through American history and back to Africa. Series participants have included: Oprah Winfrey Whoopi Goldberg, Quincy Jones, Chris Tucker and many more.

Anyone who knows me knows I am a HUGE Oprah fan…..I am one degree removed from Oprah….If you believe in the six degrees of separation theory. When we left the program Skip gave us the book “Finding Oprah’s Roots—Finding Your Own” and I could not put it down! What was really interesting was that Oprah ended up being related to Elvis Presley! When I got to the hotel, I saw her last night on TV telling people that “her cousin Lisa Marie” was going to be on the show today! People all over the Internet were like, “What the hell is this woman talking about?” I was reading tons of blogs with people saying, “Oprah is TRIPPING!!” Well, she may sound crazy but after hearing how the tests and research is done, it sounds pretty possible. The last name Presley is in her lineage…I saw the paperwork myself. Both Elvis and Oprah’s families are from the rural areas of Mississippi so anything is possible.

What interests me the most is this type of genetic testing is available to anyone—well, for a price of course! DNA tests cost from 100 dollars to several hundred dollars, and are offered by several different organizations and companies. These price differences are partly explained by different levels of quality. After experiencing how excited and proud Skip was to find out his ancestry and bring it to so many people, I really want mine done. I know my dad is English and Irish. I know my mom’s mom was Russian and immigrated during the Russian Revolution via the Stalin regime. My grandmother will not discuss her life during that period. My mom had a different father than her brothers and sisters and didn't stick around long. I have heard he is everything from Serbian to Native American. I don’t know anything past two generations that is not here say and I really want to know!

Truthfully, I am not really sure my parents are even my birth parents. There are a lot of secrets in my family that were buried with them. Let’s just say for time constraints I have a lot of reasons to need some answers regarding family and linage. Oprah goes on in the book I just read to say that” Knowing your family history is knowing your worth—your whole worth. And I don’t mean your monetary value. It is about everything that everybody gave up for you. It allows you to know what your mama went through, what your grandmamma went through….” and so on. It lets you know that the people who come before you and would like to have had what you have.” Well, I want to know what my worth is and have for about 15 years. I have just been too scared to deal with it until now.
I thought the coolest 'lesson' from the series was that - one's 'heritage' or 'cultural identity' is based not on 'race' alone. Culture plays a huge part in what and how you relate to things. I lost my parents at a young age and was mentored educationally and emotionally by an interracial couple who were activists during the Civil Rights Movement. They became my “God family” and I am pretty sure that the acculturation into their family unit at a pivotal time in my life explains a lot about my interest in history, particularly during the changes that took place during the 50’s and 60’s.

I told my God mom the other day that I was a scholar….she looked at me and said, “Yeah you really are and we both started laughing!” She reminded me that I was the street-punk with the bad attitude that had to be dragged into filling out the transfer paperwork to go to a Cal State University because it “Seemed like too much work!” When I heard Dr. Gates say that after he got his Fellowship to go to Cambridge University and then went to England and realized that the smartest people were going to school to become academics as opposed to doctors and lawyers, he opened up his mind to all that he could become. (He originally wanted to be a doctor.) I learned that I need to open my mind to all that I can become because I am selling myself short if I don’t. I know amazing things are out there for me....I just now need to be brave enough to accept challenges as they arise. I don't just mean in the career area...thats an easy one for me. I need to reach out of my comfort zone and go for things I want even if it means risking failure. Things that scare me are trying to find my roots and the idea of being open to love is another "challange" to me!

Anyway, I decided to get better at blogging and try some newthings! I tried doing links for this post and I am going to go back and check out how to do a photo mosaic for the next blog. Even if I don't do that I definetly want to put up some photos from the trip. Gotta run! I tried to put in a few photos but I seem to be having problems with it so said forget it!


Chris said...

Wow, that's deep! I'm gonna have to read it again later when I'm not at work.
love Cx

maggie's mind said...

Go, you, Diva! I think it's awesome that you are getting to experience so much and are so interested in your ancestry. I'd love to know more about mine, but I haven't been willing to do the digging. The DNA stuff is amazing!