Hidden among the major winter holidays and one of the countless national days of recognition is National Roots Day, this year on December 23. Created decades ago to encourage the remembering, learning, and sharing of family histories, the largely overlooked day takes on a greater context for me when I think beyond treasured lore or the mechanics of genealogy. I consider the impact of education, of sufficient nutrition, of slavery and servitude, of deep poverty or great opportunity, on our roots…those pieces of DNA and lived experience of the ones who preceded us, those who descend us, and ourselves.
My immediate family’s story is one in which access to education and resulting attainment has played a key role. Before I was born, my circumstances were already improved simply because my father determined that education would be his path to a life better than the one he knew growing up. As a result, education helped my father overcome barriers of poverty, abuse, addiction, and lack of opportunity. On his deathbed, he still credited American public education as the greatest force in his life.
Having a bit of knowledge about my genealogy and genetics, I often think of the generations-ago great-grandparents who left their homeland fleeing starvation because of too many years of potato blight, of those who chose a losing side in a civil war and fled their country to avoid execution. I wonder about those forebears I’ll never be able to trace but who still speak of Africa and Asia through my DNA.
Knowing our histories is powerful, and it’s important that we know more than our own. We must hold witness, individually and collectively. When we listen to the root stories of others, to the accounts of other families, it is impossible to ignore our commonality, our shared humanity. We must grieve for those whose bodies and lives were stolen, suffer with those whose ancestral lands were stolen. We must celebrate the victories of overcoming and hear the cries for justice. And we must care for these stories and calls not only for ourselves, for our ancestors, but for our friends and colleagues and neighbors and most critically, those who are “other.” In that knowing, we can begin to understand that there is a table, one that not only has room for all but that has a place for all, no matter from where or how we came.
As we gather around holiday tables, there is no better time than now to remember that everyone has a story, and every story matters. Let’s commit to sharing remembrance and knowledge, and treat National Roots Day and this holiday season as an opportunity for greater closeness, unity, and peace.
This month’s blog was written by CIS of Mid-America’s President and CEO, Malissa Martin.