05 December 2013

Recommended Reading/Viewing for African American Research, guest post by Sharon Leslie Morgan

People enslaved on a Cockspur Island, Georgia plantation
(Photo Credit: CORBIS)

With so many books, films and other resources available, one could easily spend a lifetime immersed in the study of family genealogy and its related history. Yet, there are particular challenges for African American researchers that may make our task more difficult than most. Once you decide to become “the family historian” the following books and films will help with your discovery as well as coping with the painful things you may find. 


For those new to genealogical research, I recommend Black Roots: A Beginner’s Guide to Tracing the African American Family Tree, Tony Burroughs (Fireside Books, 2001). For deeper historical context, there is Finding a Place Called Home: A Guide to African American Genealogy and Historical Identity, Dee Palmer Woodtor (Random House, 1999).


PBS has been a leader in presenting programs on the African American experience. Africans in America: America's Journey Through Slavery (WGBH, 1998) was one of the earliest. Dr. Henry Louis Gates produced a number of outstanding programs, including African American Lives (2006), which traced the family histories of celebrities and The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross (2013), a 500 year review of “the full arc” of  African American history.

Many think slavery was limited to the Southern states. Complicity: How the North Promoted, Prolonged and Profited from Slavery, Anne Farrow et al (Random House, 2007) debunks that myth and elucidates on how slavery was integral to American prosperity.


Several excellent books detail relationships between slave owners and the people they enslaved. Most notable for me are The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White, Henry Wiencek (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2000), The Washingtons of Wessyngton Plantation: Stories of My Family's Journey to Freedom, John F. Baker (Atria Books, 2009) and Mississippi to Africa: A Journey of Discovery, Melvin Collier (Heritage Books, 2009).

Stories of mixed race families have also come to light. These include Life on the Color Line: The True Story of a White Boy Who Discovered He Was Black, Gregory Howard Williams  (Plume, 1996); One Drop: My Father's Hidden Life - A Story of Race and Family Secrets, Bliss Broyard (Little Brown, 2007); Passing Strange: A Gilden Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line, Martha Sandweiss (Penguin, 2009) and The House at the End of the Road: A Story of Race, Identity and Memory, W. Ralph Eubanks (Harper Collins, 2009).


Slavery inflicted a traumatic wound on American consciousness – both black and white. The more you delve into your family history, the more you will appreciate how true this statement is.

The Hidden Wound, Wendell Berry (Houghton-Miflin, 1970) was one of the earliest books I read by a white person who honestly confronted “our country’s racial dilemma.” Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America's Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing, Dr. Joy Angela DuGruy (Uptone Press, 2005) helped me understand the damaging effect of the slavery experience on contemporary African Americans. Both of these books informed my writing as I worked on Gather at the Table: The Healing Journey of a Daughter of Slavery and a Son of the Slave Trade, Thomas Norman DeWolf & Sharon Leslie  Morgan (Beacon Press, 2012).

Finally, The Human Family Tree (National Geographic, 2009), which traces the human journey through time, proves through DNA analysis that the human race was born in Africa and all people are related.

Sharon Leslie Morgan is the founder of OurBlackAncestry.com, a website dedicated to African American family research. She is co-author of Gather at the Table: The Healing Journey of a Daughter of Slavery and a Son of the Slave Trade (Beacon Press, 2012). This blog expresses the views of the author and should not be attributed to the National Genealogical Society.

Editor's Note: This is the third in a sequence of four posts by Sharon on researching African American roots. If you missed the first post, The Last Slaveholder, you will find it here and the second post, African American Researchers Must Dig Deeper, here.

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