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[Author] Skin Deep- Interview with Lisa B. Lee

I’ve had the honor and opportunity to meet Lisa B. Lee at the African American Genealogical Society of Northern California or AAGSNC, in Oakland. Recently, Ms. Lee authored, in my humble opinion, the book that is to become the template for all of us contemplating writing our family histories.

Our descendants will want more than dates and references. They'll want our insights, feelings, methodologies; and need our wisdom to help them understand what their Ancestors went through. By understanding their legacy, they will realize what their familial obligations and responsibilities are.

Lisa B. Lee takes us there. We are fortunate enough to have her here at :


George Geder- Lisa, what prompted or inspired you to write "Skin Deep, My journey To Discover the Black & White Descendants of William Lee"? Was it all about William or was something else tugging at your genealogical senses?.

Lisa B. Lee- Quite honestly, George, it started out as a Christmas present for my family, that I'd promised them for about 3 years but never found the time to finish. The book I'd started back then, was a very dry, BORING, factual account of the family, based on the research I'd done. Like so many other family history books, the kind of book to read if you can't go to sleep -- guaranteed to knock you out in less than five minutes.

But I wasn't happy with it, so I put it on the shelf for over a year while I kept doing my research.

In the meantime, I was enjoying speaking at a variety of genealogy conferences around the country and was fortunate enough to have met two amazing ladies. I gave a workshop in Seattle in March 2003 co-sponsored by the Seattle Black Genealogy Group and the LDS ... the first "Finding Your Roots" function they'd ever held there, and attended by over 300 people -- a stellar success. When my workshop was done, I sat in on a workshop presented by Delores Davis, who teaches writing at a local community college. Her workshop, "Telling Your Story," or something like that, presented better ways to write ones story. We even had a five-minute free writing session as a part of the workshop, a wonderfully liberating experience.

Anyway, Delores said something that really stuck with me ...
"Write as though you're telling the story to your grandchild's child."
What this meant to me, was make your story flavorful, give it texture, color, even a smell. Assume that the reader has no idea of the topic you're describing and write about it in such a way as to make it real to them. After that workshop, I knew that the book on which I'd been working was toast, but I didn't quite know how to begin again. So it stayed on the shelf.

Later that year, I was fortunate to present a workshop at the 3rd Annual West Coast Summit on African American Genealogy in Los Angeles, and when I was through with my workshop, I sat in on a workshop presented by Shirlee Taylor Haizlip, the author of "The Sweeter the Juice." Shirlee's workshop on "Writing Your History" gave us the opportunity to hear all she'd gone through while writing the story about her mother's abandonment, how her mother's siblings had faded to white, and the pain her mother endured for decades, always wondering why she'd been, essentially, outcast from the rest of her family.

The one thing from Shirlee's workshop that stuck with me was that every story has a "hook," meaning a perspective that will draw in the reader, allowing you to take them along on your journey as you tell your tale. I immediately knew what my hook would be, and as soon as I got home from the Summit, I destroyed my old book and started from scratch writing Skin Deep, though I hadn't come up with the title yet.

GG- Bill Cosby recently came under fire for ’sayin it like he saw it’. Writing your book and dealing with the sticky issue of racism with respect to your black and white ancestry took a similar modicum of courage. Did you anticipate any heat as you finished? Did it concern you?

LBL- Did I anticipate any heat? Yes and no. I knew that by putting "black" and "white" in quotes each time I referred to the issue of race would be mildly annoying to the reader, but that's precisely the reaction I wanted to create. I wanted people to start to think about how idiotic it is to separate ourselves from one another based, in large part, on something as meaningless as the presence or lack of melanin. I thought that some would disagree with me, but I NEVER expected my questions on race would alienate and apparently offend my Canadian cousins. But it didn't really concern me, because I know that happiness is a choice, and if they choose to be angry, I must respect their right to remain in that negative space. Life is so short, and death is so long, I don't want to waste a moment worrying about something over which I have no control, namely, someone else's feelings. I guess I said all that to say that "no," it didn't concern me, and given the opportunity, I'd do it all again.

GG- In your book you state that after perusing books, microfilm, maps and online databases, you had to take your research to the next level. You and daughter Dawn (how cool is it to have a child in tune with your passion?) took a trip to Canada to find the Ancestors.
How did you plan for that and should the beginning genealogist devise an annual budget that includes travel for their respective research?

LBL- That first trip to Canada -- gives me a chill just to think about it. I wish I could find words to express how we felt, as every step of the way, no matter where we stopped, we felt the ancestors guiding us to find them. I stopped in a library in Wellington County, Ontario, and asked the librarian if they had a collection on local black history. As she was answering my question ("no, they had nothing like that"), another patron overheard the conversation and she came up to me and asked if I was looking for black cemeteries in the area. I wasn't really, because I had no reason to believe any of my ancestors were buried nearby, but I was curious. That kind woman drew out a map and told me where TWO abandoned black cemeteries were located, and without that map, I'd never have found them. I didn't find any of my ancestors in either cemetery, but the fact that she just happened to be in that library that day, standing next to me at the information counter, and holding information about black Canadian history just astonished me. That kind of coincidence happened everywhere we went. At one point, I expected to see a sign on the road that said something like, "Turn here Lisa and Dawn," because the information was utterly flowing at us from everywhere.

I planned for the trip for months, scouring the internet for any and everything I could find about William Lee, blacks in Canada, and the areas where they lived. I had a binder that I divided into sections: BOOKS I needed to find, ARTICLES to lookup, LIBRARIES and ARCHIVES to visit (their hours of operation, location, phone numbers, etc.), SOCIETIES and ASSOCIATIONS that might have information I needed, and a MISCELLANEOUS section for items that didn't fit into the other sections.

I listed all of the books and articles I needed to find (based on searches I did online) and coded them with a key based on their location, so I could, at a glance, look at any particular page and see how many references were located in Hamilton, Ontario, how many were in Collingwood, Niagara Falls, Brantford, etc. Since we were only going to be in Canada about a week, I needed to make each research day count, yet I also intended to meet as many of my newly found Canadian cousins as I could.

When we arrived in Toronto, Dawn asked what would be our first stop. I hadn't planned the trip in that way. I really didn't know where to go first, second, third, instead, I just "knew" that somehow, when we arrived, I'd just know. I had booked our rental car, but no hotels because I didn't know where we'd end up on any given night and I didn't want to be locked into getting to point "A" when we really wanted to stay in point "B" for the night. After a moment's thought, spirit led us to go to Collingwood, Ontario for our first stop.

Budget? What's that? Have you ever known a genealogist with a budget? It's amazing how much money I spend on this stuff. I remember when I attended my first meeting of the AAGSNC, Kashan Robinson (a lifetime member) stated to the group that genealogy was not a cheap hobby. I figured she was crazy and didn't know what she was talking about. How expensive could it be? VERY!! Thank goodness for the favorable exchange rate that year. I have, however, added a "yearly genealogy trek" into my budget, something I recommend everyone do. You don't even have to know where you're going to travel, but make it a point to visit some of the places where your ancestors lived.

GG- We know about the Underground Railroad, following the drinking gourd, and final stop in Canada. How far can a beginning genealogist get with only internet research and what immediate advice would you give them?

LBL- Whenever I teach a beginning genealogy course, I always advise folks to spend the first month on the internet, and to not even think of visiting a library until they've done all the "basics" online. With so many recent advances with online imaging and searchable databases, there's an incredible amount of GOOD data available online. In my opinion, you can do ALL of you U.S. Census online, you can find many vital records indices online (and in some cases the images as well), there is military information, and depending on the state/s in which your ancestors lived, you might be able to find land records, city directories, and other useful information.

Of course, ANY of the data that you find online, whether they are primary or secondary sources, need additional, independent sources to prove that the information is correct.

GG- Is there a community of African Ancestored genealogists researching in Canada?

LBL- Yes, we're a small group, for sure, but that will change as more and more people come to realize that some of their ancestors may have transited through Canada prior and during the Civil War. Since slavery in Canada ended in 1834, and since the first Canadian census was conducted in 1851, it's possible to find additional information about black folks who may have come to Canada, even if they stayed only a few years. And once the 2nd Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1850, free and enslaved blacks were leaving the U.S. in droves, even from "free" states, since blacks were quite literally being snatched off the streets and being sold back into slavery. Slave snatchers even ventured into Canada looking for quarry, so blacks living in Canadian border towns were even at risk.

As the manager of the AfriGeneas Canadian forum [ ], I often receive emails from people perplexed by census information that shows that an ancestor was born in Canada. Though the Canadian census has an index for only the 1871 and 1881 population schedules, there are some incredible resources for blacks looking for their ancestors, and I'm more than happy to help them find them.

GG- I sense that self-publishing was the way to initially go. Do you intend to contact a major mainstream or university publisher in the future, ala Lalita Tedemy (Cane River) or Neil Henry (Pearls Secret)?

LBL- Self publishing -- geez, Louise, how I agonized over this topic. Remember, this started out as a Christmas gift, so self publishing was the only way to go. But after I received a good response to my work, I decided to try to sell some copies and see where it went.

Like most people, I'm pretty critical of my work and though I'm very happy with Skin Deep, I didn't think it was good enough for a major publisher. However, within the past few months, I've gotten some great feedback and I'm currently working on a "nonfiction book proposal" to send to an agent. We'll just see where that goes. Am I geeked? You better believe it.

GG- Your work and contributions to the African American genealogical society of Northern California (AAGSNC) are formidable. You are the former editor of the ‘From the Baobab Tree’ journal, chairman of the organizations Board of Directors, and tireless nurturer of its members. What’s next for you and where do you find the time!?!

LBL- So much on my plate, George, I'm often amazed that I find the energy, much less the time. Currently, I'm working on both my PLCGS (Professional Learning Certificate - Genealogical Studies) from the University of Toronto (specialist in Canadian Studies), and CGRS/CGL (Certified Genealogical Research Specialist and Certified Genealogical Lecturer). I'll have my PLCGS later this year and my CGRS/CGL next year.

I've been nominated to be the next president of the CSGA (California State Genealogical Alliance), I'm working, feverishly, to bring Dr. Tukufi Zuberi (from the PBS show, "The History Detectives") to San Francisco next year for a large genealogy conference, co-sponsored by the AAGSNC and the LDS, and I'm working on an article about genetic genealogy, which I hope to have published in several genealogy journals later this year. The focus of that article will be to "break it down," and help the layman understand what genetic genealogy is, the limitations of DNA testing, and the differences between the DNA testing companies out there today.

Plus, I'd LIKE to have a life of my own, one of these days. I have a nine-year old son, who keeps me on my toes, and I have an 80 year-old house that seems to need more and more of my attention (new furnace next month, sanding the hardwood floors, painting ...).

And my garden. How I love my garden. Sometimes I just sit and watch my plants grow. This year I have corn, garlic, English peas, peppers, three varieties of tomatoes, Romaine lettuce, dozens of sunflowers, cantaloupes, pumpkins, and dozens of varieties of flowers.

GG- In summary, what do you want the reader of 'Skin Deep' to come away with?

LBL- I hope that when the reader sees HOW I wrote "Skin Deep," they'll be inspired to FINALLY write their own story. I hope that the days of stuffy, boring family histories are coming to an end and that more people will embrace the method of "Skin Deep."

As Delores Davis puts it, "Just write. Don't worry about the spelling, punctuation, or grammar. You'll hire an editor to do that anyway. Just write."

Just start writing. So many times, I'd sit down at my laptop to work on the book and my fingers would just be flying off the keys, nearly unable to keep up with the words and thoughts that were gushing out. Yet they weren't MY words. It was as if I was just a conduit, allowing some spirit to transfer its feelings THROUGH me.

I hope you can understand what I'm saying. Each time this happened, when I went back to read those pages, tears would be streaming down my face, as I read those words -- words I'd never have been able to find on my own. I was touched by the feelings and emotions, as though they were the first time I'd ever read them.

I've said it before and I'll say it again. I thank the ancestors for their guidance, love and incredible patience with me. I pray I have done them justice.

GG- We’ve been blessed! Thank you Lisa, and we await (unconditionally, and with love) ‘Part II’ of your continuing journey to discover your Ancestors.

To purchase "Skin Deep, My Journey To Discover The "Black" & "White" Descendants of William Lee- Part I"
Contact: Lisa B. Lee

"Guided by the Ancestors"

Messages In This Thread

[Author] Skin Deep- Interview with Lisa B. Lee
Re: [Author] Skin Deep- Interview with Lisa B. Le

18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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