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AfriGeneas World Research Forum

Re: Researching Mulatto Ancestors

I am intrigued by this interesting and succinct discussion on "mulatto" ancestry. I am among a great many of African-Americans in this country whose ancestry includes at least one such identity in their family history and believe that such mixed-race unions to which the term alludes occurred even more often than may be evident in available records. (After all, who was and who was not "mulatto" was most often based on some white enumerator's perception and understanding, and was therefore random, at best.) It helps to understand, though, the further sociological aspects of why--up to my mother's generation--some family members were referred to as the "white ones" or the (estranged) "black ones"; why some escaped to anonymity in the North, living as white; why others may have been considered advantaged, advancing educationally and economically, while others remained in the lower economic strata within the Alabama community of our roots. But, it also casts a pall on prospects for every learning truely who my ancestors were.

Making the definition of "mulatto" even more complex is the family lore that tells of a relative who was "Indian" or "part-Indian." (Don't you have one?) We know how difficult it is to determine African-American ancestry; finding an Indian in the woodpile is nearly impossible, whether such "Indian" was a black, who chose the "Indian" label to escape slavery or some economic/social circumstance, or a true Native who called him/herself "black" to avoid exile to the West. Those who chose to "hide" in this way were regrettably successful, such that direct ancestry (or racial identity) might never be known.

What is most discouraging, though, is facing and accepting the fact that my ancestral parentage in the slavery generations and post-slavery generations may never be determined with certainty or proven 'cause folks who knew wouldn't tell or discuss it openly, or the records don't exist, casting those identifed as "mulatto" into a no-man's-land of non-identity. In other words, "malatto" not only means "mixed-race", it means for historical purposes "doesn't exist". Those of us who are struggling to get to the bottom of such identity and decendancy are largely lead to a mixed-bag of circumstantial evidence from which only assumptions--dangerous, as was pointed out--may bring us very close to the truth, but which leave us faced forever with a permanent 'brick wall', one that cannot be broached, say, beyond about 1800, unless (as Oliver-Velez point's out) some documentation, some record, exists in the archives and private papers of white families and comes forth. In this, I encourage--I beg--white researchers to share their findings on forums such as this. (For those who have gotten beyond 1800 in their proven lineage, I salute you!)

But, apart from the research challenges, this discussion also brings to mind the rather unique aspect of African-American family research: that we are able to trace our lineage mainly through our maternal lines, seldom learning as much with certainly about our paternal ancestors. This pattern, of course, runs somewhat contrary to traditional genealogical practices, whereby a family's history is told predominantly through the fathers' histories. This, in itself, might be an interesting topic for discussion on this forum, illustrating (and validating) the rather hybrid nature of African-American genealogy.


18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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