With the growth of DNA testing, more and more people are discovering where in the world they come from – and many times they are surprised by the findings. They have origins they had no idea about. But this just serves to prove just how connected we all are. We may identify with a certain race or ethnicity or culture, but things are not always as clear-cut as we imagine them to be. Studying our family history, especially with our kids, is a profound way of learning about our unique place in the world and our ties to it. If you want to teach your kids that “no man is an island”, genealogy is a great way to do it.
I recently discovered a picture book that teaches these lessons well. It is entitled, The Granddaughter Necklace, written by Sharon Dennis Wyeth. The book is based on oral tradition, and is a combination of the true story of Wyeth’s family and what the lives of her ancestors were like in her imagination. The book follows the story of the author’s matrilineal line. Wyeth writes that she identifies as African American in the afterward, but the book’s story starts out with a European immigrant coming to America aboard a ship. The book then jumps to the present, and follows a necklace back in time, generation by generation, handed down from mother to daughter, finally reaching the author’s hands. We come to find out that Wyeth, an African American woman, is also descended from an Irish woman who married a free man of color in the years following the Civil War. Wyeth had always heard stories of an Irish ancestress, but studying her genealogy brought her face to face with her. Researching further, and taking a DNA test, she discovered she did indeed have ancestors from Ireland, and also had roots in Cameroon. Even though she had always identified with ancestry from Africa, her ancestors actually come from different points around the globe – and her matrilineal line has European roots.
Wyeth uses a beautiful medium to display the simple lesson that we are truly connected to all of humanity. Her book is lyrically told, accompanied by beautiful illustrations by Bagram Ibatoulline. It is another example of the power of stories to teach children. In addition to teaching how connected we are, the book also illustrates the point that genealogy can introduce us to people, places, and cultures all around the world and across time. Places we never thought we would have ties to, we are now finding out that we do, and we are compelled to discover more about them and the people from those places. Wyeth actually got the chance to travel to both Ireland and Cameroon. While we all may not be able to travel to our places of origin, diving into this study of the people and places we come from is a wonderful thing to do with your children. Starting out with a book like The Granddaughter Necklace is a perfect introduction, as it shows them with a story that this sort of thing is true of everyone.
When we study with our children different places and cultures other than our own and the ones we identify with, it opens up our minds to new ideas and new possibilities. It shows them that we are connected to people all across time and space, and that there are always new things to learn. It helps us understand the world around us. It builds connection and empathy to others. And it truly shows our children that “no man is an island” and that the world is theirs to discover, and that they belong in it just as we all do.
To discover more about the power of stories in family history, visit the website for Katie Andrews Potter’s new project, Storybook Ancestor.