The importance of knowing your family history

During Black History Month we are bombarded with many of the fabulous inventions and other achievements that Black people have accomplished during our existence. Every year February offers a significant display of our unique genius.

Every year we are exposed to valuable information about who and where we have come from. One sentiment often expressed is that we, African Americans, “do not know who we are” and “do not know our history.” I believe these sentiments are accurate and important to be shared. However, there may be another angle that many of us are not considering that is just as significant, if not more so, for understanding our own personal histories.


A striking difference

Over the past four years as a psychotherapist I have learned a significant, painful truth about African Americans. This painful truth has been that many of us are not aware of our own personal histories.

From the psychological discipline I was trained in, we have a tour where we look at an individual’s family tree. When I compare the results from this exercise with my African American clients to those from my non-African American clients, there’s a stark difference between the two.

A majority of my African American clients are not able to trace their own personal family history beyond their grandparents or great-grandparents. In contrast, many of my non-African American clients have been able to trace their family lineage back several generations.

When I finally recognized this pattern, it struck me as significant. Then I challenged myself to do the same exercise with my family history. To my own frustration, I could go back only to my great-great-grandparents on my mother’s side and only to my grandparents on my father’s side. It did not take me long to realize that my own personal history is much more in line with my clients than I may have previously thought.

Seeking knowledge of personal descent

When this pattern is recognized, it’s important to us as individuals to seek out that knowledge to understand who we are and where we come from. Many of us are familiar with the adage “know thyself.” It might be difficult for someone to truly embrace their history of the collective group if they cannot connect their own lineage to the known group history.

It is good for many of us to know about the great triumphs our people have achieved. However, it may add a more empowering feeling, pride and identity to know what the individuals you directly come from have achieved.

Black history every day

Last year I met a young lady in her mid-20s who was asked to share a fun fact about her life. The fact she shared was that her maternal grandfather (a Black man) was the creator of Hamburger Helper. Her grandfather had been an employee of General Mills and was instrumental in developing the product.

Now, if you do a Google search on the history of General Mills, his name will not appear. Unfortunately, like many Black people, our genius is usually cultivated by others outside of the community and we do not get adequate credit. That was the case in this example.

I was struck by the pride and joy this young lady expressed about her grandfather who pioneered this product that has been a staple in many households across the nation. This highlights the importance of knowing our own personal histories. It is one thing to preach that “we come from kings and queens.” It is another thing to actually identify individuals in our own bloodlines who have left their mark on society.

Gaining awareness of who we are

Too often the genius and creativity of African Americans do not receive the acknowledgment or accolades that we deserve. Gaining awareness of who we directly come from is instrumental to our self-confidence and identity. This plays a significant role in facilitating the growth of our children and society.

However, we cannot accept or champion people, places and things we do not know about. It is important to keep the history of families alive. It’s also important to make sure those histories tell the truth.

African Americans are a significant and important ethnic group in the world. We make Black History every day. We should be proud and recognize this. History is only part of our story; the other part is how we collectively impact the future.


Brandon Jones M.A. is a mental health practitioner. He welcomes reader responses to or follow him on twitter @UniversalJones.