Americans are known for judging a book by its cover. Genealogists, however, know how dangerous this can be. Interracial marriage and multiracial offspring are becoming more and more common. Watching a dark-skinned woman walking down the street, it would be easy to presume she has African ancestry at some point. But would you see a Chinese woman? This is the story of Paula Williams Madison’s life.
Madison is a former executive vice-president at NBC. Her maternal grandmother was a black Jamaican woman. But her maternal grandfather was Chinese. And that Chinese heritage continued to permeate the family, even though he left when Paula’s mother was only three years old.
Even Madison’s generation was raised with Chinese culture. Her mother, having grown up with the heritage, passed it on to her children. She knew how to eat with chopsticks from a young age. And her mother spoke Hakka, the Chinese language spoken by her ancestors in Southern China.
From the mid-nineteenth through the mid-twentieth century, the United States saw a huge influx in migration. Great numbers of immigrants, primarily from European countries, poured onto our shores. As these families settled here and became integrated into American culture, they lost some of their original cultural identity. And various ethnic groups started to intermarry.
As the twentieth century progressed, worldwide migrations increased. Members of many different racial groups started living together in the same areas. As with the ethnic groups before them, these immigrants started assimilating culturally, although individuals also often maintained a strong sense of their cultural heritage. I remember as a child in the 70s, interracial marriage was a hot topic. The Jeffersons included a biracial woman who married the son of African-Americans George and Louise. It was a daring concept at the time, but is a common occurrence today.
As more generations pass, time can sometimes erase heritage. Some families, such as Paula’s, maintain a semblance of their ancestry. Some families, however, lose that heritage to time. Sometimes this is occasional. Interracial marriages date back to colonial times, but in days past, lighter-colored individuals would often pass for white, and intermarrying with Caucasians made each successive generation lighter, making it easier for them to pass. When my colleague Frank Dorman was researching his book Twenty Families of Color in Massachusetts, he often found living individuals who refused to believe that they had African-American ancestry, even when shown the documentary proof.
As time passes, more and more genealogists will be faced with unknown interracial roots. It is important to examine all the evidence, and follow where the path leads, even if it brings you down roads that you feel are uncomfortable. But you never know what exciting paths your research will take you through.
Paula Madison wrote a book about her adventure in family history: Finding Samuel Lowe: China, Jamaica, Harlem. The book has now been turned into an autobiographical documentary with a similar title: Finding Samuel Lowe: From Harlem to China. She recently did an interview with AARP about the process. I especially enjoyed her discussion of working with an editor on the book who changed dialogue and phrasing, which she had to change back to maintain the integrity of her mother’s experience: “We grew up with a Jamaican accent, a New York accent, and a Chinese overlay accent.”