Saturday, February 25, 2012

"Who Do You Think You Are?": Marisa Tomei and Blair Underwood

We're gonna talk about both episodes today, just cuz I'm feeling lazy. But both episodes sorta jumped out at me because of the use of newspapers and court records to flesh out the stories of certain ancestors of both Marisa and Blair - Marisa had questions about the murky circumstances and official records regarding her great-grandfather's death and Blair was intrigued by the fact his 3rd great grandfather ended up in a mental institution, and I think these episodes highlighted the importance of finding out the stories, not just the facts. Plus, I have that same kind of relative in my family - the brothers Ricklefs, John and Charles - where you find out one little factoid - in my case, that they were in jail - and it snowballs into a mountain of information that not only tells you they were criminals, but gives you this amazing insight into their character and personality and makes you think about their motivations and what influenced and drove them. So that also made me think again about the Martin Sheen episode, where I noted that it didn't really speak to me - but I think maybe I was a little harsh in not liking it, because we all have that particular story or that particular relative who speaks to us, who fuels our genealogical curiosity, and even though Martin's uncles didn't do it for me, they did it for him, and that's what matters.

In the Marisa Tomei episode, I liked that she was able to alleviate some of the stigma her mother had attached to their murdered predecessor, that he hadn't been a philanderer, that he didn't deliberately break up the family. Because that kind of legacy can weigh on a person. And I thought it was just wonderful that a relative and friend of Marisa's great-grandmother was found and wrote her a letter who was able to give her a firsthand account of what her great-grandmother was like in life, and how broken up she was by her husband's death, but how happy she became with her second husband. And it's true - if the great-grandfather hadn't died, his wife wouldn't have remarried to a fisherman, and her son maybe wouldn't have taken up the trade and emigrated to America. It's all the little things that come together to bring us to where we are today.

I thought Blair's story was interesting - I wasn't really into the whole cousin reunion thing but for African-Americans, I think it's definitely great to be able to find a country or tribe in Africa that you're probably descended from, since so many of them really hit an unbreakable brick wall before the Civil War. But a 10th-cousin is almost no relation at all - I don't know this offhand, but Cousin April and I are related somewhere way back when that's so far back that it almost doesn't even matter. We feel related because we have that common ancestor we're both chasing, but I'm probably just as closely related if not more closely related to half the people in my town, half of whom I've probably never even met.

But I did like, as I said before, all the story he was able to find on Sonny Early, and how he was actually able to get both sides of the story when it came to why Sonny was shot. But not everybody has that colorful character in their family tree, and someone like that is always a good hook to get people interested. But my absolute favorite part about the Blair Underwood episode was his discovery that he had free black ancestors living in this country as far back as 1790 - what an incredible find. There are so many African-Americans who are more American than so many white Americans, if their family came here as slaves in the 1600, 1700s, except they can't prove their ancestry back that far. But for a black American to be able to look at an 1840 census and see his relative's name, or original records from even earlier in the 19th century proving that his relatives were free more than half a century before slavery was officially abolished in the U.S. - well, I'm not black, but for many who are, they know deep down that someone, somewhere down the line, was enslaved, and that has to be a terrible realization, especially when these people start to become three-dimensional, real, and well, alive to you. So to be able to say your family was free - I would be proud. Relieved and proud.

Anyway, I enjoyed them both. I think I really enjoyed Blair Underwood's episode because Blair turned out to be so nice when I went to see him at the Paley Center. And if we're keeping count, I'm three for three with the tearing up this season. Closest to crying while watching Blair's episode. And that was in public, surrounded by 100 people in a tiny theater. Embarrassing...what can I say...when I see people blown away and emotionally affected by the genealogical discoveries they make, I'm a total sap.

Enjoy your weekend, everyone!


  1. I enjoyed reading your blog.Really looking forward to read more. Want more.