Why My Great Grandmother's Name Matters

Turns out she wasn't just steel and resolve.

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The first time I got a deep glimpse into my family history, I had to leave the room to gather myself. It was around seven years ago, and a genealogist, Rafi Guber, and the comedian Billy Crystal had come to my home to present me with previously unknown information about my great-grandmother, a steely woman I knew only as Kentucky Shannon.

Guber and Crystal had been working on an ancestry project called Finding Our Families, Findings Ourselves with the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, and Kentucky Shannon was an ancestor I longed to know more about. I knew that my great grandmother, who was born in 1850, had been a slave. But Kentucky Shannon was not her slave name. It was a name she gave herself, seemingly as a renunciation of the institution of slavery. Family members had asked her where the name came from, whether she had been born in Kentucky or had some other connection to the place. She would never discuss it. So, even as I agreed to participate in the project in Los Angeles, I told the researchers they would have no luck finding anything more.

Then the two men came bearing thrilling news. The researchers had found her name. It was Wofford. Her father had been a slave named Washington Wofford, my friends told me. I had to go to the kitchen to calm my heart. This woman suddenly had a past. She had not been all steel and discipline and resolve. She had a past that could not be fully erased or denied. There was no way to ignore the fact of slavery.

Now, with today's DNA technology, scientists have been able to dot the I's and cross the T's. I have been able to go far beyond that previous stopping point in slavery to my likely origins in Africa.

That my roots lie in West Africa is no surprise. I lived in Ghana for many years, and I have some fluency in the languages. When I looked at people in Ghana and Sierra Leone, I looked like them. When I spoke, I realized that I have this voice-box that is not unusual there.

When I went to Liberia as a Fulbright ambassador eight or ten years ago, the people there made me a "Zoe" – a kind of priestess -- and they gave me a mask. The mask has tiny, tiny lips, and a ring around the neck. The lips are small, because a Zoe is a keeper of women's secrets. It is said that her mouth is so small that she could not possibly reveal secrets, that you would have to break water to get the liquid past her lips.

Through the PBS African American Lives project that used DNA testing and historical research to trace my ancestry back farther that I could have ever imagined, I have found out that I likely descend from the Mende people, a people who live in Sierra Leone and Liberia. And so much makes sense.

You can tell people who have been born with silver spoons in their mouths, the kind of people who can tell you with confidence, "My people have been here for four generations. They came to this country from here. They farmed this land here." They have an assuredness about their place in the world.

To be healthy, we need to know something about our past. Even with animals, if you take a baby from its animal family and remove it from its community, it will die sooner. It will shrink, wither and die. The more we know, the better placed we are to fashion the future. And the more everyone knows about where other people come from increases the likelihood that people can talk to one another, find points of commonality and realize that in many ways we are not different. You have to know something about yourself. You cannot know where you are going, unless you know where you've been.

Maya Angelou is an acclaimed poet and author.