Revealing Roots: Chris Rock Uncovers the Ancestral Source of His Drive

In this excerpt from African-American Lives, the comic is moved to tears when he learns about an ancestor who fought for the freedom of other slaves and, against terrible odds, became a state legislator at age 24.

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"They were great people," he said. "My grandmother was just a real sweet, typical grandmother, you know, bake you a cake, bake you some pies, fry up some chicken. My grandfather drove a cab. I never went a week without seeing him. Sometimes I would end up in the cab with him driving people around. He was also a preacher at a Brooklyn storefront church."

Rock said he writes his jokes the same way his grandfather used to write his sermons. "We both just write bullet points," he said. "My grandfather never wrote a sermon all down. And I never really write the whole joke, 'cause I want it to come out with the passion of an argument, as opposed to, like, some written thing.

"My grandfather, the preacher," said Rock. "He was quick to jump out of his car to fight if somebody cut him off. He'd say, 'Christopher, pass me my headache stick.'  I'd pass him the headache stick he kept under the seat. If the car wouldn't start he'd say, 'Pass me my headache stick.' He'd hit the engine a couple of times, and the car would start." Rock counts his grandfather as a huge influence on him.

Unfortunately, our efforts to trace Rock's paternal ancestors past the births of Allen and Mary Rock yielded a series of names but no real stories that could suggest where the strong personalities and strong sense of humor came from. We found records tracing the family back generations to early 19th-century South Carolina, but few anecdotes.

However, we were more fortunate in our research on Rock's maternal grandparents. Wesley Tingman and Pearl McClam were both born near Andrews, S.C. -- Wesley on Oct. 6, 1915, and Pearl on July 25, 1911. Rock remembered them fondly, but knew little about their parents and grandparents.

Our research revealed that Rock's grandfather, Wesley, was the son of James Tingman, born in January 1886 in Berkeley County, S.C., and a woman named Emma Telefair, born in 1890 in the same county.

Going back a generation further, we were able to identify James Tingman's parents -- Rock's great-great-grandparents -- Eliza Moultrie and Julius Caesar Tingman. Both were born into slavery in South Carolina, Julius in 1845 and Eliza sometime around 1850.

Rock was astonished to hear that Julius Tingman served in the U.S. Colored Troops during the Civil War, enrolling on March 7, 1865, a little more than a month after the Confederates evacuated Charleston.

At that time South Carolina was filled with Union troops, and the newly freed slaves were enlisting in droves -- more than 200 black men were signing up each day. Rock's great-great-grandfather Julius had just become free after 21 years living as a slave.

Signing up to serve in the U.S. Colored Troops must have been one of the first things he did as a free man. He could have fled to the North or stayed in the South and attempted to make a new life as a farmer, but he risked his life by joining the army and fighting for the freedom of other slaves.