(The Root) — Many of our readers wonder if they have famous kin. This week's advice is especially useful to people of Haitian descent who are trying to trace their forebears, whether those kin are well-known or simply well-loved.
"Hi, I represent the music rock band the Penelopes. Our band's lead singer, Axel Basquiat, was born and raised in Paris, but his father (Paul Basquiat) and his grandfather (Vincent Basquiat) are from Haiti. We know the famous artist Jean-Michel Basquiat's family was also from Haiti, and we wonder if there's any way to research and see if they are related somehow. We are based in London, so we are not too familiar on organizations in Haiti that might be able to help us. Axel has been wondering about this connection all his life, and we thought we can try to help him find it." —Winnie Lam
Jean-Michel Basquiat was an internationally acclaimed artist known for neo-expressionist paintings steeped in history, social critique and his origins as a graffiti artist. Sadly, he died young, succumbing to a drug overdose in 1988 at the age of 27. Nevertheless, his mark on the world of contemporary art is indelible. As you noted, he had Haitian ancestry, on his father's side of the family. His mother was Puerto Rican-American.
The first step in researching a possible connection to Jean-Michel Basquiat is to determine what you already know about Axel Basquiat's family. First, you need to find out when and where Axel's father and grandfathers were born, married and — if relevant — died. This information can usually be gathered by talking to family members or by Axel's own knowledge.
The next step would be to document all of that information with what we call "primary source" material. This would involve obtaining copies of birth, marriage and death records from Haiti. The sole repository of those records in Haiti is the Archives Nationale d'Haiti. Records can be obtained from the archives by contacting them.
Another source of information would be the Bibliothèque Nationale d'Haiti. It was established in 1939 and has manuscript collections and newspapers that might be useful in researching Axel's family. The Association de Généalogie d'Haiti can also be used for family-roots research. They have a subscription-based website that digitizes records and compiles user-submitted genealogical data and then makes it available to subscribers.
In the case of missing birth records, you might search for baptism records instead, which can be found in churches.
If there are no records available, then family stories may be the only clues you have to follow. They might indicate a specific town that Axel's forebears were from, and with that information, you could look at additional sources, such as church records.
Another source of Haitian records is the Family History Library. They have digitized their microfilm collection of birth, marriage and death records, titled Haiti, Port-au-Prince, Civil Registration, 1794-1843. Many of these records include the name of the individual, date of the event, parents' names and witnesses to the event.
Once you have that information, you could contact the estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat for any information they have on his ancestry. If they are unable or unwilling to offer any information, their website provides books about him that may provide more information on his life. You would then need to trace his lineage backward, the same way you did Axel's, to see if the two families connect.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University. He is also editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter.
Send your questions about tracing your own roots to TracingYourRoots@theroot.com.
This answer was provided in consultation with researchers from New England Historic Genealogical Society. Founded in 1845, NEHGS is the country's leading nonprofit resource for family history research. Its website, AmericanAncestors.org, contains more than 300 million searchable records for research in New England, New York and beyond. With the leading experts in the field, NEHGS staff can provide assistance and guidance for questions in most research areas. They can also be hired to conduct research on your family. Learn more today.