I absolutely love the PBS show, “Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.” Gates, a Harvard professor, historian and filmmaker, hosts celebrities and helps them trace their genealogies back many generations.
It doesn’t matter to me who the celebrities are, I find the ancestral stories fascinating. Sometimes they discover histories that evoke pride. Often, they discover family members with unsavory pasts. No matter what is unearthed, the guests are always grateful to uncover their roots.
I’m lucky that I have my version of Gates in my family — my Aunt Gladys. She and her daughter, Kathy, have spent countless hours researching the roots of our lineage. And even though she’s my dad’s sister, she dug into my mom’s family too. Last year, my sister took a lot of the information that was uncovered and made books for us. I treasure every scrap of detail about those who came before me.
I recently did a DNA test to learn more about where I came from. It was no surprise to find a whole lot of German, but I was surprised at how much of my DNA came back with Polish roots. And, more surprising, a trace amount of Egyptian. It also showed that my hatred of cilantro is genetic and that I am likely a true blond with a fear of heights who isn’t afraid of public speaking — all true.
I think it’s so important to know where we came from so we can better decide where we’re going. It’s also really important to understand the histories of people who aren’t in our family. Everyone on this earth has different ways they got where they are, unique experiences, varied outlooks, incredible struggles and diverse beliefs. It’s a beautiful world of differences that deserves exploration and honor.
This month is Black History Month. It’s incredibly important for all Spartans to know more about the Black Spartans who broke barriers, changed the course of history, accomplished great things and influenced the trajectory of MSU and the nation. Check out the MSUToday feature, Honoring Black history at MSU, to view a historical photo gallery and learn more about our past.
One of the people highlighted in the feature is David W.D. Dickson, the first African American faculty member at MSU. Dickson was an assistant professor of English when many universities wouldn’t consider employing a Black man as a professor. Read a more detailed account of him in the article, The trailblazing life of MSU’s first African American faculty member.
Often, what we can learn from the past has a surprising influence on our current lives and our futures. After a decade studying the 1918 flu that killed approximately 15,000 Michigan residents, Siddharth Chandra, a professor in MSU’s James Madison College, saw his research come to life as he watched the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Read more about what he learned in the article, 1918 influenza provides warning for potential future pandemic reemergence.
Sometimes, we can learn about our past from unexpected sources. Julian Chambliss, a professor of English, has studied the Black experience by examining comic books. He’s curated a virtual exhibit at the MSU Museum, Beyond the Black Panther: Visions of Afrofuturism in American Comics. He also penned a Faculty voice: Comics and the Black experience, to offer more insight into his work.
As we go about our lives, it’s also important to use our past experiences to help the generations behind us. Sekeita Lewis-Johnson, a nursing alumna says, “I support MSU because others supported me… I show gratitude by paying it forward.” The gifts from her and others fund scholarships like the one that helped current nursing student Zach Collen finish his education during the pandemic. Read more about his experience and remember that March 16 is Give Green Day — a special day where you can make a difference for a student like Zach.
I think it’s intriguing to think of future generations tracing their roots and finding my story. They may not find anyone famous or someone who made an incredible discovery. But hopefully, they’ll find someone they can be proud of. Examine your roots, Spartans, but be sure to also spread your branches and reach out to others. Together, we can change the world. Spartans Will.