September 23, 2021

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Lesson of the Day: ‘A Teenager Was Bullied. His Ancestors Saved Him.’

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Students in U.S. high schools can get free digital access to The New York Times until Sept. 1, 2021.

Featured Article: “A Teenager Was Bullied. His Ancestors Saved Him.” by John Leland

As a middle school student, Dennis Richmond Jr. was inspired by Alex Haley’s book “Roots” to learn about his own family history. In the years since Mr. Richmond started his research, he has been able to trace his ancestry to the 18th century, learning about enslaved, free and Indigenous ancestors with whom he shares DNA.

In this lesson, you will learn about a young person’s search for his ancestors and how race and racism played a central role in that research. Then, you will write a letter to one of your ancestors, real or imagined.

Take a few minutes to reflect on one or more of the following questions in your journal:

  • What do you know about your family history and ancestry? Do you wish you knew more?

  • Do you feel connected to your ancestors? Why or why not?

  • What has made it easy (or difficult) to research or know about your family history?

Read the article, then answer the following questions:

1. After watching “Roots,” a young Dennis Richmond Jr. asked himself how far back he could trace his own ancestors. Have you ever asked yourself this question? Who is the earliest ancestor you know about?

2. John Leland, a Times reporter, wrote, “To the genealogist’s question ‘Where do I come from?’ the answer eventually becomes: everywhere.” Does this perspective resonate with you? Do you feel that you — and, for that matter, everyone — come from “everywhere”? Why or why not?

3. What parts of Mr. Richmond’s research process and discoveries stood out to you? Why? Have you or any of your family members ever conducted genealogy research using similar sources?

4. What does the term “paper genocide” mean to historians? Have you witnessed this erasure while researching your family history? Or, have you noticed that in history class there is less information about people from the past who are from certain racial or class demographics?

5. In what ways did Dennis feel empowered by the stories of his ancestors?

6. Dennis makes it clear that some of his discoveries felt even more significant because of the history of slavery in the United States. What is one example from the article that emphasizes this point for you?

7. How did Mr. Richmond’s experience of conducting genealogy research change his understanding of Black history? How does it add to — or change — things you have learned about Black history either at home or at school?

Part I. Reflect

Mr. Richmond’s father said of his son’s research: “Whatever happened in the past to the relatives, that’s what made him him and me me. All of those experiences together made us as human beings.”

After reading the article, respond to this quote either in a classroom discussion or in writing:

  • How have your ancestors — known, unknown, imagined — shaped who you are today?

  • What is a story that has been passed down in your family that you find funny, interesting, upsetting or thought-provoking? If you could ask someone who was around at that time period more about that story, what questions would you ask?

Part II. Write a Letter to an Ancestor

The histories of slavery, colonialism and immigration have made it difficult for some people to research their family stories. The article also mentions that sometimes older people are hesitant to talk about the past or to pass down painful or traumatic stories.

At the same time, many people find meaning in connecting with ancestors, whether real or imagined or from chosen families.

Write a letter to one of your ancestors. You can free-write or follow these prompts:

  • Introduce yourself to your ancestor. What would you like for this person to know about who you are.

  • Tell your ancestor what about his or her story is powerful and meaningful to you. How has it shaped who you are today?

  • Ask your ancestor something about his or her life and experiences. What would help you to better understand this person? How would you like to learn from this person?

About Lesson of the Day

Find all our Lessons of the Day in this column.
Teachers, watch our on-demand webinar to learn how to use this feature in your classroom.

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