I'm not much for holiday TV fare, but today's showing of Roots, in all its flawed glory,
was special. The show brings memories of thanks and of lessons learned about the study of
the history that we care about, our own. At the end of the TV mini-series, when I learned
Roots was a story that emerged from Alex Haley's personal quest, I thought, if the
descendant of a slave can learn so much about his past, surely I can learn as much!
That was only five years after my father's premature death in 1972, so I grasped onto this
idea and never let go. Over the next dozen years I slowly became the family historian, as
I plugged into established family trees going back as far as 30 generations, to the 10th
century C.E. and (later) the Norman Conquest.
I started the way anyone would start, with the family in front of me. My mother's parents
were in their late 70s, in declining health, and lived in Dallas. The drive from Austin was an
easy one, I went to visit them. I interviewed them for hours and wrote the results on a
series of green five-by-eight index cards. I learned of three generations of my grandmother,
and five generations of my grandfather. Eventually I would connect the maternal line to
the only Union soldier in our otherwise very Southern family; I would connect the paternal
line to the family tree of Lord Charles Spencer, brother of Princess Diana, which connected us
to princes, prime ministers, earls, presidents, and a conqueror. I contacted my father's
mother by phone and mail; she provided me with even more surprises.
That was long before the ascendancy of Ancestry.com, DNA testing, and the like.
It was before the World Wide Web. Back then I had no clue how to proceed, so
I put the index cards in a file folder and stuck the folder in my file cabinet, where it
remained unmolested for a dozen years.
In 1989 I was working on a contract at Pennzoil where a co-worker, Tom Peacock, told me
of the Clayton Genealogy Library. Only a few miles south of downtown, it is part of
the Houston Library System and the best genealogy library in the South west of Atlanta. The
Clayton Library opened me up to the world. It revived my interest in
history. I took those index cards, still in that folder in my file cabinet, and went to work.
Genealogy library research involved reading old censuses on microfilm, after locating them
through index searches. Even today the indexes vary greatly in quality from state to state
and decade to decade. The work also involves visually scanning hundreds of books, by state
and country, for references to your family. I am fortunate that my family tree is devoid
of names like Smith, Jones, Johnson, or Garcia. Even a name like Napier has multiple sources,
multiple interpretations, and many lines of descendancy - just enough to be interesting.
The details of my discoveries are interesting only to family members. The next part of my
story involves the discovery that in writing Roots, Alex Haley lied. He made up stories.
No doubt he had strands of facts and filled in the blanks, in order to create
a story that could be told. I have lots of strands like that; occasionally I am
tempted to posit a story of what might have happened - such as how 45-year-old Frenchman
Jean Francois D'Autel, one of my father's maternal ancestors, ended up with a boatload
(literally) of Germanic children, and left for Baltimore from Wurzburg in 1820. A Napoleonic
soldier who went native in Germany and started life anew after being widowed? Perhaps.
To understand my reaction to this discovery, you have to understand me: I have a fact fixation.
I want anything represented as fact to indeed be true. You give me a rule, and I struggle
with attempts to finesse its meaning. Good thing I never became a lawyer!
Fiction - storytelling - need not be true, which is its great virtue, because ideas can be
represented without being dragged down by reality. Reality is messy. A fiction writer
can gloss over the rough edges with a clean conscience, if he chooses. Religious
mythmaking often falls into this category, but then betrays its value, and worthiness, when portrayed
as a depiction of something that really happened. At that point I lose respect for the
storyteller. Learning is process of recognizing and abandoning delusions, so a delusional
teacher is of little help.
In Haley's case, it wasn't my family history that he messed with. My takeaway was the
value of getting to know your own roots, especially when circumstances have cut you
away from them. For that lesson I salute Alex Haley.
The question of fact versus fiction resonates more deeply for me in other arenas, as it gets
to the heart of questions of the history, and hence meaning, of Tai Chi Chuan - and
ultimately, most religion as well. The origins of Tai Chi are as murky as the origins
of man. Some historians and experts are close together despite disagreements, but others
make wild claims that shatter any hope of closing in on the truth. Even within my own
lineage, for which I am a lineage holder, I have been astonished to discover that some,
perhaps most, of the stories of the last century cannot be true. I also uncovered a
myth in my family's genealogy just three years ago. As long as I know they are
myths, I have learned from the process of discovery. If I ignore that knowledge, I take a step backward.
Most recently, some Tai Chi and Qigong grandmasters have begun concocting new myths
and fairy tales about the origins of Tai Chi and Qigong - not only contradicting most of the pre-existing
stories without new evidence, but creating words and circumstances completely out of character
with the times. It reminds me of Marvel Comics' periodic attempts to update their characters
by rewriting their origin stories. Marvel's material is known to be fiction, but when a
grandmaster speaks, people tend to take his words at face value, as they might a priest.
This is how myths become regarded as truth, and truth evaporates like mist.
Why is that necessary? Why is it not sufficient that we drink deeply of an exercise
form that seems to have no limit to mysteries and wonders? People make up untruths
to cover for insecurities. Why should we feel the need to prove the value of Tai Chi
with fictions? The value of Tai Chi lies in its fact.