During RootsTech, I had the opportunity to meet and interview Paula Williams Madison, author of Finding Samuel Lowe: Harlem, Jamaica, China. Of course, there’s a lot more to Paula than authoring a bestselling memoir and a documentary by the same name. She’s the former top NBC executive for diversity. She’s the winner of many awards, such as being listed among the “75 Most Powerful African Americans in Corporate America” (Black Enterprise magazine) and one of “Outstanding 50 Asian Americans in Business” (Asian American Business Development Center).
Her long list of accomplishments don’t say it all. She’s also a warm and gracious woman—a pleasure to interview.
Here’s our interview. Paula had some helpful advice for family history writers. She talked about how to decide what to share and the meaning of family.
Putting the Definition of Family in a New Light
During her speeches at RootsTech as well as this interview, Paula put the definition of family in a new light. It’s not just the neatly documented marriages and the duly baptized babies of said marriages. Although it is that too. Family can be made up of half-siblings, second and third cousins, and a lot of people once removed. And people that have removed themselves across oceans.
Regardless of the colors and cultures, the family mosaic should form an image of belonging.
Of course it’s bloodlines. However, that blood isn’t the source of belonging. Belonging comes from the people that loved you. Stood by you. The ones that taught you when to stand tall and when to fight. The ones that fought with you, whatever the battle.
What family is not (necessarily):
The people that share your skin tone or the ones that live close by. The people that you’ve grown up with—the ones you’ve known all your life. It may not be made up of people that share the culture in which you’ve been raised.
Why Paula’s Definition of Family Resonates
Paula’s grandmother was responsible for her mother’s estrangement from her father, Samuel Lowe. (I know that’s vague. No spoilers here!) Paula shares DNA with her grandmother. But if her grandmother holds a place in the Williams siblings heart, it’s a tiny, tenuous hold. A literally painful grasp. A void of understanding.
Like my own grandmother, Paula’s mother was raised in a household where she wasn’t cherished. Unlike my grandmother, her mother didn’t have an extended family around to heal her whole again.
But maybe, Paula and her siblings provided something for her mother that her mother couldn’t accomplish herself. As they searched for their Chinese heritage, they also discovered a large multi-cultural, multi-national family that cherishes their ancestor from Jamaica.
And perhaps that’s the true definition of family. The people who you advocate for even after they’re gone. The love you feel—that you allow to guide you—long after your loved one’s funeral rites.
As FindingSamuelLowe.com says: “Family transcends race, space, and time.”