When Origin Stories Collide

How my search for my family’s roots intersected with the Cherokee Nation — and The 1619 Project

Marlon Weems
Published in
7 min readFeb 28
Black Freedmen, descended from those enslaved by Cherokee Indians, protest their expulsion on September 2, 2011, outside a regional Bureau of Indian Affairs office in Muskogee, Okla. Marilyn Vann, in pink, is the president of the Descendants of Freedmen Association. | Credit: Alex Kellogg/NPR

Earlier this month, on an episode of the PBS program “Finding Your Roots,” Angela Davis, the 1960s activist and social justice icon, learned that one of her forebears came to America on the Mayflower:

This segment of the series, hosted by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University, underscores a unique aspect of the Black American experience: our collective inability to know our complete heritage.

While most of us in the Black diaspora will never be featured on PBS, a by-product of the growth of technology is the democratization of information. As a result, anyone with a smartphone or an internet connection can access census records, birth, and death certificates, and even marriage licenses going back hundreds of years.

Family legacy is as much a part of popular culture as it is a part of our history. In the HBO series Game of Thrones and its spin-off, House of Dragons, the importance of family is central to a broader theme.

The families featured in both series are identified by a sigil, a coat of arms imbued with mystical qualities. Sigils symbolize the family heritage and its power, or the lack thereof. An ancient book detailing the lineages of each house is a foundational component of both epic sagas.

Most Americans of European descent quickly identify with George R.R. Martin’s tale. But for Black Americans, however, the show’s portrayal of the family dynamic is a fantasy. Historically, attempts to determine our origin stories only go back a few generations and usually end at America’s eastern shore.

For example, my last name, Weems, is a Scottish variant of the Scottish Wemyss. My mother’s maiden name, Muldrow, is an Anglicized version of the ancient Irish surname…