A simple family DNA test kit can’t provide a lot of answers for Americans whose ancestors did not come from Europe.
Many of these cultures didn’t have paper records — preferring instead to use oral history — and many people of color who came from African and Caribbean countries were enslaved and not included in usual historical records.
Jel is not a professional genealogist, and actually holds a full-time job working as a nurse, but she was still curious about her family history. After about a year of looking into her Caribbean ancestry, Jel realized how complicated the process was. So she decided to start posting about her findings and her recommendations on TikTok for other Caribbean Americans looking to learn about their roots.
But it’s not just a labor-intensive process. Jel notes in one of her first videos that there’s an emotional element to reading so much about colonization and enslavement that Caribbean Americans should be prepared for before diving in.
“Make sure that you’re mentally, emotionally and, most importantly, spiritually ready to find or not find whatever information you might come across,” Jel advised. “Just remember that everything our ancestors went through got us to be who we are today.”
For viewers who have never looked into their ancestry, Jel had two tips to start out with.
“Tip No. 1 is knowing the history of your country,” she said in a video. “Tip No. 2 is knowing who colonized your country.”
Jel’s family is from Belize, which is on the eastern coast of Central America and was colonized by the British in 1862, so she read up on both countries before starting her research. One of the most helpful resources she found was church records.
“They were really good at keeping birth records, death records, marriage records,” she explained.
Family Tree Magazine, a resource Jel references in her video, also noted that missionaries were big in the Caribbean from as early as 1736 and those churches would have kept records of members.
Enslavement and colonization also pose another problem to tracing ancestry — a lot of names were changed.
For example, Jel was able to find her third great-grandmother, who was listed as Mary Williams Squires on her Ancestry.com family tree, but couldn’t go back further than that because “Mary” was not her name until she was an indentured servant.
“Mary is from India and she was then brought to Africa,” Jel explained. “I want it to be noted that ‘Mary Williams’ was not her real name; that was her given indentured servant name by her British master.”
Jel did find her third great-grandmother’s real last name but still hit a roadblock.
“I will never know anything about my Indian ancestry because we don’t really know her real name,” she said.
Jel also wasn’t sure how her third great-grandfather Charles, who was allegedly from Barbados, met Mary in Belize. She said she even grew up hearing different stories from her family members about how they met.
“One thing about Mary is that she couldn’t read or write,” Jel added. “Thinking about somebody in your family not being able to read or write and knowing why they can’t read or write — it kinda hurts the soul.”
The emotional and mental toll, as Jel mentioned in her initial advice, can be exhausting. In a follow-up video, she recommended taking time off from doing research.
“Finding out about your ancestry is taxing mentally,” she said. “There’s just a lot of processing that has to happen while you’re doing this.”
The videos’ comments sections are flooded with requests for more information and thanks for Jel taking the time to find the resources.
“Thank you so much for this,” one viewer wrote. “Both of my parents are from [Grenada].”
“How exciting!” someone else said. “i got fam in Belize that i’ve Never met so thank you so much for the info!”
“It was fate you came across my video then!” Jel responded. “hope you start getting into it.”
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