A rapper traces his roots on pop-culture cable channel VH1.
Genealogy hit the hip-hop scene this spring when VH1 aired "50 Cent: The Origin of Me," a "Rock Doc" featuring rapper 50 Cent's family history search.
The rapper, aka Curtis Jackson, or "50" for short, represents a world unfamiliar to many genealogists. Raised after his mother's death by his grandparents in what he calls a "war zone" -- New York City's South Jamaica, Queens, neighborhood -- 50 is a former drug dealer who survived being shot nine times in 2000. He's cultivated a tough image, with critically acclaimed albums including Get Rich or Die Tryin' and The Massacre.
The nuts and bolts of genealogy research may be equally unfamiliar to VH1's audience, but perhaps less so after watching "The Origin of Me." It was an attempt to demonstrate that "genealogy is not just about something you're looking up on microfilm and in leather-bound books," says David Kamp, one of the producers who did much of the genealogy research. "It applies to where you're coming from and where you're going."
In the show, seeking "a full understanding" of his own history, the rapper traveled to Edgefield, SC, where his mother's family came from. Among his stops are the Old Edgefield District Genealogical Society and the county archives. With the archivists, he uses censuses to find his great-grandfather Will Jenkins; Will's father, Peter; and Peter's mother, Jane. In 1870, Jane lived in the household of R.G.M. Dunovant, a brigadier general in the Confederate Army and likely her former slaveowner. An estate inventory at the county archives reveals the name of Jane's mother -- 50's fourth-great-grandmother -- Adrene, in the will of Whitfield Brooks, Dunovant's father-in-law.
The link to the slaveowners was crucial, says Kamp. "That's what made it a story. We could take him to not only the town where his ancestors were slaves, but to the actual property."
Once called "Bloody Edgefield," the town was home to a white gang called the Red Shirts, a forerunner to the KKK. Dunovant's brother-in-law was Preston Brooks, the South Carolina senator who became a folk hero after beating abolitionist Sen. Charles Sumner with a cane on the US Senate floor in 1856.
In "The Origin of Me," awkward moments followed a docent's assertionat a former plantation that a lack of historical understanding is to blame for the controversy surrounding the symbolism of the Confederate flag, that none of the slaves on the property were mistreated, and that 50 Cent should really study history to learn about the "Mongolian" slaves in his ancestry.
"I never heard of that," says a diplomatic but incredulous 50, gently pressing her with questions. "50 Cent and I talked about it and he told me, 'I'm not going to blame her for being proud of who her ancestors were,'" says Kamp, who wrote about the experience for Vanity Fair.
At the Old Edgefield Pottery museum, 50 is invited to throw a clay pot in the style of Dave the Slave, a potter who, despite laws forbidding slaves to read and write, composed brief ditties on his works. "We wanted to show the confluence of 50 Cent being a guy who dug himself out of a life of crime by being elevated with words, and Dave the Slave, who also used words to dig himself out of anonymity as an enslaved person," Kamp says.
They were looking into the past, but Kamp and 50 Cent saw the future in Edgefield, too. At the end of the show, a Dunovant descendant compliments 50's music and gifts him a piece of Edgefield pottery. Then 50 visits Strom Thurmond High School, where he talks to black and white students sitting shoulder to shoulder in the gym. They're members of the "hip-hop generation" in a world that's a far cry from the days of anti-literacy laws and Red Shirts.
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From the November 2011 issue of Family Tree Magazine
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