The cultural history and contemporary celebrations of the Lunar New Year help to bring to life a past time and place during the antebellum to the great migration periods in Black American farmer family history. For Chinese, in China, including Overseas Chinese, the lunar new year is the most important and most festive holiday of the year. The lunar new year, through centuries of China’s agrarian tradition, was the one period when farmers could rest and families came together to send off the old year and welcome the new. While Chinese people have for thousands of years, with a calendar dating from the third millennium BCE, have been building on ancient traditions of New Year celebrations what is known as the Spring Festival, my focus is the lunar calendar.
For the Chinese, the lunar calendar is also known as the old calendar the agricultural calendar which is referred to as the Xia calendar because Chinese legend preserves that it dates from the Xia dynasty during the 21st to 16th centuries BCE. In my family history and genealogical research learning about the lunar calendar has brought context clues in understanding the experiences of my agricultural ancestors. Growing up in NYC during the 1970s, I was very aware that my family had Virginia farm roots as my great aunt lived on her marital family's working farm where I spent most summers. Years later, like five years ago, in the archives I discovered records confirming the family talk that our marital families were truly related and now realize that marriage bonded staying together across generations of migration from Westmoreland County, Virginia.
When researching Black American family history the overwhelming challenge is that many of our ancestors did not leave records of themselves, especially when you consider they had few legal rights and or protection of their rights throughout history in America. The majority of Black Americans had to live silently due to racial discrimination on top of gender-based laws. While Free African Americans appear in every federal census beginning in 1790, largely men led the ‘public lives’ and women-led ‘private lives’ of families regardless of color or class, which makes researching our families even more challenging. During The Great Migration, hundreds of thousands of Black Americans fled Southern states due to racial discrimination laws, tenant farmer abuse, and many also moved around Northern cities to begin passing for white for further protections.
In many cases, our families still have oral histories passed across generations that recall the places we lived before migration and the necessity for passing. Many of our elders are still afraid to talk about our family stories because our lives and safety depend on our silence. In my own family, passing after the migration was practiced as Black Americans that looked white living their Black lives also lived with the added fear of being attacked and accused of being a ‘Nigger lover’ which could lead to death, and other forms of terrorism also known as lynching, cross-burning, house and property burning, kidnapping, rape, unprovoked physical assaults and insults. The compounded trauma in my own family is that the ‘knowing of talking’ about the known passing could get the relative hurt and themselves in ‘trouble’. I have Aunts to this day that will not talk about the old times in fear of ‘trouble’. I was fortunate that my grandmother was not visibly afraid to respond to my questions as a child although she leaned into responding that she didn't remember beyond her one or two-word responses. Fortunate enough, I was an extremely inquisitive child. In consideration of often feeling like I have exhausted the records, I began thinking about the moon cycles from reading almanacs while researching my farmer family history. Becoming more familiar with the moon, nature, and crop cycles developed into a form of relaxation and reflection which began to form context clues for more successful research.
I like to think of myself as having rememory as Toni Morrison wrote in Beloved. My grandmothers are gone now and I am now a grandmother. While technology and media dominate much of our time, with my own grandchildren, I use cultural events to connect and weave stories with experiences in an effort to create rememory family history data for their futures. May it be a loving force for our generational health and prosperity, self-assurance, peace, and joy. My hope is that you too can enjoy local community events celebrating the Lunar New Year and begin thinking about how the lunar calendar could have affected some of the lifestyles and movements of our Black American ancestors.