Black Men Reading: Meet Andrew Fontenelle PART ONE

In today’s installment of Black Men Reading, I am pleased to introduce you to Andrew Fontenelle, who tells me that he became an avid reader in his late teenage years. Born in St. Lucia, Andrew has lived in and around London since he was a child. Besides reading, Andrew enjoys traveling; but when at home he likes to go for 5-mile walks each day. He also likes to cook.

Andrew Fontenelle

Andrew’s wife describes him – not only as “the better cook” – but says that her husband is loyal, reliable, hard-working, faithful, and stubborn. Having observed some of his reading selections on goodreads.com, I gathered that Andrew had an interest in genealogy, history, and science, with a healthy dose of science fiction and fantasy. I wanted to dig a little bit deeper into his reading world, and he was kind enough to indulge my questions over a number of weeks.

[LR]: Andrew, first of all, thank you for agreeing to allow me to “pick your brain” for this Black Men Reading Series. I really appreciate your participation. As someone who reads a lot of contemporary fiction, I wanted to talk to you about your interest in genres that I don’t know much about. So let me start by asking what you like about Science Fiction and Science Fantasy?
[AF]: I like the escapism of Sci/Fantasy, the opportunity to imagine other worlds, other times and people.

[LR]: Can you share some favorite books and/or authors in the genre?
[AF]: I started off reading some of the best-known authors in the genre, including Arthur C. Clarke, Issac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, and Frank Herbert, but, later learned about some great writing in the genre done by writers of African descent.

In particular, I have become very interested in books from the Sword and Soul as well as the Steam Funk genres, which cover SciFi, Fantasy and Speculative Fiction from an African perspective.  My favorite books/authors include:
Dune by Frank Herbert
Wild Seed and Dawn by Octavia E. Butler
Lion’s Blood and Zulu Dawn by Steven Barnes
The Imaro Series by Charles Saunders
The Seedbearing Prince by DaVaun Sanders
Changa’s Safari and From Here to Timbuktu by Milton J. Davis
Magician by Raymond E. Feist
Shadow Blade by Seressia Glass

[LR]: I remember you getting into genealogy books. What was the catalyst for your research?
[AF]: WelI, I simply woke up one morning and, feeling that I wasn’t getting younger, I thought it would be nice to know a little about where I came from. I have always liked watching programs like “Who do you think you are?” and “Finding your Roots” which deal with the great and the good (as it were); but thought: wouldn’t it be cool to have your ancestors as the characters in a genealogical history? So I started learning how one approached researching one’s family history by reading books, visiting websites, listening to webinars, and attending conferences.

After speaking with a colleague at work, I also took a DNA test with 23andMe. He had taken one and it put him in contact with potential relatives. Interestingly, this DNA test did connect me with a first cousin that I didn’t know about. Since I have taken a second DNA test with Ancestry, these have not just linked me to cousins but provided ethnicity estimates showing me where in the world my ancestors came from.

I now have a site containing my family tree which is shared with family members, so that they can update information when necessary. I also have Facebook, Google+ and WhatsApp groups to share information and communicate with family.

[LR]: I like what you said about it being “cool to have your ancestors as the characters in a genealogical history.” I think that’s when learning history gets interesting:  when you realize that you’re learning about your ancestors and the ancestors of the people you encounter each day.
[AF]: In terms of learning about the family, one genealogist I came across highlighted that it is important to place your family history in the location, culture and historical events of their time. Therefore I am not only finding out about my ancestors but the places that they lived.

[LR]: I haven’t taken a DNA test but I see that it’s a great tool to access your history.  Michael W. Twitty’s book, The Cooking Gene includes a lot of what he learned about his ancestors from the DNA tests he took.  He said that it was important “to establish firm and clear roots in slavery and West Africa since we are frequently challenged on the validity and authenticity of our narratives.” Twitty learned that he is not only 71% African, but 28% western European.

Were there stories about your background that you got from your family?
[AF]: I recall that my Mother would always talk about her brothers and sisters from the time we were young. So even though I had never met most of them, I was aware of them. But there were no real tales from either of my parents about our ancestors. So it was only once I started my genealogical research that some of the stories came out. Even then, many of the elders who could provide me with information had sadly passed on.

[LR]: What has been your family’s response to your your genealogical work?
[AF]: Generally very positive. Other members of the family have started investigating the family or have thought about it, but not gotten as far as I have.
Interestingly most of the historians in the family are women. Sometimes a useful piece of information might be acquired from a family member.

[LR]: What do you find is most challenging and most rewarding about working on family genealogy?
[AF]: What I find most rewarding is being able to get a picture of those ancestors who lived one hundred or more years ago. It often makes me wonder what people will be saying about us a hundred years in the future. My frustrations include not having access to elders who could give me family stories as well as people not providing timely information when requested. I have learned while genealogy research might be an interest of mine, I can’t expect others to be as interested.

[LR]: When you observe that genealogy is an interest of yours that not everyone shares, I’ve found that is true with my habits of reading. I get so caught up in what I’m learning and discovering that I want everyone I know to be equally excited – but, they just aren’t going to be, and that’s okay.

Did reading about the history of people of African descent contribute to your interest in geneaology?
[AF]: Certainly, the catalyst was more about knowing the history of people of African descent. The British Isles is a good case in point where Black communities have been present in this region since at least Roman times. There have been significant numbers of Blacks in this region during Tudor, Elizabethan and Georgian times, as well as right up to World War 1. The city of Liverpool was one of Britain’s premier ports associated with the Slave Trade and has had the longest continuous Black presence in the UK. In fact, there were families in  Liverpool founded by the so-called Black Loyalists who fought for the British during US independence. Yet, whilst much is said about the Windrush generation, those who were here before have all but been forgotten.

In addition, the DNA analysis of the skeleton of a Neolithic Briton last year indicated that he was a Black man. So we need to reconsider what we think about the places that we live in particular and the world in general.

Even in St Lucia, I see much of the history is not carried over into the younger generations.
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Make sure you return tomorrow for Part Two of my Black Men Reading conversation with Andrew Fontenelle, as we continue our discussion about ancestry and family stories. Andrew also takes me to school regarding the Black Presence in the British Isles; and shares his thoughts about the value of studying history, technology, and speculative science. There will be more book recommendations, of course!
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Read “‘Cheddar Man’, Britain’s Oldest Skeleton Had Dark Skin, DNA Shows” by Ceylan Yeginsu and Carl Zimmer here.
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See Andrew’s Family History Site here.
Connect with Andrew on goodreads.com here.
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Read about Derek Walcott (1930-2017), the Nobel Laureate Poet from St. Lucia here.
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Visit Illustrator Joe Lillington’s website to view more of his renderings of Black Tudors.

21 Comments

  1. I’m so excited to learn about these sub-genres! My library’s never had a display of steam funk or sword and soul. I think it’s high time that changes. Looking forward to Part 2! x

  2. Your posts are beacons of light, Leslie. I did not know that black people were present in the British Isles as far back as Elizabethan times. That tidbit about the Neolithic skeletal remains being those of a black man is fascinating. There’s nothing like hard evidence to blow up thousands of years of assumptions about ancestors. Rather like finding out through a DNA test that what our parents and grandparents may have told us about our origins is something entirely different.

    A wonderful interview and great ideas for more reading. I need to retire!

    1. You want to retire so you can do more reading and writing, eh? I bought a copy of Black Tudors, but it may be a while before I get around to reading it🤔.

      A while back -I think it was ancestry.com that ran a commercial in which the speaker talked about having believed all his life that his family was Italian, only to learn through DNA testing that they were Scottish! Thanks for reading, Susanne!

  3. ‘Finding Your Roots’ on PBS with Henry Louis Gates Jr is such a powerful show. I haven’t really been into geneaology but this interview and Fontenelle’s interest have piqued mine! Interesting that he mentions the Windrush generation – I was just about to watch The Grapevine episode on The Windrush Scandal (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6lJ8u0X-nLw). Thanks for this interview, Leslie!

    1. Darkowaa, thank you sooooo much for sharing the link to The Grapevine‘s episode about The Windrush Scandal! I was sitting on my seat’s edge listening to the children and grandchildren of the Windrush Generation as they explained how the rights of Black British citizens born in Caribbean countries have been abused, and how documentation of citizenship has been destroyed. Hearing the voices of people from all over the Black Diaspora – not just Black American voices – talk about movements of resistance, progress, and challenges of being descendants of people who were colonized is very necessary for those of us who are hungry to know who we are❤️.

  4. What a wonderful interview Leslie! Genealogy is something that I’ve recently become interested in but have been lazy about actually doing the research.I hope one day I can get it together and see how far back I can really go. Without the knowledge from my grand-mother, it should be challenging to say the least. I’m enjoying Black Men Reading Series so much and can’t wait to dive into part Two! Thanks for sharing the links and encouraging me to look up my people! Big thanks to Andrew for sharing and allowing this interview to happen. I’m curious who your next interview will be with…..

    1. Hi Didi, I’m glad you are enjoying the Black Men Reading Series so far – I”m loving doing it! What begins as a chat about reading interests grows into a larger conversation that I hope continues to grow beyond what is presented in the blog posts. For my part, I am being enriched by these exchanges – in terms of both intellectual curiosity and growing the list of books I hope to read!

      I hope Andrew has inspired you to begin taking even small steps toward learning about your family genealogy! Thank you for your comments😊.

      1. Yes it has. It’s been a while now since I’ve been speaking to my Mom about it. Sadly my uncles are not of this world anymore so the male DNA we’d need to make our research come full circle isn’t possible. Well it’s complicated. Even though I’m still going to try to make something out of what I do know in hope that it will lead me to more information.

  5. You’re such a great inteviewer Leslie. I’ll definitely come back to part 2. Such an interesting conversation to be allowed into. Ditto, the realisation that things you’re passionate and excited about, others may not be…it’s why blogging and social media is so good- a way to find our tribes.

    1. Haha – Zezee, I admit, I did think of you when Andrew shared his sci-fi/sci-fantasy titles, because I know you enjoy those genres, too. Sword & Soul and SteamFunk were new to me, as well. Lot’s of riveting things going on, eh?

  6. Hi, Leslie, and thanks for a fine interview. I enjoyed learning about genres I don’t know much about, either! I’m grateful that I’m picking up a habit from my dad (again): He gets talking about a particular year and can easily say that his dad or grandfather was X years old that year. It puts history in such perspective to do that. I’m getting the same way about more recent years, able to say “Mom was Y years old and Dad was Y-1 then.” It helps keep the tales going! Off to look for Part Two!

  7. Great interview Leslie!! I especially like the genealogy angle. Like Andrew, I am also into genealogy. I’ve learned so much about my family and even found ancestors that my parents did not know about. I agree that the DNA tests are helpful as well. I recommend both 23andme and Ancestry. The cool thing about the Ancestry test is that if your match has a tree uploaded to the site then Ancestry tries to pinpoint who your common ancestor could be.

    I agree with Andrew that it can be challenging connecting with distant relatives who don’t have the same enthusiasm that you do or don’t have alot of information to add to your genealogy.

    I’m looking forward to Part Two.

    1. Hi Raymond – I didn’t know about your interest in genealogy! Just last week one of my cousins shared photos of her meeting with another branch of cousins [from a different part of her family] whom she had never known about, and met for the first time. They were connected through genealogical DNA testing. I’ll be interested o get your take on Andrew’s comments regarding why its sometimes a challenge to get information from relatives [he shares these in PART TWO of the interview]!

  8. Fascinating interview. While I am not a fan of science fiction,I always like knowing about diverse writers of any genre. I am a genealogy nut, so his interests and mine connect. I wrote a paper in graduate school putting Shakespeare’s play “Othello” in historical context. Queen Elizabeth actually had just ordered all blacks to leave England when he wrote.

    1. Elizabeth, your graduate school paper sounds like something that would have enhanced my own experience with reading Shakespeare’s plays. I’m glad you liked this interview. I learned a lot from Andrew, and, trust me, I could have continued to ask questions! I’m really enjoying working on this series😊.

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