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’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.
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!
Read “‘Cheddar Man’, Britain’s Oldest Skeleton Had Dark Skin, DNA Shows” by Ceylan Yeginsu and Carl Zimmer here.
See Andrew’s Family History Site here.
Connect with Andrew on goodreads.com here.
Read about Derek Walcott (1930-2017), the Nobel Laureate Poet from St. Lucia here.
Visit Illustrator Joe Lillington’s website to view more of his renderings of Black Tudors.