Monday, July 10, 2017


     Now that the red, right  and blue holidays are over I can go back to work on (F)ancestor. Shewho did a great graphic cover layout and at this point I think I could get away with saying the book was a success, had sold out and move on. But  then I wouldn't be able tell you what I found. I looked up the word fetishize- "have an excessive and irrational commitment to or an obsession with (something)." There it is- even the parenthesis. Somehow I've turned this following of the ancestral family into a fetish. And it's only getting worse. But're gonna love this.....
    Last wed. I spent the entire afternoon in the Rochester (the town not the city) Historical Society, a gentle hum of the air conditioner in the background as Rich Rider laid out the Osterhout family tree branch by white branch. Let me remind everyone that up until about a year ago I had absolutely no interest in who my ancestors were. I thought the  entire "search for your roots" was lame bullshit invented by the mormons, enjoyed by bored housewives and old bachelors. I know what you're thinking. Yes, I am an old bachelor, but still the Osterhouts (outside of immediately family) were to be avoided. I was  content to know that my siblings and nieces and nephews, and greats talked to me and cared nothing about any of the Osterhouts past my grandfather. And now look at me. I've completely geeked out on this ancestry rant and there's no turning back.
   So now as the genealogists confirm all I suspect, I dive deeper. 10 pages into google starts to reveal hidden gems buried in the internet, meta-data, deeds and wills. One inventory of Johannes Osterhout Jr., Indian guide and owner of a lot of crap goes like this: 1-clock, 1-cow, 1-gun, 2-old sleds, 1-petticoat, 1-lady's saddle, a goat, three sheep a "Tommy Hawk." Another Osterhout cousin Johannes Snyder leaves in 1789, his "Negro wench Floor to his loving wife..." Slavery is practiced by the northern as well as the Texas Osterhouts who take it well into the 1860's and the Civil War. So there are also Osterhout slave records. You can't avoid or reconcile it.  I plow on. Then somehow I stumble across a book written by Prof. Harry Bradshaw Mathews- "African American Freedom Journey in NY and Other Sites." It's a find. There's a record of delegates at a "Colored Convention"in Albany. And written on that list is C. Osterhout from the town of Hudson. My sister  had her DNA tested. Unless I'm adopted (which is looking unlikely) hers matches mine. A big white slice on that pie chart. No African. No Indian. Our idea of ethnic was a marrying a German Palatine. So how could there be a black Osterhout? Slavery.
    For the next three days I googled "Colored," "Black," "Negro," "African-American." "Afro-American," Osterhout. And then I hit pay dirt. Roland Barthes. Right? What the fuck? Famous French semiotician and know it all, Barthes is going off on one particular photo in his book "Camera Lucida." Carlo says you don't pronounce the "e." Roland is describing a kinda blurry and bleached out 1926 photo by the great Harlem Renaissance photographer James VanDerZee. With the language of "punctum,"and "studium," and "Mammy," Barthes does his photographic exegesis. And as I dig deeper I find scholars picking apart Barthes and it's here I find a gold nugget, no a diamond, buried deep in between our roots, a shameful, yet fantastical treasure unearthed by my "obsession with (something)." Another intellectual and expert on photography, Shawn Michelle Smith lets us in on who are in the photo, while calling the long dead Roland Barthes on his coded bullshit. It's the matrilineal aunts of the photographer James VanDerZee, another old Dutch family name, David Estelle and Mattie Osterhout. James VanDerZee joins Gandhi in the Osterhout family photos. We weren't all hillbillies.          


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