Reflections: Digital Diaspora Family Reunion (DDFR) Road show-Harlem, NY (2011)

Family Photographs from Sylvia Wong Isabel's Archive

By Sylvia Isabel

My experience in the Digital Diaspora Family Reunion Road show-Harlem went far beyond my expectations. I believe divine intervention was at work. A friend (Martha Jones)pushed me to call DDFR upon learning of my obsession and passion for genealogy.

I was thrilled by the positive response to my family’s photo narrative “From Shanghai to Harlem.” My story traced the migration of my paternal Mississippi line and immigration of my maternal Chinese and Caribbean ancestors as they settled in Harlem.

I was escorted into the ‘green room’ for a pre-screen interview where great care was taken of my photos by attentive, white-gloved staff. My supporting documents, such as news clippings were reviewed with TLC.

I quietly freaked out as my precious family photos were turned upside down and taken out of sequence. But as a journalist, I know good editing can improve one’s story.

So, my Chinese Grand Uncle Louie dressed up in his tuxedo holding hands with his Black wife, my Aunt Evelyn, bejeweled and draped in her mink coat, was chosen over my brother Johnny shaking hands with President Bush! And cousin Jojo’s theatrical dance trio pose at Club Harlem was chosen over a faded photo of Uncle Joe and Aunt Helena dancing with Cab Calloway at the Apollo.

Somehow, my Chinese Caribbean mother’s Cotton Club picture didn’t make the cut. But it was worth it.

My unexpected ‘15 minutes’ of fame was a total surprise. Thanks to DDFR, I was interviewed on NY1 TV, featuring my photos, which repeated numerous times for 3-days; the NY Daily News interview featured my quotes and photos; and there were also Facebook and LinkedIn postings.

I received over 100 online messages. My phone buzzed for weeks. Comments came from the high and mighty in politics and entertainment to just regular folks.

Here are sample messages:

“Gurrrl, you know I have 500 family photos and my aunt has twice that! Call me.”

“Wait till you see my photo of 5 generations. Unbelievable. Let’s talk.”

“I remember your Chinese grandmother’s weekend visits with fresh chickens, head and feet attached wrapped in brown paper, tucked under her arm. Too real.”

“You made me nostalgic for a time when we were a ‘real’ community. Thanx for telling me about DDFR.”

“I would love to learn more about your family!!”

“I can show you my family and historic Tuskegee Airmen photos!”

What did I learn? I learned that more people than we realize have a deep-seated desire to share their family stories. I had inherited my archival treasure and had no idea of the impact it would have. I was surprised, inspired and most of all affirmed. The DDFR Road show in Harlem was a prideful and joyful ride with a SRO audience. You affirmed the adage: “You can’t know where you are going until you know where you’ve been.” Bravo Thomas Allen Harris and the DDFR Road show team!

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