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Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Keynote Speaker from RoosTech Paula Williams Madison

Leading up to RootsTech I purchased the book Finding Samuel Lowe written by one of the Thursday Keynote Speakers, Paula Williams Madison.  Some of you may know from past book reviews that I love a good chasing-my-family story.  I knew I would have the opportunity to speak with her at RootsTech as one of the ambassadors which made me really dig in and read the book quickly. 

Paula has a somewhat unique background growing up in Harlem and rising to the top as an NBC Universal Executive.  The daughter of Jamaican immigrants, her mother half Chinese and half Jamaican, Paula and her brothers did not have an easy life in New York City.  A heritage that she decided to invesitgate more after the death of her mother.  Her book chronicles the journey she took, also filmed along the way as a documentary, to find her Chinese grandfather and the family she never knew.

During the keynote address on Thursday there was barely a dry eye in the audience.  As with any family story we genealogists sat in rapt attention through the audience.  We hung on her every word as she described her first meeting with the aunt and uncle her mother never knew and the emotions that ran deep through her. 

Paula on stage with a picture
of her mother
I was lucky enough to get to be a part of a small group who were able sit down one-on-one with Paula in the media hub at RootsTech.  In this “sofa chat” we were able to get some behind the scenes details, hear more personal thoughts on her journey, and ask questions to the man (Martin Proctor) who filmed the amazing documentary about her journey. 

She was asked what she thought the benefit to a face to face meeting was with relatives you have never met before.  Her words made so much sense, “nothing can replace a touch.”   She is correct, there is nothing in the world that can replace the embrace, caress, hand shake, and so forth of someone who is your flesh and blood.  Paula went on to tell us “no one can anticipate what it will be like” which I think is true as well.  While I have never met close relatives in this way I have met a few distance cousins and the anticipation and excitement even from those meetings were nearly overwhelming for me.  I can only imagine what she went through.

Her camera man, Martin Proctor, also gave us a look into his thought process for documenting her first meeting with her relatives.  Martin stated that “in production you had to roll with it as it evolved – you couldn’t control it… by the end I knew what was going to happen and could get ahead of her” for those powerful and emotion filled shots.  He even admitted that at times he stood there wondering where the shot was going to lead him, how would people react, and how welcoming would they all be.

Paula looking at a published
Chokbo from the Family
History Library
If you document your family history in real time I am sure you can relate to his emotions and thoughts.  I know I have had those thoughts even when dealing with close relatives.  To try and document those people who you have no contact with must have been a challenge full of surprise and apprehension. 

At the end of our chat a member of Family Search came by and surprised us with a bit of on the spot research.  Across the street, and a few blocks away, at the Family History Library there are a number of Chinese Genealogies, or chokbo (there are several different words depending on where the family came from).  Even better, they had several for the Lowe family, the two bound copies were shown to her to let her know that her linage was documented and not that far away.

To say it was an emotional surprise was an understatement.  Martin whipped out his phone and documented the event, along with several other bloggers, proving that just because the documentary was complete the documenting of her family story was not.

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