The Afro-American Cultural Center on Tuesday evening screened the 2014 documentary “Finding Samuel Lowe: From Harlem to China,” which follows three Afro-Chinese-Jamaican siblings from Harlem as they embark on an international journey to trace their roots and learn how three distinct families can become one.
Organized as an event to mark the end of Pan Asian American Heritage Month, the documentary tells a story of the strength of familial love and how it transcends race, space and time. The event was co-hosted by the Black Students Alliance at Yale, the Af-Am House and the Asian American Cultural Center.
“I think it’s important to interrogate how race is defined in the U.S.,” said Joliana Yee, director of the Asian American Cultural Center.
“Finding Samuel Lowe” follows the narrative of the three siblings as they search for clues to trace their Chinese roots and find their long-lost Chinese grandfather, Samuel Lowe. While growing up in a mixed-race household in Harlem proved difficult and at times confusing, the three siblings conquered periods of economic and social hardship by realizing their own version of the rags-to-riches American dream.
Created in part as a promise made to their mother to uncover their father’s past, the documentary follows the siblings’ journey from Toronto to Jamaica to China, all while picking up clues about their ancestral roots. The trip culminates in a Lowe family reunion, joining American and Chinese families alike, complete with 300 of their grandfather’s Chinese descendants. The film focuses primarily on Paula Madison, an American journalist who narrates the film.
After the film, American studies professor Daniel Martinez HoSang skyped Madison, who took question from the audience.
Asked whether discovering her long-lost roots changed the way she saw herself, Madison responded, “Yes, but not racially.” Madison had to learn about race at a very early age, “growing up in Harlem the way we did with a mother who looked like that.”
Madison revealed an uncomfortable reality about the difficulty of tracing back African-American descendants. Ironically, she said, it was easier to trace back thousands of years into her Chinese heritage than her Jamaican heritage. She blames the discrepancy on the dilution of accurate personal information for African-Americans dating back even decades ago.
“That’s how much slavery has destroyed our ability to trace our lineage,” Madison said.
A viewer asked her what to do when asked “What are you?” — a question that mixed race and racially dubious people constantly face. Her advice: Never answer the question.
“I would refuse to answer, because the answer to that should be plain,” she explained. “I try to tell people, you have to think of a better way to ask me, than making me feel like a turtle. I’m a human being.”
She is currently working on a screenplay with “the goal to really tell the story about why there are black Chinese people” and why there are so many “Chinese throughout the Caribbean and many other parts of the world.”
However, when the film ended, Madison said she “felt bad” that her grandfather and mother were presented as “one-dimensional characters,” saying they were actually “quite robust” in their lifetimes. As a result, Madison published the book “Finding Samuel Lowe: China, Jamaica, Harlem,” which further explores themes discussed in the film. The book was later translated into Chinese.
Dianne Lake ’16 LAW ’20, the graduate assistant for Intercultural and Social Justice Programming at the Af-Am Cultural Center, planned the event to encompass intercultural and intersectional themes. She said the documentary seemed like a perfect opportunity to get together with the Asian American Cultural Center because the film “explores different powers and the importance of understanding your original heritage.”
She notes that “Finding Samuel Lowe” also gives viewers an opportunity to see “how so many different cultures are connected in ways that we usually don’t think of.”
Yee hopes that next year, there will be a collaboration with every center to “look at the intersections of all their narratives and how Asian-American narratives intersect” with black, African, Native and Latino heritages. She came up with the idea to air the film at Yale through her connections with other Asian-American cultural centers across the country.
Lake hopes that from the documentary, audience members will understand that “racial identity is so much more complicated than what we think.”
“When we have a capacious understanding of race and heritage, we can therefore appreciate it more and understand that … people are so much bigger than what you see in front of them,” Lake said.
Yee echoed Lake when she said that the documentary functioned to “expand the idea of race and not devaluing others solely based on one aspect of our identity, when there’s so much more to all of us.” Biracial community members are “really pushing us to think of race in a way that brings everyone in and steps forward together,” she said, as opposed to “boxing people into groups.”
“I think that pushes me, as someone who is monoracial, to think and imagine a better tomorrow,” Yee said. “The future is multi- and biracial.”
The Afro-American Cultural Center was established in the fall of 1969.
Allison Park | email@example.com