Many of us travel across state lines to attend family reunions. Paula Madison crossed an ocean. The documentary film Finding Samuel Lowe: From Harlem to China chronicles Madison’s search to locate her Chinese relatives.
Madison and her siblings grew up in Harlem with a single mother, Nell Vera Lowe, who had very limited financial resources. Lowe was born in Jamaica to a black mother and a Chinese father, Samuel Lowe.
At three years old, Nell Vera Lowe’s mother took her away from her father, and so Madison’s mother never had a relationship with Madison’s grandfather. After Madison’s mother passed away in 2006, Madison decided to find her Chinese relatives, living and dead.
Madison today is a long way from living on public assistance in Harlem. She and her family are the majority stakeholders in the Africa Channel, and at one time, they owned the WNBA’s LA Sparks. Madison is also NBC’s former Chief Diversity Officer.
Upon retirement from NBC, Madison was able to devote her time and resources to the intense genealogical search that the film documents. In the documentary, which was screened to a full house at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York City in July, Madison is seen traveling to her ancestors’ homes and places of business in Jamaica. Eventually, she also travels to China to meet relatives who did not know that she or her mother ever existed.
Madison’s husband cautioned her to prepare herself emotionally if her Chinese relatives were not accepting of their newfound black relatives in the U.S. But as fate would have it, the Lowes in China accepted Madison without hesitation. In fact, one of her aunts (her mother’s half-sister) is a mixture of black Jamaican and Chinese herself.
After making the initial journey to China with a girlfriend, Madison returned with over 20 of her U.S.-based relatives for a massive multi-generation celebration of Madison’s aunt’s birthday. Over 300 Lowes of various racial and geographical backgrounds partied together for days in China. Madison returns to China about every six months. The entrepreneurship that Madison and her siblings display is apparently in the genes, because Madison and some of her “new” Chinese relatives have formed a multi-national import/export business. Napa Valley wine and Maine lobsters are now available in China thanks to Lowe family members sprinkled across the globe.
Traditionally, the Chinese are ardent archivists when it comes to family trees. Madison was able to go to her family’s ancestral village and gaze upon her family tree, which is documented back to 1,000 B.C. African-Americans are lucky to be able to trace farther back than the 1870 census, so to have that type of documented family lineage is rare for a black woman who lives in the U.S.
“If we know who we are, then we know who we’re going to be. The confusion we have as a people is that what’s told to us is consistently a lie. Let’s figure out how we will get our children to have a faith and an honor and a pride in who we are and what we stand for,” said Madison on the topic of being proud black people during a talk after the film’s screening.
“I’m black, and I’m Chinese. The message in this film is not about two distinct races or cultures or nationalities. It’s a universal story. This is the United States of America. We have a little bit of everything here. This story is about to be common,” said Madison.
Finding Samuel Lowe is a touching family documentary full of laughter, tears and love. It’s not about a black woman looking for the non-black part of her family in order to chest thump about it. It’s a film about a woman who embarks on an international quest to find the previously hidden branches of her family tree.
The documentary will be airing on the Africa Channel, but Madison is currently in search of a network home to air the film in order to get wider distribution.