Bait. The word can have a sinister overtone. John Donne’s poem “The Bait” warns of lures and traps—seduction.

Of course, when genealogists put out “cousin bait” on blogs and message boards, their intentions are totally benign. They’re extending handfuls of information, to promote new family connections and friendships. The term “cousin bait” becomes a good-hearted joke: absolutely no harm is meant.

I’m composing a new letter today, to introduce myself to a living biracial relative, Z, whom I found behind my brick wall (previous posts). As I write, the term “cousin bait” pops into my head, bringing questions that are no joke. Will my relative read my letter with suspicion? Will she wonder whether it’s safe to answer me? Or whether my invitation to meet and talk is some kind of trap, with strings attached? Why should she trust a letter that appears in her South Carolina mailbox from some strange white woman who lives “up North”?

As I mull over her possible responses, I review the letter to A that I wrote a month ago. He, A, was the first biracial relative whom I found, and I wondered how to approach him.

At that time, I listened to Bernice Bennett’s radio show with Sharon Morgan and Thomas DeWolf, co-authors of Gather at the Table: The Healing Journey of a Daughter of Slavery and a Son of the Slave Trade. I typed in my question. Sharon advised me to be straightforward, without speeches or information overload. Like this: “Through research I’ve found we might be related. I’d really appreciate being able to talk with you.”

So this is the letter to A that I wrote last month:

Dear A,

My name is Mariann Regan, and I live in Connecticut. I am a retired teacher, white, and xx years old.

My mother’s maiden name is B. Her ancestors were from C.

Through research, I have recently discovered that you and I may be relatives. I found your address on www.peoplesmart.com.

I would really appreciate being able to talk with you by telephone, if that is all right with you. I would like to ask you the names of your grandparents and great-grandparents, on the B side. If my guess is correct, we may discover how we are related.

I would welcome an email, letter, or telephone call from you at any time. My phone number is xxx.

Good wishes and good health to you,

Mariann

Today this straightforward letter sounds to me rather abrupt. In fact, A did not answer the letter. Perhaps at 85 years old, he was too tired or ill to take on a new project. Still, maybe I can write an improved letter for Z.

Recently I read a blog post by Terri O’Connell @Tracingmyfamily, subtitled “Cold Calls or Snail Mail?” She explained that her letters to prospective relatives have genealogical information, a family tree, and a self-addressed stamped envelope.  That sounded good to me.

So here is the letter I’m sending to Z tomorrow:

Dear Z,

It may seem to you that I am a stranger, but my recent research shows that you are likely to be kin to me and to my family in South Carolina.

I believe our families have been related since 1855. In those long-ago days, families may not always have been informed that they were related. Times are now changing. Prejudices of all kinds are starting to heal. More information has come to light.

I’ve found information that you may be the daughter of Y, who is the son of X, who is the son of W (born 1855), who is the son of V and U.

I am the daughter of T, who is the daughter of S, who is the son of V and R.

In other words: Your great-great grandfather V is the same person, I believe, as my great-grandfather. You and I would be second cousins once removed.

I’m xx years old and a retired English teacher, in Connecticut since 1964. I’ve recently studied family history and re-connected with my South Carolina family.

Several of our family would like to contact you and your family, while at the same time respecting your privacy. We would really appreciate being able to talk with you. We believe it can be a good thing for families who have been separated by the historical injustices of the past to get together and talk, if that is their choice today.

I would greatly welcome a letter, phone call, or email from you. I’ve enclosed a self-addressed and stamped envelope. My home phone is xx, and my cell phone is xxx. Email: yy or yyy.

With all sincere good wishes,

Mariann Regan

In this version I’m trying to be more easygoing and friendly, without using any startling words like “slavery.” Perhaps bait and outreach do overlap? I wonder what words are adequate to suggest welcoming with open arms.

This relative may know of others, also with connections to our family, who live in the same area. I hope so. This country is full of unacknowledged biracial cousins who to this day are strangers. Changing that situation would be a step forward.