On the PBS show “Finding Your Roots” last Sunday night, Harry Connick, Jr. was immensely relieved by the information Henry Louis Gates, Jr. told him about his Louisiana ancestors.

Why? For one thing, he learned that his great-grandfather had not owned slaves.

I can understand Harry Connick’s relief completely.

I would share that relief if I could. But my South Carolina maternal and paternal ancestors both owned slaves.

When I discovered that fact, I tried to deal with it through research and writing. My decision felt like an ethical choice—to investigate, or to turn away.

I wanted to formulate ideas about how owning slaves had affected my ancestors’ minds and hearts, and how those effects may have spread to later generations.

Many people in this country today have descended from slaveholders. This fact must have a definite influence on our national consciousness (and unconsciousness) about racial matters.

It took seven years to research my family memoir Into the Briar Patch, through genealogical records, visiting family members, and reading cultural studies. My experience was both painful and exhilarating—like being thrown into a briar patch, if your believe Brer Rabbit.

Right now I’m in the midst of another ethical choice.

I’m deciding to look for my second and third cousins of mixed race. I have reason to believe they exist.

On the one hand, re-establishing this family link feels like an ethical action. By that thinking, I’m assuming my mixed-race relatives would want to be acknowledged as members of the family.  Wouldn’t that be a healing experience for everyone, rather than the current situation of having the facts ignored or hushed up?

On the other hand, who am I to assume my mixed-race relatives want to be contacted? And what about my white relatives, who live in South Carolina, perhaps close to our mixed-race cousins, while I reside hundreds of miles away in Connecticut? What would they want?

Is it my busybody-business to connect people who might find the experience of connection too embarrassing or painful? Like re-opening old wounds?

Once I saw a taped presentation by Edward Ball, author of Slaves in the Family. He told the audience that when he found his mixed-race relatives, their reaction was halfway between joking and chiding, something like “Well, well, well! And where have you been all these years?” Maybe that was more positive than negative. Certainly those relatives thought it was “high time” that everyone met.

I will ask the family members I know, and the ones I may find, what their wishes are. But how should I ask them? And what if their wishes conflict with one another?

Do any of you readers have similar ethical choices about when and how to reveal the past?  I would welcome hearing your experiences and opinions.