Make Black History Personal: #24 Cousins by Chance, Friends by Choice

In my life, I’ve been blessed on my father’s side of the family to have lots of cousins. The funny thing is that we don’t distinguish between first cousins and anything beyond that.

In fact, it wasn’t until I was an adult that I heard about the different kinds of cousins. You know – first, second, first removed and all of that. I actually find it pretty confusing because in my family, a cousin is a cousin and it’s that simple. But if you’ve ever wondered about the degrees of cousins in a family, here’s how that works:

  1. You and your first cousin share the same set of grandparents.
  2. You and your second cousin share the same great-grandparents – not grand-parents.
  3. You and your third cousin share the same great-great grandparents, but not the same grandparents or great-grandparents.

And it goes on the same for fourth cousins and beyond.

When people talk about having a cousin who’s once or twice “removed”, that relationship is between people of two different generations. For example, I have a cousin, Melvin who is the same age as I am. Our common ancestor is Frederick Dickinson who is my grandfather, but Melvin’s great-grandfather. Because we are technically from different generations, Melvin and I are first cousins, once removed.

I know this sounds pretty confusing but here’s a chart that maps out the cousin relationships described above in a visual. Start at the Common Ancestor. Identify your relationship to the common ancestor on the top line. Then for the cousin you’re comparing yourself to, identify his or her relationship to the common ancestor. Then find where your relationships meet on the chart and that will give you the relationship between you and your cousin.

small cousins chart

Many of my cousins, regardless of whether we’re first or third, removed or not, have become very good friends and I like to think we are living proof of that old proverb –

Cousins by chance, friends by choice.

I learned this concept of cousins being friends early in life from my mother who, unlike me, had only one first cousin – Katherine Barbara Simmons. Katherine was born October 20, 1912 in Cleveland, Ohio. She was Mom’s adored older cousin and the daughter of my Great-Aunt Clara. Here’s Katherine in a photo taken about the time my mother was born in 1919.

My mother's only first cousin, Katherine as a child in Cleveland, Ohio.
My mother’s only first cousin, Katherine as a child in Cleveland, Ohio.

Because theirs was a mixed race family, my mom and Katherine didn’t always have a lot of interaction with cousins on the White side of the family. So they spent a lot of time together and Katherine became a role model for style, grace and beauty to my mom – and cousins, like me, in the next generation.

katherine with car

My mother always told me that she named me after Cousin, Katherine. According to Mom, my name “Karen” is the Danish short form for Katherine. I found that depending what you read, my name has Scandinavian, Greek or Armenian origins.

Wherever my name originated from, I am honored to be my amazing cousin Katherine’s namesake. Although she died on July 28, 1988, I like to remember her in this picture below. Hopefully I can shine a radiant smile like hers on the world around me.

My second cousin and namesake, Katherine and her amazing smile.

How can you make Black history personal?

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