Critical Family History

Very likely you haven’t encountered the term “critical family history” before. I’m pretty sure I invented it in relationship to family history. As a white person, I was seeking a conceptual framework that situates one’s family and its history within a wider analysis of social power relationships and culture. White people, especially those of middle class status and above, tend to think of ourselves and our stories in individualistic terms. But since who we are involves not just the work of individuals, but also how individuals’ lives were shaped by local culture and power relationships across generations, I wanted a framework that would illuminate the social contexts of family lives, and that would help to unearth memories we have lost.

In a nutshell, critical family history challenges historians to ask about their ancestors: Who else (what other groups) was around, what were the power relationships among groups, how were these relationships maintained or challenged over time, and what does all this have to do with our lives now?

Critical family history tools are featured on my blog. Here I provide an overview of what critical family history is, and how to navigate the blog.

Family History and Critical Theoretical Frameworks

In a review of critical theory, James Bohman explained that, “a theory is critical to the extent that it seeks human emancipation.” To be useful, a critical theory identifies unjust social relationships, the roots of those relationships, and how they can be changed. In other words, it helps us work toward social justice for everyone. With that in mind, I drew on critical theory, critical race theory, and critical feminism.

Critical theory, as developed by German intellectuals prior to World War II, connects a Marxist analysis of class structure with psychological theories of the unconscious to understand how oppressive class relations are produced and reproduced. Structuralist critical theorists analyze how oppressive political and economic structures are reproduced through the workings of the capitalist economic structure. Culturalist critical theorists emphasize human agency, focusing on the lived experiences of people, how consciousness is formed within class struggles, and how resistance to oppression arises organically. While critical theory can be seen as too deterministic, I see it as offering critical family history two major analytical tools.

First, it directs attention to the capitalist economic structure as a fundamental basis for inequality, and the historic construction of that system. Capitalism is based on the principle of using wealth to amass more wealth by reducing expenditures on things such as resources and labor, by cultivating markets, and by using one´s power to organize other social institutions to support this process. Critical theory suggests that family historians locate their own families within the class structure, asking how family members came to be located where they were, analyzing their participation in the capitalist economy, and examining their vested interests in it. Capitalism and class become a visible part of the terrain in which one’s family participated, and which set the ground rules and possibilities for their wealth or lack thereof.

Second, by situating how people think and see the world within class relationships, critical theory links identity, local beliefs about the social order, and class position. Family stories and belief systems, while very personal and private, also reflect public ideologies within shifting class formations. As Michael Apple put it in the 1979 edition of his book Ideology and Curriculum, ideology refers to “the formation of the consciousness of the individuals” in a society, particularly their consciousness about how the society works. Henry Giroux explained that, as a tool of analysis, ideology “helps to locate the structuring principles and ideas that mediate between the dominant society and the everyday experiences” (Theory and Resistance in Education, 1983, p. 161). Critical theory invites you to ask who your ancestors identified with and under what circumstances, how those identifications shaped beliefs and actions, and what class-based ideological principles undergirded those beliefs and identifications.

Clearly, class and the economic structure are not the only feature of people’s lives, nor the only structure of power. Race and gender relationships are intimately intertwined with class as well as with each other. 

Critical race theory’s main goal is to expose hidden systemic and customary ways in which racism works. Critical race theory emerged during the 1980s as a group of legal scholars of color in the U.S. began to critique the role of the law in maintaining unequal race relations, silence about race in critical legal studies, and the intransigence of racism following the Civil Rights movement. I see critical race theory as offering critical family history at least three analytical tools.

First, since race and racism are endemic to U.S. society (and others as well), and inextricably layered with other forms of oppression, the question is not whether race was at play historically, but rather how it was at play. No one’s family has been outside race relations and racial power systems. Critical race theory demands that, rather than ignoring race, we pay attention to how our families – whether white or of color — have been located within the racial structure, how that location shaped possibilities open to them, and what kind of relationships their own racial communities had with others.

Second, critical race theory examines how, through the commodification of land and people for profit, whites established the basis for whiteness as property, thereby cementing material advantages with race. According to Cheryl I. Harris, in her 1993 Harvard Law Review article, both slavery and seizure of Indian land “established and protected an interest in whiteness itself, which shares the critical characteristics of property” (p. 1724). Whiteness guaranteed legal entitlement to freedom, gradually taking the form of an object protecting one’s personhood, giving whites a vested interest in maintaining it. How did white peoples’ seizure of Indigenous people’s land, enslavement of Africans, and laws deriving from those racial relationships impact on the material conditions of one’s own family? This is a question I trace in my own family in Racism, Inheritance, and Family Financial Aid.

Third, critical race theory gives centrality to experiential knowledge, particularly in relationship to people who have been oppressed by racism – those who are or have been victimized by it everyday, but whose perspective is silenced by the dominant ideology that denies the existence of racism. Family stories — shared in a variety of forms that include stories handed down through generations, interviews, testimonios, biographies, and community documents – these stories are important sources of knowledge. Family stories by people of color usually direct name race and racism, creating counter-stories to the dominant ideology.

In the case of white families, attending to family stories means listening for silences, as race and racism may be “washed out” of stories the same way they are in the dominant ideology. Critical whiteness studies, a subset of critical race theory, focuses on invisibility of racial power to whites, social privileges associated with whiteness, and interpretations of race and ethnicity through which people of European descent minimize the significance of race. I understand whiteness as comprising 1) a set of social relations in which people are categorized hierarchically by race, and those who are accepted as white collectively hold power and control over material resources; 2) an ideology that renders white power and white people’s participation in an oppressive system as invisible to them; and 3) an identity when people of European descent accept these relationships, this ideology, and ways of life lived within this system of relations as “normal.” When listening for silences in white stories, these understandings guide my listening.

Critical feminist theories examine the institutionalization of patriarchy, internalization of gender identity, and how women have resisted oppression based on gender. Although there are different types of feminisms, the range of feminist theories draw attention to the position of women within families, communities, and the economy, and to strategies women used historically to both navigate and challenge a subordinate position. Critical feminist theory offers at least two analytical tools.

First, it challenges us to consider how families embody hierarchical structures based on gender, and how patriarchy is taught and learned within the family. When considering one’s own family generations back, without diaries and other forms of storytelling, it may be impossible to know how gender relations were acted out and “normalized” in everyday life, but one can theorize based on the roles of family members documented in the census, laws in existence at the time governing marriage and the rights (or lack thereof) of single and married women, and historical accounts of gender relationships. What kinds of roles and relationships became “taken for granted” and passed down through family relationships? Since women´s lives tend to show up in family history research materials less than men´s lives do, asking the question of what the women were doing is an important place to start digging.

Second, critical feminist theory directs our attention toward actions women took to challenge patriarchy, which in many cases were organized actions outside the home. For example, if a given ancestor was a member of a local organization of women, to what extent was the work of that organization directed toward gender-related issues? In sum, critical family history applies insights from various critical theoretical traditions to an analysis of how one’s family has been constructed historically within and through relations of power.

This all gets complicated because one cannot simply add up critical theory, critical race theory, and critical feminist theory as separate lenses. For example, feminist work at times embodied racism and class privilege, an example of which I found in an analysis of how a great-great grandmother became white, then later in her life joined an organization to advance the interests of white young women.

It also gets complicated because you are probably starting with a specific history of a specific family, rather than a broad look at the social structure. As you map out your individual family, start asking questions about the context of their lives. As you look into how they were situated within a class system, a racial structure, and a gender structure, then ask how that knowledge might enable you to understand yourself, and how it might help you see how unjust relationships formed and can be transformed, then you are doing critical family history.

Critical Family History and Autoethnography

Autoethnography overlaps with critical family history, but the two differ in key ways. Ellis, Adams and Bother (2011) describe autoethnography as “an approach to research and writing that seeks to describe and systematically analyze (graphy) personal experience (auto) in order to understand cultural experience (ethno).” Autoethnography centers and interrogates the self within a critical reflection past experiences using recollection, stories, and artifacts. So far this sounds a lot like critical family history.

Critical auto ethnography illuminates how power, privilege, and marginalization play out in the life of the narrator. Marx, Pennington and Chang explain that: “This interdisciplinary approach to research centers the self as a site of inquiry. Its purpose is to translate the personal into the social science research realm with unique first-person representations that are accessible to readers both within and outside various communities in the global context.”

Autoethnography has gained popularity for its use in several ways. For one, it opens up how theory is anchored in the life of the theorist. In much academic theorizing, personal anchoring of ideas is hidden under the cloak of objectivity. Autoethnography provides a way for researchers to interrogate the contexts of their lives that leads to their research and theory. Another use of autoethnography is its provision of space for those who have been marginalized in research to tell their own stories, interpreting their stories in relationship to the contexts of their lives.

Now here’s where critical family history diverges from autoethnography. While both situated the self in a socio-cultural context, critical family history reaches back historically, usually multiple generations, in order to understand the interplay between past and present. This may entail a critical analysis of the self; it may also entail a critical analysis ongoing power relations without direct application to the self. But critical family history takes up history to a much greater extent than does autoethnography.

Critical Family History and Memory Work

“In America, we have only the present tense,” observed Adrienne Rich in The Burning of Paper Instead of Children. America’s “presentism,” constructed mainly by white people, erases memory of the violent foundations of white supremacy. Critical family history, as memory work, disrupts that erasure. 

Family history has become a popular journey into the past. Yet most people approach that journey through individualized stories that do not significantly disrupt presentism or understandings of the past. After interviewing family historians about how they seek information, Darby and Clough, writing in the Journal of Information Science in 2013, explained that most people focused on building out the family tree. Less than 20% of their interviewees sought contextual information about their ancestors’ lives, yet it is in the contextual information that larger historical understandings can be unearthed. Family tree templates and software packages, such as the image to above, encourage reconstructing individualized memories through boxes they provide and questions they ask. Christine Scodari, writing in the Journal of American Culture, shows that even family history TV shows like Finding Your Roots are biased toward individualized narratives and rarely connect the past with present social issues.

To move us out of presentism , family history should involve not just unearthing details about one’s family, but also constructing a larger story of the past and its links with the present. Annette Kuhn characterized family history research as “memory work” in her 1995 book Family Secrets: Acts of Memory and Imagination. She explained that memory isn’t the past itself, but rather a reconstruction of the past that serves present purposes. Family memories hide secrets in order to construct a story that is “agreeable or acceptable.” We should be asking critical questions about what those present purposes are, and looking as much for the silences and secrets that are hidden as for the stories that are more readily available.

We can see the process of navigating what is acceptable to tell in the context of historical racism in Angel Parham’s observations of white and Black genealogists researching their Haitian/Dominican immigrant family histories in New Orleans. Writing in Social Identities, he explained that he noticed the white genealogists tracing individual ancestors, using the past only as a background context in which to locate them within a traditional narrative that minimized racism, while the Black genealogists linked their family’s story with a larger narrative of navigating and challenging racial oppression.

The prevalence of individualized stories set within simplistic white narratives is a huge concern for those of use who work with teachers. Teachers should know themselves, including their own roots. Yet, noncritical approaches to exploring roots reinforce selective memory, with its dangerous impact on how white teachers understand the racially diverse communities in which they may work. Bree Picower, for example, writing about “The Unexamined Whiteness of Teaching” in Race, Ethnicity and Education, expressed concern about reconstruction of “a hegemonic story about how people of color should be able to pick themselves up by their bootstraps.” She illustrated with a story told by a daughter of Italian immigrants, whose parents struggled but eventually succeeded. Since meritocracy seemed to work for the parents of this student, she resented policies such as affirmative action that are directed toward effects of racism, which she believed no longer exists.

As Kuhn argues, shadows from the past do not disappear, even if we continue to hide them. Instead, they always return, whether recognized or not. Essayist Ta-Nehisi Coates, writing in his acclaimed book Between the World and Me, observed what he called white people’s forgetting habit: “They have forgotten the scale of theft that enriched them in slavery; the terror that allowed them, for a century, to pilfer the vote; the segregationist policy that gave them their suburbs. They have forgotten, because to remember would tumble them out of the beautiful Dream and force them to live down here with us, down here in the world.” Similarly, Toni Morrison worries that by forgetting how white supremacy was constructed, we lose our ability to imagine a more just future. Speaking with Paul Gilroy in The Black Atlantic, she said, “We live in a land where the past is always erased and America is the innocent future in which immigrants can come and start over, where the slate is lean. The past is absent or it’s romanticized. This culture doesn’t encourage dwelling on, let alone with coming to terms with, the truth about the past. That memory is much more in danger now than it was thirty years ago.”

Critical family history as memory work interrogates the interaction between family and historical context. The most powerful place to begin is to ask: For any family unit in one’s own history, given specific times and places, who else was around? Who else could have been around but wasn’t, and why? What were the relationships among socio-cultural groups in specific contexts where one’s ancestors lived? These are the questions Parham’s Black family historians were asking; these are the questions white family historians need to begin to ask.

How to Navigate my Critical Family History Blog

I have posted so much that it isn’t very clear how to use this blog. Where do you start? Do you start with the latest blog post, then hop around?

Below is a suggested order for getting started.

1.  Having now read about critical family history, take a look at conceptual frameworks that can help you plan out questions to ask, goals of your research, and strategies you might pursue.

2. Using resources within your own family, construct as much of a family tree as you can, and gather stories about the lives of people from your family’s past. A great place to begin is with oral history interviews with elders in the family. In addition, ask about things like old photos of family members, family religious records, wedding or baptismal records, old letters, and so forth. You may start out thinking there isn’t anything, but as people’s memories are jogged, find yourself surprised at how much there actually is stashed away in boxes and envelopes.

3. Use vital statistics records to construct family trees as best you can (do not feel constrained to use traditional family trees — increasingly there are guides for developing family trees that take account of a variety of family structures). People usually begin with census records. In the U.S., that means using U.S. and state census records. For death records, Find A Grave is very useful. Increasingly vital statistics records from outside the U.S. are also available. 

4. Once you have mapped a family tree as best you can, search for additional resources that might give you details about family members, as well as a deeper sense of the context in which they lived. Drawing from the conceptual frameworks, consider the wider context of family, what kinds of context questions make sense to ask, and what data sources you might be able to use. It may even turn out that the context questions are what enable you to piece together information about your family that you wouldn’t have found otherwise.

5. Explore various digital resources that might be available. Old digitized newspapers may be very useful — some locations preserved and digitized reams of old newspapers, while they have been lost (for example through war) in other locations. You may be able to track down information by Googling your ancestors; they need not be famous for someone to have digitized a record with a person’s name. 

6. You can mine census data for information you might not have thought about when you were using it to construct your family tree. Posts give examples, such as how to look at race and employment patterns, housing patterns, gender patterns in the organization of people’s lives, and so forth.

7. Look into places you can actually visit. Historical and genealogical societies are widely available, even in small towns. Find out whether it is feasible to visit where your ancestors lived. You may be able to find records and people to talk to through these kinds of personal visits, that are unavailable through any other means. In my own family history research, for example, when I was visiting a historical center in a small town, the woman working there was able to direct me to an old house, still standing, that great-great grandparents had built. Libraries are also very useful, especially for context information. Guest writer Sherick Hughes offers a great example of learning and unlearning the local public library provided.

8. Track down property records and probate records. I have done this mainly in the context of visiting where ancestors lived, by going to the county courthouse. More is publicly available than I had realized until I showed up at a county courthouse and asked.

9. You may decide to have a DNA test. I don’t recommend starting out with out, but you might find DNA testing helpful in confirming or disconfirming what you discover using methods above.

My blogs contain many examples of research others have done, illustrating how others have thought their way through questions and challenges of critical family history, as well as insights they have been able to glean.