Ethnic Studies and Critical Family History

How do Ethnic Studies and Critical Family History connect? Does Critical Family History have something to offer to the teaching of Ethnic Studies?

I began pondering this question about fifteen years ago while teaching an undergraduate course entitled “Culture and Cultural Diversity.” My students were very ethnically and racially diverse; typically, there was no ethnic majority group in the class. Although at the time I had not figured out how to teach family history, I was always struck by the degree to which stories students brought from their own experiences, including their families’ experiences, enriched discussions while also prompting deep, critical thinking as their narratives about the U.S. bumped up against each other. For example, a White fifth-generation Californian and a second-generation Filipino American talked about and understood California agriculture from two very different vantage points, both rooted in their quite different family experiences. How might they tease out roots of their conflicting narratives, and engage their differences in a way that acknowledges but is not trapped by their families’ experiences?

During the same time, Ron Takaki, one of the leading pioneers in teaching Ethnic Studies, spent a couple of days on our campus. I was able to spend some time talking with him, as well as watching him engage our students in discussions. His approach to teaching history and ethnic studies, exemplified in the personal way in which would engage students, was “bottom up” rather than top down. He invited students’ stories; their stories were a part of his discussions and presentations. As a result, I learned, he had developed a strong symbiotic relationship between his prolific scholarly writing (such as A Different Mirror), and his work with his students’ family histories.

As Takaki wrote in 1998 book A Larger Memory, when reading and hearing the widely varying stories people tell:

I often found myself stirred by the ways people responded to circumstances not of their choosing. Always, I was reminded that people are history: their experiences, feelings, adjustments, imaginings, hopes, uncertainties, dreams, fears, regrets, tragedies, and triumphs compose our past. Everywhere, I found their stories bursting in the telling.

Speaking of his students, he continued: “Our parents and grandparents, I have been telling them, are worth of scholarly attention: they have been actors in history, making choices as they left their homelands and settled in America.” In other words, Ethnic Studies history is not something separate from us to read about – Ethnic Studies history IS us.

Looking a bit more into the relationship between Ethnic Studies coursework and students’ family histories, I have come across several course syllabi that include family history projects.

  • As part of a course entitled The Italian Immigrant Experience in America, and in relationship to an examination of diverse histories of immigration to the U.S., students construct a history of their own family’s past, answering the question: How did my family and I get here?
  • As part of a course entitled Ethnic United States since the Civil War, students write a family history paper, placing their ethnic group within wider trends examined in the course.
  • As part of a course entitled Ethnicity and American Culture, students complete a family history project that includes genealogical data from at least three generations and an interview with a family member/elder.

These examples illustrate useful, interesting, and varied approaches to embedding family history projects into various kinds of Ethic Studies coursework. 

What Critical Family History offers is its emphasis on situating one’s family within a wider socio-historical context, asking about the relationships among socio-cultural groups that helped to shape one’s family experience and one’s larger understanding of our collective experiences. Descendents of slaves and descendents of slave-owners bring a braided history made up of experiences and narratives reflecting opposite but connected positions in a power hierarchy. One story cannot be understood without the other. Descendants of colonizers and descendants of colonized peoples, similarly, stand in relationship to each other. Not only does both sets of stories need to be told, but they need to be understood as historically connected.

At the same time, no two family stories are identical. History is highly complex, and as individual stories are told, what emerges are both the broad patterns and also the nuances and textures of the diverse people living within and across those patterns.

So, in answer to my question about the potential connection between Ethnic Studies and Critical Family History, I believe that Critical Family History provides a vehicle for each of us to situate ourselves, both within our own family narratives, and also within the broader, sometimes harmonious and sometimes highly discordant, narratives of others. Critical Family History helps us raise questions, interrogate assumptions, and understand ourselves better.

Finally, a question to leave students with is this: Given what we know about our ethnic historical past, what narrative of the future do we wish to co-author? We are not trapped by our pasts, only by ignorance of how our pasts affect us now and into the future.

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