Critical Family History, Race, 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. 

imgresFamily 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 the presentism Rich names, 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. Similarly, Noemi Norquay wrote about “Family Immigration (Hi)stories and the Construction of Identity” in Curriculum Studies. She described systematic gaps and silences in the family immigration stories of her Canadian students, who generally interpreted their family histories in a way that “reflected officially sanctioned understandings of immigrants and immigration” – the myth that Canada, despite not welcoming or affording opportunity to everyone, enabled impoverished immigrants to prosper.

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.”

Kuhn suggests that those engaging in memory work ask: Exactly what is being remembered, and, perhaps more importantly, what is being forgotten? “If the memories are one individual’s, their associations extend far beyond the personal. They spread into an extend network of meanings that bring together the personal with the familial, the cultural, the economic, the social, the historical. Memory work makes it possible to explore connections between ‘public’ historical events, structures of feeling, family dramas, relations of class, national identity and gender, and ‘personal’ memory.”

Critical family history as memory work interrogates the interaction between family and 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.

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