Why Family and History?

How might you make more meaning out of what you know about your own family’s history? Have you  ever wondered how your family’s story connects with larger stories? In other words, why family and history, together? This blog provides tools, discussions, examples, and ways of working these questions.
Family history research has become increasingly popular with the burgeoning availability of historical and genealogical research tools online, although it has been practiced for a long time. Many of us, when we first start out, are excited just identifying who was in the family tree — their names, dates of birth and death, and where they lived. I remember my own excitement when I first discovered one of my grandfathers in an old census record from when he was a child, and could for the first time see the names of his parents — my great grandparents.

But as we follow this quest for a family story, it turns out that people use it differently to construct different kinds of stories, depending on how they see their own family in a larger context.

In a 2003 article entitled “Black and white: American genealogy and popular response,” Eric Gardner described three waves of family history. The first wave, common during the 19th and early 20th century, had the purpose of establishing elite pedigrees. Members of the social elite traced their genealogy to an idealized heroic immigrant (“always male, always white, and almost always English,” as Gardner put it), typically characterizing him and his descendants as extraordinary, largely to establish the legitimacy of the family’s position in society. This purpose for family history is still used, for example, to claim membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution.

The second wave, inspired by Alex Haley’s Roots, explores the family heritage of “ordinary” people. Heritage family histories tend to characterize ancestors more complexly than elite pedigree histories because their purpose is to examine what happened rather than to establish social standing. Further, heritage family histories are often used to prompt a public examination history. Heritage family histories by people of color usually show how racism played out in the family’s story, inviting public discussion of racism today.

However, heritage family histories by white people tend to do the opposite. Over twenty years ago, in her book Ethnic Options, Mary Waters described finding that many middle and upper-class European Americans who engaged in family genealogy projects in school generally used a mythologized European immigrant story as a backdrop against which to interpret individual ancestors.The most common story my white students have constructed is similar, portraying downtrodden European immigrants who triumphed through hard work. I always found it perplexing that racism was visible in the family histories of students of color, but not in those of white students who lived in the same general area.

The third wave of family history that Gardner discussed builds on heritage studies, but makes visible how race, class, culture, gender, and other forms of difference and power played out in the family’s history. In so doing, this kind of family history helps us to understanding vexing issues of the present by unearthing how they played out in our own pasts, and how the present is linked to the past.

Angel Adams Parham reported an interesting study in 2008. He observed two groups – one primarily of African descent and the other primarily white – who were researching their Haitian/Dominican immigrant family history in New Orleans. He noticed a distinct difference between how each group navigated their family’s position in slavery and racial oppression. The white genealogists used the past as a background context in which to locate their ancestors; their focus was mainly on tracing individual ancestors. The Black genealogists used the historic context much more, linking their family’s story with a larger narrative of racial oppression and progress, weaving details of their own ancestors into a larger story to prompt questions about society, past as well as present.

In an effort to understand where I come from, and to figure out how to use family history to deepen my  insight into the relationship between past and present, I have been constructing various tools and questions. This blog shares tools for what I call “Critical Family History” — some of them broad and some very specific. If you’d like to join my journey, please sign up to be notified of the next posting.

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