Thursday, January 23, 2014

A Square Peg in a Family Tree Shaped Hole

On 11 January 2014 my mother virtually attended the APG-PMC conference. She had a quiet day listening to a variety of speakers and then a less quiet evening sharing some of her favorite bits and pieces with me. I listened with half an ear until she mentioned mission statements. Jean Wilcox Hibben, the final speaker of the day, said that mission statement for her genealogy business was to help people connect generations. Connecting people, families, and generations is a common reason heard for why people do genealogy, either as a hobby or professionally.

As my mother was speaking a sudden realization hit me like a ton of bricks. While I'm as keen to find the parents of my mysterious 2nd great-grandfather as anyone in my family, my interest in genealogy isn't about connecting family members across generations. I think genealogy is a fantastic way to get people interested in their past and in history.

The past can be defined by nostalgia and is almost always used to reinforce ideas already held about ourselves and the present. If someone connects themselves to a particular community in George, Oregon, or Italy, they might be more willing to support an endeavor to preserve a building in the town or visit a house museum on their way to somewhere else.

History on the other hand while firmly rooted in the present, does not look to the past to justify what we think, but examines the past to explain why things are the way they are. Thus it is argumentative and can challenge our understanding of world in which we live. For example, if a student in an American Immigration class learns the name and story of their own immigrant ancestors it will make not only the course more personal and relevant, but the entire immigrant experience. If they can do that, they may find it easier to connect or understand immigrants of other backgrounds and even be willing to support a nuanced view of the current immigration debate.

Likewise, if someone discovers an impoverished ancestor in New York City or the rural south, I want that person to read about and understand what it was like to be poor in times gone by. This study of the ancestor's life would then, ideally, lead to a greater sympathy of the poor in the modern world.  The same holds true for wealthy ancestors. Reading about elites from the past would reveal what their lives were actually like. Materially comfortable yes, but there were arranged marriages, mysterious deaths, extensive social and community obligations, and difficult encounters with the law.

Jean Wilcox Hibben, according to my mother, also said that a professional genealogist must find what makes them unique. I believe I have found my uniqueness: I want you to discover your ancestors, but even more I want you to learn about the people of history because by doing that you will gain a greater appreciation of the human condition and knowledge of the experiences and beliefs of all peoples past and present. Acceptance of the differences of people in the past can lead to acceptance of difference of people in the modern world.

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