Saturday, March 2, 2019
History versus Genealogy
There is a debate raging inside me, partially prompted by a dispute among some members of my local genealogical society. At some times, it strikes me that the answer should obviously align with one philosophy. At other times—miserable soul that I am—my mind does an about-face and sides with the opposition.
The issue is this: should genealogists concern themselves with the broader picture of history, or should the discipline of genealogy be strictly focused on the matter of correctly documenting lineage?
Of course, I think, everyone should see the reasonableness of letting genealogy focus on, well, genealogy. Let genealogists specialize in that arena, and let others take on the bigger picture of all-things-other.
But then the demon inside rises up and questions how it could ever be possible to understand the people in those lineages—what they were like, what they chose to do with their lives—without understanding the broader issues surrounding them and shaping them.
To stir the pot even further is to recall that history is one side's recounting of what happened. Take, for instance, my observation about the horrendous massacres occurring to neighbors of my early settler ancestors in northern Florida. Yes, that was tragic. But what would that story sound like if told by a descendant on the other side of the conflict?
Even messier is trying to understand the psychological dynamics of the interplay between a white master and a black slave when the outcome includes children of the two. How are those children perceived by each side? Despised? Or welcomed as half-siblings? I know what my guess would be, but I'm stymied by indications that my take on the matter might be totally wrong.
Winners versus losers in wars, in political struggles, in clashes of all kinds between the weak and the strong: how the rest of the story is worked out isn't always what we imagine it will be. Then, too, sometimes the "rest of the story" doesn't always get worked out entirely.
In our local situation, we came face to face with a social media dilemma: should our social media policy include resources for history education? Or limit ourselves specifically to mentions regarding "genealogy"? Does content which presents even a glimmer of consideration for the "other" side in past historic conflicts have a place in a study of family history?
It seems like such a clear dividing line: post only those links which specifically are involved with genealogy, but not those more broadly considering exploration of opposing views of history. Thus, it is permissible to post a flier on a workshop on Japanese American genealogy—but not acceptable to announce a lecture by a locally-respected professor on the "Day of Remembrance" for the anniversary of the February 19, 1942, signing of Executive Order 9066, requiring internment of all Americans of Japanese ancestry.
It seems easy to draw that dividing line. We are, after all, a genealogical society, not a historical society. But can we truly understand our ancestors when we divorce our study of who they were from the broader context of what made them who they were?
Is this my outside voice speaking? My reticent, demure self may be stunned at hearing me voice my conclusion, but I believe—at least, if I am thinking this episode out clearly—that, as uncomfortable as we may feel about another person's viewpoint of how we always understood history, it is incumbent upon us as diligent researchers of our own family history, to be brave enough to open ourselves up to as full a realm of the facts as possible in seeking to understand what made our ancestors who they were.
Not comfortable words for a descendant of slave owners, to be sure. Nor for citizens of a country born and bred on the bedrock of "innocent until proven guilty." But if we are fortunate, we learn, adapt, transcend previous error and move upward. Nobody called us to be error-free, nor our ancestors to be perfect. It's not the mistakes that are egregious; it's the failing to make amends and learn from our ancestors' experiences that will impact our descendants.
There is, if I remember correctly, that little saying about history repeating itself...