Monday, June 8, 2020

Our Family Stories

Around 30 years ago, I decided to take up the adventure of tracing my family history. As others have found, this exercise can be a far-reaching, ever-expanding, near-consuming endeavor; a descent into a series of black holes and dead-end brick walls as one continually opens new doors of never-ending inquiry. But it is also one of the highly rewarding things we can do in our lifetime, to see ourselves placed within the context of many others.

There are three levels of discovery that come from family research. The first level is the basic facts of one’s family: names, birth and death dates, places; the vertical and horizontal relationships and entanglements among each other. The second level is learning their individual stories: how they lived, what transpired, what journeys they traveled. The third level is placing the experiences of their lives within the larger historical context occurring around them, sweeping them up, molding and guiding their lives beyond what may have been their choice.

Currently, over 1200 unique names make up my genealogical family of the last 400 hundred years, with varying levels of detail known about their lives. As I occasionally reflect on their lives and times in relation to my life and time, several themes arise.

To my knowledge, not one member of my genealogical family was ever lynched in a vigilante hanging, or burned alive tied to a tree while an “audience” applauded. Not one person was ever the property of another, committed to a lifetime of unpaid service with no say in the matter. Since the founding of America, not one man – and since 1920 not one woman – has been openly denied the right to vote or run for office based on their skin color, country of origin, educational level or wealth. Since the late 1800s, all were entitled to a basic and equal education paid for at public expense. All of the men could choose to serve their country in the military and advance through rank based upon their service and abilities; my great-great-great-grandfather fought in the Revolutionary War to create a united America; my great-great-grandfather fought in the Confederate Army to try to break the country into two parts; both of their stories are a part of me. Some of my genealogical family were discriminated against in their jobs/careers due to their national origin, but over time they gradually broke through those barriers. My genealogical family was free to travel the country, settle where they chose, live in any section of town they could afford. When they encountered law enforcement officials or the judicial court system, they intuitively presumed they would be treated fairly and respectfully, with equal process as given to all others; generally their intuition was not disappointed. My father never felt the need to give me special instructions on how to act if I was stopped by the police. These are some of my family stories, experiences and cultural heritage. They are most certainly not everyone’s stories.

As I moved into adulthood, the life expectations I took for granted were not necessarily the expectations others could take for granted. Doors of opportunity were opened for me all my life if I demonstrated competency; others had doors slammed shut even before getting the chance to show their skills and talents. The three pillars of access, education, and resources helped me “get ahead” in the world; the absence of these have been barriers to a better life for many. I left my hometown and its high school with generally good memories, and the confidence that I was well-prepared to take on whatever life adventure I would choose. I am doubtful that my contemporaneous Black graduates at the segregated Lincoln High School – which sat next to their limited and restricted housing enclave across town – had comparable memories, or felt the same preparation and opportunities for their dreams of their upcoming life.

Family histories are more than just names and dates. They are the times families lived in and were affected by. They are stories long told, of good times and bad times and sometimes horrific times, handed down and reinforced over generations and centuries, even if now in just fragments of memories. Stories that continue to permeate the thinking, expectations, and instinctive reactions of persons today. Too often we judge others based upon our own life experiences, which likely bear little resemblance to the experiences of others – experiences we know little or nothing about. We all live in a bubble of our own family experience, and our bubbles are not the same. Yet when we take the time to puncture these bubbles, we can find a common core that can be shared.

We know so little, have such a superficial knowledge, of each other. Yet it only requires some time and sincere effort on our part to really listen to one another. To hear the Family Stories that have shaped who we are. To assume someone has lived a different life than ours, and thereby has naturally arrived at different conclusions. To break out of our insulating, protective bubble. It is only through such listening that we can find the unity of our humanity. Why do we make acceptance of each other, respect for each other, friendship with each other, so hard?

©   2020   Randy Bell   


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this thoughtful piece, Randy.

Anonymous said...

Lovely article Randy.