Thursday, April 8, 2021

Family History And Heritage

In the mid-1980s, I was infected with the genealogy bug. I had a desire to know more about my family history: who I came from; who those people were; how their life unfolded; how I resulted from their journey. I began by following the traditional route of family history researchers. First, we identify the cast of characters by name in our ancestral pool, both direct ancestors and their siblings and descendants. Next comes the basic, dry facts of them: dates (birth, marriage, death); their relationship to us. Then their geography (where did they happen; what were their movements). We interview extended family members for their recollections, oral histories, and perhaps personal documentation. We search the public records in federal / state / local archives: census reports for each decade; wartime service records; business directories; newspaper articles: state and local bureaus of official records. We search the ancestry data resources available.

The stories in the history books find a place on our desk. When we begin to connect the stories and events and dates within the school textbooks to our emerging genealogical landscape, our accumulated names gradually come alive as “real people.” People who were part of the historical story; historical stories that were lived by the people. Over time, our own life begins to expand. Expands beyond one’s usual day-to-day existence, our usual focus on ourselves as the center of the Universe. Connection with our ancestors helps us share connection and space with our contemporary companions.

Each step, each contact, in the genealogical journey yields more pieces to the ancestral puzzle, yet also another research step to be undertaken. Until a trail runs cold, and the next ancestor in the line disappears, apparently lost into time. At which time we start down a new trail and repeat the process. For all its time demands and inevitable frustrations, it is a highly rewarding journey. If you are a White American. Preferably of Western European descent.

If you are an African-American setting out on a genealogy journey, you will likely travel a very different trip than the one described above. Many of the above resources and official records created between 1900 and the present would be available, whether one’s ancestors came to America post-1900 or before. But “story information” could be harder to come by, given how much Black history in the 20th Century has been buried and under-reported until fairly recently.  If you had ancestors in America during the post-Civil War / Reconstruction / 1865-1900 period, resources and information could be a mixed picture. Black Americans were just beginning to be “officially” recognized as individuals in the Census recordings, the Vital Statistics records, school records, etc., but it would be very hit-and-miss depending on one’s individual situation within the Jim Crow racial segregation and  oppression framework.

But it is the Civil War that rings down the genealogical curtain, hiding an unseen civilization behind its silence, a curtain rarely raised except for perhaps a quick peek. In the 245 years that Black America was also slavery America, Black Americans were treated as non-human beings. There were no birth certificates. If given a name, it would be one determined by the slave owner. Death was routinely burial in a mass, unmarked grave, its occupants identified by no headstones. If recorded in one of the census listings, a slave could be noted as simply one of a number – e.g. “6 slaves,” individually unidentified, familial relationships unstated, perhaps even with a dollar value assigned. Further, our Constitution directed that slaves be only counted as “3/5 of a person” for government representation. In short, slaves were legally considered on the same par as farm livestock, sold and bought at public auction, “property” literally chained to their owner, their existence found (if at all) only in commercial records, not government recordkeeping. These antebellum Black Americans may have been highly visible in the flesh given their numbers, but the acknowledgment and substantiation of their existence was invisible, lost to time. They are known only in the collective, except perhaps the few “family oral histories” that have survived.

“Heritage” is the accumulated stories of our ancestors reflecting their times and events. Stories often only partially true, historical snippets that selectively pick out the “good stuff” while ignoring uncomfortable omissions. But that is intellectually and ethically dishonest: we have to take the good together with the bad before we can properly claim “our heritage.” They are also stories handed down over potentially long periods of time, increasingly impassioned with each tick of the clock.

There is much talk these days about “our heritage,” and the need to preserve and defend it from supposed attack (e.g. the “cancel culture” movement). The first problem with this call to arms is that most people cannot define what their heritage is. At best, we get those romanticized ideas that quickly come to one’s mind. The second problem is, whose heritage are we referencing? White southern history; Black southern history; New England history; Southwestern frontier history? Asian- / Italian- / Scottish- / Middle East-American history? Each person, each group, has a unique heritage story. These stories, collectively and interwoven, form America’s collective and complete heritage. Which is why, when we talk about our own personal heritage, we are obligated to remember that our personal heritage is not everyone’s heritage. My story includes soldiers on both the North and South side of the Civil War. So whom do I honor? What is my heritage? Black heritage is not my personal heritage, but my personal heritage interacts with Black heritage to create America’s heritage.

Can it be that the outcry we hear today about “protecting our heritage” is not from the fear of potential loss? Rather, could it be the growing pains of our national heritage expanding to include our many heritages trying to live together? What I feel confident in saying is that there is no White American who has an ancestor that was bought, chained, sold, forcibly separated from family, and lived an undocumented life with no legal rights as a free human being, and no safety protection from the State. My heritage is not your heritage. But they are our shared heritage.

©   2021  Randy Bell    



Anonymous said...

This is a very thoughtful essay and certainly strikes home.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Randy -- Your essay should be included in history textbooks, to help everyone gain a healthy perspective on our history and heritage.