Genealogy

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been digging into part of my family history – something that I’ve been meaning to do for years but never really had the time. I’ve always loved learning more about my own family and hearing the stories of others doing the same. The story of the House on Loon Lake is one of my favorite episodes from This American Life and I’m really excited to hear more from the podcast Family Ghosts.

I grew up on the opposite side of the country from the rest of my mother’s family and the trips back to visit were few and far between. Those trips, much to my own disappointment, slowly stopped over time as more family moved out west and grandparents died. It was always hard and really expensive traveling thousands of miles with two kids so I don’t fault my parents for not going back as much as I would have loved to.

But all of that meant I was always slightly removed from my extended family, especially my grandparents. And it also means that getting records, letters, and a history into my family is either going to be indefinitely stalled or expensive. It would mean flying back east for a bit (already cost prohibitive) or finding ways to get the records shipped to me (also a bit expensive and in cases of documents with no other copies, not the best option).

Both of my maternal grandparents died years ago unfortunately and I can’t ask them all the questions I have about our family and their lives. Looking back now, I wish I spent more time talking to them about all of this and recorded what they had to say.

Even with all of that though, I’m still one of the privileged who’s able to trace my family back generations, who’s able to access letters and stories about my family going back (at the very least) to my great-grandparents. I may not be able to talk to her but about a decade before she died, my grandmother wrote in a notebook about her life and family and gave it to me. This book, while relatively short, provides stories and understanding about my family that I don’t know if many others have.

I know that even with my own obstacles, I have a much easier time tracing my family history than many others and it’s in large part because of systemic whiteness. War, immigration, the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and the related systemic slave trade here in the United States, and so much more means that for many, getting a detailed family tree might be impossible. The slave trade here was so brutal and violent in so many ways, including in routinely breaking up families and constantly dehumanizing slaves. There are few documents that archive the genealogy of those descendent from slaves here in the US – something that Jessie Daniels wrote about a couple years ago. Daniels writes in particular that:

The business people behind online genealogical tools also want to market to researchers from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, but these researchers are confronted by gaps in the historical record. For many African Americans, genealogical research that relies on official documents is difficult, if not impossible, because there simply are no records. Their ancestor were not regarded as full citizens – nor fully human beings – worthy of record keeping. This painful past presents a marketing dilemma for online databases like Ancestry.com.  They are undaunted, however, [referring] to this gap in records euphemistically as ‘The 1870 Wall’ – by which of course, they mean that prior to that time African Americans were enslaved to other Americans and there was often incomplete data.

And doing this work has only confirmed the quite obvious point that I, like many white folks now living in the United States, come from a long line of settler colonialists. One family tree that I found points to my family living in the “New World” since 1700. This, of course, means that even if my ancestors weren’t active in the genocide and land theft of the indigenous peoples or had slaves, we benefited from those practices. We were able to survive on the stolen land; food and other means of production were maintained by large plantations of slaves. My ancestors may or may not have been directly and overtly complicit in this nation’s horrific past (something I haven’t found yet) but I still benefit from those systemic brutalities and need to work for racial justice.

I’ve been thinking about the white guilt that comes with learning about our genealogy and potential/more than probable connections we as white people have to slavery. This is best personified in the story about Ben Affleck’s ‘Finding Your Roots’ segment and related scandal that happened a few years ago. Affleck joined the show to learn more about his family history, only to find that one ancestor did in fact own 25 slaves in Georgia. He eventually asked for that part to be left out because he felt embarrassed by it. Dorothy Brown wrote about the scandal a couple years ago, saying that including that part in his segment could have opened up a dialogue about the history of the US and that:

 … when a public figure — a celebrity — chooses to confront the past like this, instead of ignoring it, he can provide a powerful example to a country that struggles daily with the roots of racism in its present. … White Americans’ lack of comfort in talking about slavery, race and the places in our society where racism continues to fester is at the heart of why even with a black president, we are still, as a country, far from post-racial.

I think it can be really easy, as white people, to sweep this part of our national and family histories under the rug and to hide that embarrassment and shame that might arise. But I think it’s incredibly important that we (again as white people) really confront these histories, feelings, and the left-over structures that are still in play today. These histories might be behind us but we’re all still dealing with the impacts today in so many different ways. Ignoring history just pulls the context out from how we’ve come to exist today.

There’s so much more that comes into play with our own history and attempts to trace genealogy. Records of all kinds can be incomplete or missing, for example. Asylums, as another example, were notorious when they were first developed and practiced. People would frequently go into them but never come out. One project in Mississippi aims to identify and lay to rest the numerous people who were buried in the unmarked graves of one asylum but it’s a daunting task even for that one place. And as a queer person, I’ve been exceptionally blessed with parents and extended family who are accepting of who I am. But I know that my story isn’t universal and that chosen families are a vital part of the LGBTQ community. These chosen families don’t show up on family trees or in genealogical records but they’re just as important.

And there are so many other issues around this that I haven’t even touched on but I’m constantly thinking about. Tracing my own family history, even with all the information and resources I have on hand, is a daunting task and has left me pondering larger issues still at play. Ignoring the ugly truths about our personal histories and the larger history of the United States is an easy thing to do but ultimately, we need to be addressing these topics head on and moving forward towards justice and equality for all.

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