Saturday, March 20, 2010

Who Do You Think You Are?

I have been struck with the new show on NBC called “Who Do You Think You Are?” The past few weeks there has been the spotlight on the genealogy of several stars taking those people through the generations of their family to find intriguing aspects of the lives of their ancestors.

The first one I saw was Emmitt Smith from the Dallas Cowboys. Being a long-time fan of Smith, I watched as he journeyed through the generations to find not only his earliest ancestor in the Americas, and into the nastiness of slavery of the American South and back to Benin, Africa. There he found the slave forts of that horrendous trade still standing. He also found that the trafficking in children was still a reality in East Africa. It has changed his life.

Last night I watched as Lisa Kudrow followed her family back to find the story of a great grandmother who was murdered by the Nazis in Poland and the finding of the messenger of that tragedy who had been imprisoned in Stalin’s Siberia because of his Jewish heritage. Today, I watched the story of Sarah Jessica Parker as she traced her lineage back to a 10th generation grandmother who was accused at the Salem witch trials in the 1690’s, a story that had been totally lost to her family. Both of these women have had their lives changed because they learned their story, knew the heroism of their family members and opened up the history as it impacted their families.

I have always been fascinated in history. My undergraduate work was in the History of Thought or Philosophy. I began my own genealogical search when I was in high school and have understood how the Revolutionary War and the opening of the Erie Canal impacted the lives of my mother’s family, how the enclosures in Scotland forced the emigration of the paternal Scots’ side to the Chicago area in the early 19th century and how the opening of the Canadian Parliament induced my grandfather’s family to come to North America. I have found how the lost memories of flu epidemics, military service in the Raj in India and a terrible case of seasickness converged to bring my grandfather to the U.S. rather than his original destination in Australia.

History is not mere dusty facts written in some manipulated history book even when it is taught that way. A friend reported to me that the Texas Board of Education has removed Thomas Jefferson from their history books in favor of Phyllis Shaffley! (I am not so sure that some of the facts of Thomas are best taught but I AM clear about what I would teach about Phyllis!) History is about lives. It is about people who live lives like mine and those who read this Blog. History is personal and has affected me and those connected to me.

I wonder if those who will do their genealogies in another century or two will realize what kind of people we were---those of us who have had to battle the civil rights wars over the past 60 years. Will the children of my niece and nephew want to know about the call to stand against the kind of fear that has marked our age? Will people want to know about those of us who have had to sacrifice so much just to be able to serve the Church, or society? Will people come looking for our motivation or for the kind of ethics that we have demanded of ourselves?

How will those who come after LGBT persons learn how the idea of being sexually different meant not just discrimination but living in the fear of being jailed, considered deviant, being beaten or even killed if we did not appear to conform to society’s norm. Will succeeding generations understand the kind of terror we lived under as no less horrific as Salem in the 17th century or Nazi occupied middle Europe or slave trading Benin? And even more importantly, will succeeding generations be able to see the evil inherent in being part of the majority culture as were the people of Salem, or the people of Nazi Germany or the slave traders of Portugal and Benin?


Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Great questions, Lauren. PS - I love the show, too.

Gus said...

Good stuff, that. I'm very fortunate in that a great deal of the genealogical stuff has been done already; I get to find the stories behind all the names.