Public Historian’s Perspective: The Importance of Talking About Family History

January 9, 2020

Families are defined in multiple ways, and it is important that we learn what we can about who our families are to help us understand how we came to be. We could also find out who we want to be by learning about our past. Last month I came across an article in Good Housekeeping called “We’re Losing Generations of Family History Because We Don’t Share Our Stories” which made me think about my own perspective about family history as a public historian on both a professional and personal level. I argue that learning about one’s own family history and heritage could be used as an introduction to telling stories that could be shared with other people and learning more about other perspectives.

There is so much we can learn about our past by talking about our stories and sharing them with the next generation. Previous generations have lived through major historical events and we can learn from our relatives about what these events were like from their perspective. Families, especially in the 21st century, are more diverse than it was commonly believed to be 100 years before; therefore, family histories are more complex. As technology advances, we find ways to connect with people around the world including family members who live outside the country. At the same time, family members move away for varying reasons, previous generations grow older and lose memories, children are adopted into other families, and family disputes are some reasons that change and disconnect from family histories. The article I found shared their argument for why we are losing touch with family history and ways to maintain telling stories about our families.

 In Good Housekeeping, they discussed that people usually become interested in genealogy in their 50’s and 60’s and by that time parents and grandparents are already dead or not able to recount these stories. Since I talked to family members at a young age and one of my sisters did a genealogical research at a young age, I feel that this general statement does not represent all people regarding family genealogy. It would be good to see research describing people’s feelings on family history and genealogy, so we have a definitive understanding of how we are losing generations of family history. What I did like about this article is that they pointed out

The solution to this problem is to get people interested in their family histories when they’re still adolescents or young adults, when they can still hear directly from relatives. But how do we cultivate an interest in each other to begin with? By asking thoughtful questions, participating in storytelling, and by focusing on our similarities with our relatives.

By telling the stories when people are younger, they could learn as much as possible to be able to tell these stories to future generations. Asking questions is a great way to start conversations specially to learn more information about family. When I learned about my family history, I asked questions which made me realize how extensive this history is.

I was able to learn a lot about my family history when I was a child and continued to learn as an adolescent. I do however wish that while the senior members of my family were still around so I can check with them about details I am not entirely clear about. What I remember about my family history came from conversations I have had during extended family gatherings and visits with grandparents. I also talked to my grandparents for a school project about what they were doing during World War II; according to my memory, my paternal grandfather was in Alaska and my maternal grandfather was in Hawaii (just after Pearl Harbor) and Japan.

The stories I have heard about my family extend a little bit into my ancestors in the 16th century but I mainly know more about three or four generations back from my generation. My maternal side of the family has mainly an Italian-Irish heritage with living relatives still in northern Italy where my grandfather’s family came from; I also have extended family from my grandmother’s side that I visited growing up at the Christmas parties. My paternal side of the family has mainly an English-Swedish heritage with living relatives still in England where my grandfather’s family came from. When I learned about my heritage, I was inspired to learn more about the culture of the countries my family came from and it sparked my interest in learning about other countries and cultures in the world. Without my family’s willingness to tell these stories and my curiosity, I would not have known about where I came from and been inspired to learn more about other cultures starting with cultures from my own family background.

After I read that article from Good Housekeeping, I took a look at a post from the National Council on Public History (NCPH) website which talked about a conference from a few years ago, the International Family History Workshop in Manchester, United Kingdom. There were a lot of takeaways from the conference that stress the complexity of family history in general. For instance, the international participants of genealogists, sociologists, humanists, psychologists, political scientists, anthropologists, and public historians

…shared an awareness of the ways in which family history methodologies complicate national narratives, especially in settler-colonial and settler-migrant nations. At the same time, the model of “family history” imposed upon local cultures by global information structures and systems often stresses Westernized, Anglophone models of historicity, identity, and family relationships. Hence it may work to occlude, forget, or ignore particular communities and to reify certain ways of thinking about the past and the present. Part of our investigation into family history as a “global” phenomenon within a public history framework must be to recognize the ethical, moral, and political assumptions that are at the heart of these practices.

To study family history in general is complicated because of how every person could view what it means to be a family differently across the world. We should acknowledge how certain ways of thinking influence history including family history. Once I read each of these articles, they reaffirmed that family histories can be complex, and I acknowledge it is important to find out what one should understand about family history.

Have you asked your family members about your family history? What did you find was interesting about researching your family’s history?

Links:

https://www.goodhousekeeping.com/life/a29610101/preserve-family-history-storytelling/

https://ncph.org/history-at-work/family-history-around-the-world/

https://ncph.org/history-at-work/hold-for-international-family-history-post-from-jermoe-degroot/

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