Historian ponders effect of AA genealogy on historical understanding

The latest Journal of Southern History (Vol 75, no. 3, August 2009)  includes an article by Professor W. Fitzhugh Brundage (pages 751-766) discussing how historians study memory and the role of memory in shaping how we think of the past.   Memory is constantly changing as we each experience new things, as older generations pass away and new generations compile their own cultural “memories.”  Our idea of our history comes not just from our own experience, but also from vicarious experiences we learn in school, read in books, and hear from our elders, mentors and peers.  What has this to do with genealogy?  Professor Brundage includes this interesting paragraph on page 760:

[M]any commentators have noted that Alex Haley’s work Roots (New York, 1976) was a catalyst for interest in genealogy among African Americans.  Even a cursory visit to any of the major genealogy research websites will demonstrate that African American genealogy has been mainstreamed.  All of the federal slave censuses, for example, are online.   But I am unaware of any scholarly accounts that historicize this recent African American genealogical impulse or ponder its implications.  For example, how has genealogical research affected understandings of slavery among African Americans?  What are the consequences of knowing who owned one’s ancestors, where one’s ancestors were enslaved, and who made up the slave community in which one’s ancestors lived?  Historians have understandably told us a great deal about how fellow scholars have revised the history of slavery that is presented in monographs and textbooks.  But by historicizing black genealogy we may be able to understand more fully how African Americans make sense of their own slave and non-slave heritage.

It is stimulating and inspiring, I think, to ponder how our individual researches, and how we interpret and present our results, shapes not just our own family history, but connects to the collective history — the national memory — of  the past for all of us.


Dera WilliamsAugust 12th, 2009 at 1:54 am

Interesting. I hadn’t thought of those questions about slavery. My search for my ancestor’s slaveholders, I thought, was about understanding where I come from, knowing my family history. I think of slavery in abstract terms; it happened, I know why and how it happened and my connection to it through my ancestors.

Bev ScottAugust 21st, 2009 at 7:48 pm

I think, as we discover more and more about our ancestors throughout American history, we will be far less tolerant of abbreviated, condescending, and erroneous references to African Americans presented routinely and carelessly in classrooms and other settings. A senior citizen, I look back with shame and horror at my own ignorant silence when I experienced the way African Americans were presented in the classrooms of my youth. Since learning about my own family’s history in this country, in addition to the increased scholarship about African Americans in general, I have come to know without a doubt that I belong here, that I am due all respect, that the blood, labor, and intelligence of my ancestors has made America possible. And I have the utmost respect for–and believe America owes the utmost respect to–each and every one of them, even those most humble and downtrodden.

vknSeptember 13th, 2009 at 3:12 am

Gives one much to think about.

George GederSeptember 14th, 2009 at 11:59 am

“But I am unaware of any scholarly accounts that historicize this recent African American genealogical impulse or ponder its implications… ”

Why do I get the continued sense that AfriGeneas.com flies under the radar and folks like Professor W. Fitzhugh Brundage rarely, if ever, make mention of it?

Within the forums there are a zillion accounts of answers to his questions. Does the world have to wait for a ‘Scholar’ to validate the historical finding we family historians and genealogists unearth?

Who’s job is it going to be to ‘historicize black genealogy’?
That question makes me nervous.

“Guided by the Ancestors”

DavidSeptember 29th, 2009 at 11:43 pm

I hadn’t given any thought to attending the annual meeting of the Southern Historical Association (of which I am a member) until I received the program in the mail, and saw that the presidential address from Jack Temple Kirby is going to be, “ANCESTRY.dot.BOMB: Genealogy, Genomics, Mystery, Mischief, and Southern Family Stories.” What on earth will it be about? I have to go. Sadly, Dr. Kirby died suddenly of a heart attack on August 6, so his address will be read to the meeting by his friend, Barbara J. Fields, a historian to whom Valencia recently drew my attention. Dr. Fields is extremely interesting in her own right (please see this provocative example of her writing: http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/ahr/108.5/fields.html )

The Southern Historical Association meeting will be held at the downtown Marriott Hotel, Louisville, Kentucky, November 5-8, 2009. All sessions are open to the public, FREE.

Link: http://www.uga.edu/sha/meeting/index.htm

AliseaMarch 15th, 2010 at 11:33 am

Excellent questions by both the professor and by George. In truth, there is enough work for everyone; I just hope that we can all work more closely, recognizing what each group brings to the table, in the future.

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