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.