Who Gets to Write History? Who Are We Keeping Out?
A bit of a kerfuffle over who gets to write history and ask why, along with a series of emails with an Oxford educated historian and a local political scandal has me thinking about the parameters genealogists are “supposed” to operate within when writing our family histories. People act as if “facts” are truth. Sadly they are not. While I will agree that we should provide evidence to support our claims people need to get off their high horses. Let’s start using the word evidence. What evidence can we provide to answer our why questions—all the while knowing evidence is just data, that needs to be scrutinized and analyzed until more data comes along to prove or disprove it. Do we ever make mistakes? If we are good at our work I would say we should make mistakes every day. No risk, no reward. Do you dare to ask questions, write the story and find out you are wrong? I hope so. What do you really care about?
Elitism happens in all fields of study, and it has been a source of irritation and consternation that I express frequently. This is particularly true in Genealogy. I know many of you are proud members of lineage societies and perhaps they have their place—but I am not. It’s not that I am not qualified—I am for many but I find the them versus us attitudes distasteful. And for many the cost is exorbitant. The organizations that require you to “prove” before you can be “let in.” I can tell you that the people they wouldn’t let in, the people they wouldn’t help, even after they have the evidence, they are often hurt and bruised by the process. Many of these organizations whether they be event based [War], descendants [Surname] or DNA based have a distasteful habit of abandoning those that don’t meet their particular entrance standards. In my DNA surname projects, all are welcome. If they share a name that is good enough for me. Why should women be excluded? Why should I abandon someone because through no fault of their own their great-great-grandfather was not the father they thought him to be. I must confess, the same exclusive types often are the same as the “fact” police. They are more insufferable to me, than the 75 year old women giving birth in someone’s tree. I suppose it comes from my comfort level with the self righteous versus sloppy, silly tree-building zealots. Sadly, I prefer the latter as, I have at times in my 50 years of genealogy, been one of them.
To the victor belong the spoils.William L. Marcy
Let’s talk about historical facts and evidence. You of course know that facts are often wrong? And sometimes evidence too.
- How many death certificates with incorrect or no parents names?
- How many false census records? Incorrect spellings, ages etc.
- How many mislabeled dates? On gravestones, in histories, on official records? My own marriage certificate is off by a day!
- How many fathers on birth certificates were the father of record, but not the real father?
- Who gets to write history? Up until fairly recently rich, white, men. The guys who win write the history. Do you think they have an agenda? Do you think they always tell the truth.?
- DNA is rewriting many a family tree as well as the broad strokes of history.
I am not arguing that we should not seek to confirm what we “think” is the truth of our ancestors stories. In fact that is precisely what we SHOULD be doing. However, facts are funny things. Evidence can lie. It is sometimes wrong. It can be squishy. Evidence is sometimes our friend and often our enemy. It leads us on wild goose chases and down deep gopher holes. Those that worship at the altar of facts will be sadly disappointed. People are left off lists or put on lists where they don’t belong. There can be passengers on a ship, first settlers of a town, or followers of a certain clergy person or sect. How many times in history does the wrong person get the credit or the blame? What I am trying to get across is the same as my blog post Everything is a Working Theory.
Do not be so wedded to facts, or the lack thereof— that you cannot build a life for your ancestors. I just wrote about 12th-14th century Sheldons in Warwickshire, England so surely you can manage a 3rd great grandmother. We can learn a lot by studying context and social history, all the while paying attention to who is writing it. What was happening to our ancestors where they lived? What was their social status? Were they free, enslaved or were they the enslavers? Were there wars going on? Who held the power? If they were women could they vote? Own property? Was their marriage for love or for money? We don’t need many facts to build a life for our ancestors. We can look at histories for those they lived near, even if they themselves did not make it into print.
History is constantly being revisited, revised and rewritten. Sometimes the best new histories come from outside the predominant culture or viewpoint. Hurrah! I embrace the young genealogists and historians just starting out with their fresh ideas and perspectives. Those with the audacity to challenge conventional wisdom and not be deterred by a lack of evidence. I love evidence, but I inherently distrust it. It started very early for me when as a teenage genealogist one of my ancestors was listed on censuses as variously born in Alabama, in North Carolina and At Sea. Just because it’s written anywhere does not make a thing “true” and just because it isn’t does not make it untrue. Everything is a working theory, anyone who tells you otherwise is lying to you. We do the best we can. We accumulate as much evidence as we can and we can still get it wrong. Please I ask the elders within the genealogical and historical communities to ratchet down the rhetoric that smacks of know-it-all-ism and snobbery. You can educate people kindly. You can help people that are not your tribe. You can be decent. The genealogy world needs to take these words to heart if they want to leave a legacy to the new generation of genealogists. And let me give a shout out to Daniel Loftus at The Hidden Branch an organization dedicated to the young genealogist. Let them rewrite history and not been intimidated by the ever prevalent elitism in the genealogy community.
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