Genealogy as a Bridge to Cultural Discovery


April 21, 2013 by LeVoyageur

Breton Fishermen, Paul Gauguin, 1888.

Breton Fishermen, Paul Gauguin, 1888.

The practice of genealogy can be described in many ways. Through genealogy, many people come to appreciate that they have access to a rich storehouse of history and culture. This in turn may lead to a revival of traditions, a reinterpretation of values for the 21st century, and a sense of continuity with both those who came before and the generations to come.

If we were to look at our genealogy as an expression of our own culture, we might begin by considering a few questions that individuals bring to discussions about their family history.

The first question is a beginner’s question. It might likely be asked by a person who comes to an online forum with the simplest of statements: “I was told I am part French” or “I think I am Jewish” and they wish to know more about how to find their roots. This is the first step of discovery and to understanding oneself in the context of a wider culture.

Secondly, a simple but slightly more advanced question might be “I have a family tree, but it’s all names and dates. What does it mean?” This is a building block question and people who are at this stage of research are perhaps reaching a point where they have mastered data-collecting and are becoming curious of the world in which their ancestors lived.

Genealogy as a bridge to cultural expression is a bridge too far for some. But for others, it is the destination. Learning about culture through genealogy is the way that many people, particularly Americans, might first experience a sense of their own cultural heritage at all. “What does it mean?” is a question that may inspire other questions: “What were their traditions?” and “Why can’t I do some of what they did today?” or “How can I honor my ancestors when so much of what they believed seems lost?”

Another level of questioning might be a bit more critical or scientific. After studying their genealogy for a while someone might ask, “What good does any of this do now? Why should I care about how my great-grandparents lived? I’m only interested in vital statistics.” Simply put, not everyone is interested in learning about history or culture.

The challenge to this question is how to respond. One answer would be to say simply that “We don’t live in isolation.” The world we live in now is the sum of history. Understanding where we come from, at the very least, is helpful in making decisions for the future. Learning about our family’s past might also expose us to values and traditions which in turn could lead us to celebrate our culture.

Finally, many people arrive at a point where they begin to look beyond the data with other questions. “How do all of these people in my family tree and their individual histories, speak to us today? What is the relevance of the lives of simple people who lived long ago?” These questions reflect on how genealogy is not just the study of family lines, although it can be, but also of family histories and the cultures they came from.

Genealogy at this stage goes beyond the quest for names and dates. Here it is transformed into a search for culture and identity. At this point we may look to the experiences of ancestors to find meaning in our own lives. We may look to their lives to be inspired by their journeys, their survival, their successes, and to be informed by their failures.

Considering these questions might help explain the popularity of genealogy today. Interacting as a community can be a rewarding experience for genealogists. Yet genealogists have differing agendas and goals. For many, it is a bridge to activating their own cultural awareness. In this sense it is a unique facet of a multidimensional subculture that enriches individual lives and families in ways that go far beyond databases and their static details.

9 thoughts on “Genealogy as a Bridge to Cultural Discovery

  1. melthebrain says:

    I totally agree; knowing where you come from is extremely important, as is honoring those who came before. Without them, it would be impossible for us to live now. Going back and looking at who is responsible for your existence, finding out their stories, and learning how they lived is a way to sort of honor them and thank them for laying the foundation for your own life. I think it really helps you better appreciate your own family and the people around you.

    The only issue with doing that is the fact that there are so many people in the world today, which means there are tons of broken families out there and we might not know who we came from. My biological father has never been in my life. I’ve never even seen a picture of him. He’s never tried to get in contact with me. I’ve tried tracking him down, but to no avail. So that means half my family is just kinda out there, living and doing their own thing. There’s no telling how many memories, experiences, and bonds I’ve missed out on. I’ve been told I have a half-brother, and a really sweet grandmother. I don’t even know them, and that really makes me sad because they are partly responsible for my existence, y’know? Like without them, I wouldn’t be here at all.

    I’ve always felt that each person is representing their bloodline in everything they do. The way they choose to live their life is a reflection of how well they were raised, their family’s hard work, etc. Because of that, I’ve always tried to leave a good impression. My mom sacrificed a lot to make sure I had a good upbringing. She was a teen pregnancy case who suffered through a lot in her life, but she always put me first and made sure I had everything I needed. She taught me how to read at the age of four, and I was proficient in reading and knew a little bit of simple math before ever stepping foot into a public school. She raised me to live my life to the fullest because she never got to. And I want people to know that and respect her for it, because she deserves that much.

    I dunno. Maybe I’m thinking too hard about it. But this article kind of inspired me, because I know just how important this stuff is and I can’t really understand how people could feel otherwise. Sorry for the long comment. Just got a little passionate about it, I guess. 🙂

    • James says:

      Thank you so much – first of all for commenting, and secondly for the glimpse into how this whole issue plays out for people who do not come from “nuclear families” and who have to struggle just to know where they come from. I really appreciate your sharing that experience.

      I know that even if a person is not able to reach one side of their family or a particular line, (I actually know very little about my mother’s family) that doesn’t make them incomplete. Many people are in a position to easily trace back and get a sense from many decades, even centuries. For many people, getting to their grandparents is a big success. I’m struck by how many people have that experience.

      It is sad, but being unable to uncover history, culture in one part of your family can sometimes make a person stuck. I’ve focused on certain ancestors of mine for 20 years and only when I stopped really looking, walked away for a while, did I finally see the set of factors I knew in a different way that helped me understand what was keeping me from learning about them.

      There is also the vital roll that an individual has to play in building their own traditions, honoring their families in the best way they know how. It sounds like for you, your mother is your first, best example of strength and courage. That is something I think everyone is looking for in their families and something everyone wants to pass on to future generations. : )

  2. Bill Loomis says:

    “When your past changes, your identity changes.” Tracy Thompson. from “New mind of the South.”

  3. My grandmothers couldn’t conceive the life I have & if I have grandchildren I can’t imagine how different their lives will be from mine. My adopted brothers were severed from their families, and ours, in different ways. I don’t know if we were designed for this much change & ’emigration’ away from ancestors. People have faced decimation, occupation, enslavement so maybe there has always been disorientation. But we’ve made dislocation & whatever you call it when you dissolve the past into a lifestyle. Genealogy & history are a connection back–and so is dialogue. Thanks for starting the conversation, James.

    • James says:

      I’m intrigued by your comment “But we’ve made dislocation & whatever your call it when you dissolve the past into a lifestyle.” Can you elaborate on that?

      I agree very much that how we experience life in the modern age changes so rapidly that even from generation to generation we are intellectually displaced at a rate that one would think only happens once an epoch – what people are experiencing today is revolution from year to year, instead of century to century or every several hundred years even.

      If you look at adoption as a metaphor actually, it is very useful I think in understanding how people experience the world today. We may not be severed in general from our families of birth, but we are all increasingly severed from any sense of cultural and familial continuity, in the best of circumstances finding an “adoptive culture” or “family of choice” (a very popular idea in gay circles back in the day). But moreso, I feel people are just orphaned culturally. Adoption at least has the potential to be joyous. Is this also the immigrant experience? Certainly all of our ancestors were dislocated, by choice or circumstance. How did they maintain any sense of identity at all?

  4. OmDePlume says:

    I am reminded by your excellent post, James, and the thoughtful comments herein, of a woman whom I facilitated in a healing practice some years ago. She left her home country — Syria, I believe — because she had met an American and missed him. She attributed all her unease in life to her dislocation. Then she did some research and learned that this had been a theme with her ancestors. Patterns like dislocation (and that as a “lifestyle”) can emerge from the messiest of trees. There may be grayed-out avenues and missing branches in one’s tree, but what one does find can turn up valuable insights into one’s life. Thank you for starting some wheels turning.

    • James says:

      I’m delighted it has been of value to others. I think you are really onto something when you talk about finding patterns in the genealogical tree – patterns like ‘dislocation’ which we might not think of as a family trait. I think the lines we don’t know well have the potential to tell us much about ourselves and our families as do the lines that are very clear. I find that learning about events, sad or happy, in ancestral lives helps me to understand their humanity and brings them closer to me – and that’s not necessarily always a comfortable place to be, but it’s worth the risk.

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