When I was a kid I became interested in genealogy. Some of my most treasured belongings are these surveys my mom and I put together and sent to all of my grandparents asking them to list their parents, grandparents, childhood stories and other family history information. Some of my grandparents didn’t bother, thinking I really wouldn’t be interested in it. The irony is that the one grandparent who took the most time to fill it out with information and stories was also the one who issued this caution: Be careful of looking in the past. You might find a horse thief.
I think sometimes when people talk about studying history or learning about their ancestors they have this mindset where it’s all about bragging rights. They want to find out they were descended from a president or royalty or who knows what else. They have these rose colored glasses on and aren’t so interested in the stories of five generations who lived in poverty but worked hard or maybe the story about the great-great-grandfather who grew up in a poorhouse and was always bitter and mean from such a rough childhood. They don’t want to know about the grandmother whose husband forced her to drink turpentine to cause an abortion because he didn’t want another mouth to feed. These are stories of real life and, yes, a sample of the things I learned when I began to look at my own family’s history. Is it all warm and fuzzy? No, but I don’t regret knowing it. I don’t regret understanding what they went through that made them who they are and eventually led to me. I’m okay with them not being a president. I’m proud to come from stock that endured so much and managed to carry on.
Also when I was a kid I learned about history from my school textbooks and what movies and books I was introduced to. For the most part nobody in my family had an interest in history (though that developed after I became interested and was constantly rattling on about some historical fact or event I’d learned about). That early introduction to history was… flat. Lifeless.
We learned about Plymouth and the first Thanksgiving… but they kinda scanned over the parts about introducing diseases to the Native tribes and just how those tribes were steadily pushed out of their land.
We learned about the American Revolution… but not about the internal struggle of the founding fathers regarding whether or not to rebel. It was portrayed as this simple decision because of taxation without representation and they didn’t really explain the thoughts of the American Loyalists or what was going on in the British parliament.
We learned about the Articles of Confederation, the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. We didn’t learn that the states still considered themselves separate and many states like Virginia even specifically stated in their ratification of the Constitution that they reserved the right to leave the union of states if they so desired in future.
We learned about slavery… We learned that the slaves were black men, women and children that had been brought over from Africa. We learned that it was the South that owned them and profited from the trade. We learned that the slave-owners were all rich white people and that the South was full of this huge, sprawling plantations with hundreds of slaves each. Of this paragraph, every single sentence is half-truths.
That’s what we have been taught though. A series of half-truths which give us an incomplete big picture and yet that big picture is what most of the nation judges each other by.
Everyone is being cheated of their heritage. Everyone is being cheated of understanding where they are from, why their family ended up where it was, what made their grandparents and great-grandparents the sort of people they were.
Start turning over rocks and looking at information you haven’t looked at before. You might find your own horse thief. You might find sadness and pain in that history. Then again, you might find something else too. You might find out that your ancestors were survivors, facing terrible odds and coming out of it the other side. You might find that they fought for something you hadn’t known they fought for, or that the reasons for it weren’t the reasons you’d thought they were. History isn’t pretty. Never has been, never will be. It is full of the very best and the very worst of people. It is full of atrocities. It is full of hate and pain and loss. It is also full of joy and triumph and kindness. Don’t deprive yourself of the one just because you’ll also find the other.
What sparked your interest in history? Were there topics you were uneasy with reading about or things you hoped not to find? What changed your mind? (Or has it?)