Because it’s not really about AJ and me. It’s about the fact that we’re all related—by blood, adoption, and marriage. Well, in a way it’s about AJ, since he’s the one organizing the Global Family Reunion.
We all saw Ben Afflecks’s embarrassment over his ancestor’s slave ownership splash across headlines. To me, the surprise wasn’t that he wanted Finding Your Roots to edit out that information. What surprised me was that the issue hasn’t come up sooner.
Ben Affleck isn’t the first one to look through his roots hoping to find royalty or framers of the constitution who found the reality distasteful. Many of us have had the urge to turn away rather than facing ancestors’ past.
Researching my own ancestors in Virginia, I breathe a sigh of relief when I see that they didn’t own slaves. Realistically, it might have been the fact that they were poor, not conscience, that prevented my ancestors from owning slaves. I know that it’s not the same as finding out they were Abolitionists or conductors of the Underground Railroad. However, when my family tree casts its shade, I’m glad it’s not the shadow of slavery.
It’s not a new problem, although the more ancestors we find, the more likely it is that one or two brushed up against the wrong side of history. Or morality.
I remember some open conversations (there may have been a couple of glasses of wine involved) with my friend Gunther while living in German in the 80s. A Polizist, or police officer, who had participated in several NATO joint training courses, Gunter admitted that discussions of World War II with his US-American counterparts made him decidedly uneasy.
“It’s not that I’m not capable of condemning my nation’s past actions,” he said. “It’s not that I can’t find a place in my heart for personal regret either. I can. I do.” He went on to explain that, he, like most Germans, felt a nationalistic guilt. A guilt about the Holocaust. A guilt about how Germans who didn’t participate, still stood by and let it happen. Gunter even felt that it was good for German to discuss WWII with foreigners and to come to grips with how the rest of the world viewed not only Hitler, but Germans.
It took him a while (another glass of wine, minimum) to get around to the root of the problem.
“You Americans,” he said, “think I should hate my grandfather.”
Gunter had trouble when conversation turned to individual perpetrators—soldiers following orders—like his grandfather, a Schutzstaffel (SS) colonel.
Facing his grandfather’s past “fehlt ihm schwer”—was difficult for him. Yes, his grandfather had been an SS officer. But he knew his grandfather the grandpa. He could hate his grandfather’s choices and actions. He could despise all the things that his grandfather had stood for as an SS officer, but he still loved his grandpa.
He couldn’t hate the man who held Gunther the toddler on his knee and tossed him joyfully in the air. This grandfather was the man he had known from birth as a kind, loving man.
Making the dilemma even more difficult was that Gunther’s family hid his grandfather’s past from the grandkids until they felt the kids were old enough to understand. Gunther had known and loved his grandfather from birth, but had only found out about his grandfather’s past as an adolescent.
It’s an extreme example, but it’s a situation that more than a few of us find ourselves in when we encounter unsavory pasts among our tangled roots. Reluctant or not, like it or not, facing ancestors’ past is part of our family history pursuit. We have to face who they were.
But there’s more to it than that. Deeper questions.
For Gunther, there was more to it than how he should feel about his grandfather. There was the doubt. How could such a loving man be capable of such evil? Was that evil a product of his grandfather’s environment and upbringing or was it in his grandfather’s DNA?
And if it was in his grandfather’s DNA?…
I think that’s the question that haunts us when we find our ancestors weren’t all we had hoped they’d be. It’s as if they were tested and failed. Would we similarly fail if subjected to the same historical circumstances?
It’s enough to keep a family historian awake at night.
Are you as neutral as you think? By choosing connotative words, we often unthinkingly communicate things that we don’t mean to say.
Intentionally or not, we convey value judgments. Our word choices often carry with them an emotional connotation. When we call a personal “angry” versus “upset” or “rattled,” readers digest the connotation of those words along with the facts of the story.
Today, I’m particularly pleased to present a guest post by Judith Fein and her concept of emotional genealogy.
When I gave my first talk about the power of Emotional Genealogy, I wondered if anyone would be able to connect to what I was speaking about. To my surprise, audience members asked questions for over an hour, and then they continued with personal questions for another half an hour.
You may be wondering what Emotional Genealogy is. Briefly, it involves examining how the behaviors of our parents, grandparents, and great grandparents influenced who we are and how we are in the world. And it doesn’t matter if we knew them or not.
Average gets a bad rap. Well, not so much a bad rap as not enough rap. We seldom hear about him or her.
For instance, you never see Average’s mom post about his achievements on Facebook. “Congratulations to my son Average who achieved something that most kids achieve.” Instead, we see the parents of Average’s friends posting about their kids achieving all the things Average tried to achieve, but fell just a tad short. “Congratulations to my child Superior who achieved something momentous. My kid is wonderful beyond belief and worked so hard. #mykidisintheroomwithme #Imjustanattentionwhore.”
Okay, the hashtags are imagined, put in my head by a hilarious teenager. (I’m withholding her name to protect the snarky.) But the post isn’t imagined. Its equivalent passes through our news feeds on a regular basis.
We all know that going back home isn’t an option. But a girl can dream.
Last week, as the plane approached Greenville-Spartanburg (South Carolina) International Airport, the sight of red clay gave me a twinge. Home beckoned like a taunt. “Come back… Oh yeah. I forgot… You can’t.”
In my defense, I’m not trying to go back. I’m here to live in the present. To spend time with the people I love now. But, however much my intellect knows that going back isn’t possible, it can’t control my heart. The past, unbidden, beckons in my psyche.
Remember (if you’re approximately my age) how we used to cross our hearts and “hope to die”? We’d earnestly pledge ourselves to some action or affection, pantomiming the heart crossing as if we (in my case, good Southern Baptist girls) were genuflecting.
Today, kids pinky swear. To me, pinky swearing doesn’t carry the same weight as our covenants made on the pain of a-needle-in our-eye injury. But what do I know? As much as I assuredly meant all those promises (unless, of course, I somehow managed to cross my fingers behind my back as I gesticulated the heart crossing on my front), I can’t remember many of my hope-to-dies. The one I do remember was to remain lifelong friends with Sally Moore. I lost touch with Sally a few years after she moved to Wilmington, North Carolina, which for my 12-year-old perspective. might as well have been Peru.
How do the stories you tell affect your loved ones’ image of you?
Through your stories, you’re providing context that your loved ones will use to understand you better. In essence, you’re projecting an image. For instance, when you share multiple memories about raising your children, your loved ones will come to think of you, and understand you better, as a parent. Which is great. But, there’s something better.
One of the most rewarding parts of sharing your memories and stories is those moments when the big picture comes alive. When you see in someone’s reaction that you connected. Writing with your heart on your sleeve increases the likelihood of that happening.
The memory collector has a different role than the average narrator. You’re part of the story. You add context. When you expose your more vulnerable side, you allow readers to see the world through your glasses.
It comes down to building trust with your readers—your loved ones. The better they know you, the more they will trust your vision—your filter—of the stories you’re telling. More importantly, writing with your heart on your sleeve helps form that palpable the connection with your readers.
If a well-respected genealogical website said you should read this blog (and 13 others), would you follow instructions? I hope so, since that’s what Crestleaf’s blog is saying.
In my new favorite post, Crestleaf lists 14 Blogs You Might Not Be Reading but You Should! Of course, it should be pointed out, that when it comes to Crestleaf, I’ve been preaching to the choir. They offer a system by which you can put your photos into context and digitize your stories.
To make it doubly nice, they’ve saddled me with some great company. Join me in checking out all these blogs that make it easier to tell your own and your family’s stories.
If you’re landing here for the first time, the related links below make some great starting points.