Genealogists & Family Historians: The Perfect People to Fight Prejudice and Promote Acceptance
In the aftermath of the jury’s verdict in the Trayvon Martin case, interviews with jurors and others, as well as the resulting social media firestorms of commentary, I have found myself thinking a lot about prejudice and acceptance. Also I’ve been thinking about being in the majority or the minority, as well as stereotypes, skin color, linguistic differences, clothing styles, and more.
I have also found myself coming back to the song from the Broadway musical ‘South Pacific’, which is titled “You’ve got to be Carefully Taught”. It rings true to me and certainly contains more than an iota of truth, which we, as genealogists, should be able to fully appreciate. It is a short song and if you don’t know the words, here they are:
“You’ve got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught
From year to year,
It’s got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught!”
Most of all I have found myself dwelling on how we, in the genealogy and family history community, are perhaps best situated to be preeminent amongst those who fight to end prejudice and promote increased acceptance in society. We are well placed to do this in all of the communities in which we live and work as well as within each of our individual spheres of influence.
Why? To me it is exquisitely simple. Our work of capturing the truth and history of our families leads us to discover, and to be confronted with inclusion of, all kinds of ancestors. To use the great Clint Eastwood movie title, we find ‘The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly’. As we work though our family histories we find that our ancestors often varied significantly. If your family history is like mine, you find ancestors of a variety of religions, races, creeds, colors, sexual orientations, and national origins. As my almost 93 year-old Mother has always explained it to me ‘Ours is truly a ‘Heinz 57® family.’ And she says it with pride!
I know, again in my case, the more I have studied my ancestry and roots, the more I have come to understand and appreciate who I am, what forces developed me into the person I have become, as well as where I have come to certain of my views and values, strengths, and weaknesses.
For example, while I was growing up, my parents were socially liberal. However, while I was growing up in the 1950s I was also raised with an intense prejudice against anyone of the Catholic faith. While I was a youngster, it was simply ‘a rule’. As I grew older I came to wonder why, with a family that was so forward looking and caring in all other areas, would there be one such strong prejudice? It was not long into my genealogy work that I uncovered the reason. My mother’s family and ancestors were all Bohemian. Their culture, people, and entire nation was almost exterminated by the Hapsburgs and the Catholic Church. They came to America as ardent Free Thinkers as were over half of the Bohemian immigrants to America. They came for freedom from oppression and they passed that on to generations to come after them.
I also recalled that as I spoke with, and questioned, more and more of my family’s elders about what it was like to be immigrants or from immigrant families, the stories frequently included their recounting of times when they were called derogatory names, made fun of ‘because we were different’, being made fun of due to a language barrier or even just an accent. I also heard the stories about how the immigrants formed their own enclaves, communities, organizations, and supported and helped more immigrants join them here in America. I heard stories of the great ‘melting pot’ phenomena and equally the stories of those who fought to retain their culture and heritage while still being Americans.
I encountered family members who had served prison time in their native land, then came to America, had a second chance, and in one case became a Civil War hero. I found those who added greatly to the communities in which they lived and those who did a lot less than that. Our family tree is peppered with people of various religions, no religion, many colors, many nationalities, many languages, differing sexual orientations, married, single, partners, divorcees, traditional families, nontraditional families, cohesive families, and families torn apart. Veterans and draft dodgers. There are the strong, the weak, the infirm, the amazing, and some that were much less than amazing. But every single, solitary one is in our family tree and has the same importance as any other. Every one, no matter what, are ‘family’!
So it is, at least in my mind, that we, as genealogists and family historians, are in the exceptional position of understanding differences, of accepting folks with all their differences, and of seeing how an inclusive group can be made up of diverse and different members, yet be unified, accepting, and understanding of everyone’s unique attributes.
We in the genealogy and family history community should be in the forefront of promoting acceptance and fighting for the end of prejudices of all kinds. After all we know how wonderful a quilt can get formed from squares of unique patterns!