(I would like to preface this piece by acknowledging that there is a large amount of privilege in one knowing anything substantial about their ancestors or family tree past a few generations. This is something that mostly white Europeans have access to while other groups of Americans have considerably less. I cannot speak to the pain or difficulties of not being able to trace your family line very far, nor do I feel equipped to make helpful suggestions, except this one: your ancestors live in you. You are an embodiment of all they could have ever hoped for. If you’re the spiritual sort, it’s worth remembering this and that all their knowledge is still accessible to you.)
“To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child. For what is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors…?” Marcus Tullius Cicero
I recently did some genealogy research for my husband. It was really exciting to uncover a large chunk of his family history, even if it was largely unsurprising. French-Canadian and First Nation, then French, French, French, French, as far as the eye can see, until you briefly hit Britain for a few generations, and then you back in France again. Once I hit ancient Rome and Joseph of Arimathea I started to become a bit suspicious, but by and large, it seemed accurate. One look at my husband and you can see the deep seeded Gallic influence.
When I came to him with my finds (“You’re a direct ancestor of Charlemagne!”) I was taken aback by his blasé reaction.
“Oh? Huh. Cool.”
As someone who has lamented the difficulty in tracing her family farther back than the 1700s (which I realize is still impressive and a privilege), this underwhelming reaction was confusing.
“But this is amazing,” I pushed. “Think of all that history. All the amazing people who contributed to making you.”
Perhaps this is the moment I finally realized my husband’s human psychology philosophy is much more in the nurture side of things than nature, because he replied, “But Kirsten, they’re dead. I never knew them. They don’t have anything to do with me.”
Flummoxed, I left the room to go find our two older children who were very excited to learn they were basically French royalty.
I wasn’t sure how to respond to my husband at that moment. All I had was this inexplicable feeling of, “NO. These are people you need to know!” But I didn’t have the words to fully explain what I wanted him to understand, but I think I do now.
American culture is not one that recognizes the significance of our ancestors. Here we are about rugged individualism. We rise above the follies of our past. Who your family is or was makes no difference. Anyone can be anything. And in many ways, that’s incredible. There have been times and places when who your family was and where they came from made a tremendous difference. Of course, that can often still be the case, especially for people of color, but the pervasive myth in America is that your family and it’s past shouldn’t have any bearing on where you want to get. All that’s on you and your abilities.
Of course, that’s all bullshit, and in the rare case it is true, it’s pretty much just true for white folks.
Saying we get to where we are completely on our own merit (or lack thereof) is like saying a wealthy person got where they are entirely from their own hard work. The truth of the matter is, a millionaire doesn’t become one just because he worked harder than the guy pulling in $45k. The millionaire had a team of people, sometimes entire industries and governments, working in his favor.
Our ancestors are our teams. Whether they realized it or not, the actions they took in their life started the path forward for our existence. Of course if our great-grandparents hadn’t gotten together and had children we wouldn’t be here, but it’s not just biology. It might be something as substantial as the spark of generational wealth. A small successful business two hundred years ago has since blossomed into generations of financial ease with money. Perhaps is a work ethic that began as making a life-sustaining farm out of a chunk of vast forest. Perhaps, it’s something as small the will a drive to to survive, as it was for much of my family, to hope for something better, even if you might not see it yourself.
We do not make ourselves, just as our parents did not make themselves. We are the sum of all the people who have gone before us. The choices they made, the hopes they had, and the risks they took — these are what made us. To think for a second that our ancestors have nothing to do with us because they are gone, because we may have never met them, well, that’s as foolish as thinking your ability to drive to work each day has nothing to do with the feet that first traversed the deer path that is now your road.
If you are like my husband and haven’t found a particular interest or drive to know who came before you, I gently ask for you to reconsider. Just as we encourage children (and adults, honestly) to study history so we might learn from it, I encourage us all to learn from the members of our family who came before us. For better or worse, they have a great deal of knowledge to give.
Tips for connecting with your ancestors — the practical and spiritual:
- Talk to your family! Ask them to tell their favorite stories about relatives gone by. Have them repeat the old family legends — it doesn’t matter if you’re sure they’re not completely true. It’s the big ideas in the threads of these stories that matter most. See who remembers what and then write it all down.
- Say your ancestors’ names and look at their pictures. If you come from an Eastern culture or celebrate holidays such as Dia de los Muertos, this idea may not be so strange, but for many Americans it may feel odd. There is a reason, however, that so many other cultures find value in looking at and naming their lost loved ones. There is value in remembering. Think of how seen you feel when someone says your name, especially if it’s someone who you didn’t realize knew it. Saying the names of the dead makes them just a little bit more present in our lives, even if they have been gone for generations.
- Work with a genealogy service to create a family tree. Ancestry.com is a comprehensive service with a range of subscription prices and also has an associated genetic test to help you get a full picture of where you come from. FamilySearch.org is a free service which has access to many of the same databases as Ancestry, but is still somewhat limited, especially if you don’t have a lot of information to begin with, however, it’s a great place to start.
- Research where your family name came from and/or what countries your family immigrated from. Perhaps there aren’t a lot of specifics to be known in regards to your ancestors names and stories, but gaining an understanding of the country (or countries) from where they first came can begin to build an important connection to your people.
- Learn about what cultural traditions that may have been lost through your family’s “Americanization” or whitewashing. Whether it was loss of language, religion, food, hairstyles and traditional dress, descendants of immigrants, folks who were enslaved, and indigenous people alike have all been asked to give up their culture and homogenize at some point, though certainly some far more violently than others. Build closeness with your ancestors by reclaiming some of what they lost.
- Pray to or for your ancestors. Light a candle in their honor and speak to them. Ask for their blessings. Give them thanks for all they did. Reflect on what you know of their lives — both triumphs and struggles.
- If you’re white, or have ancestors who were white: acknowledge their privilege as well as your own. Acknowledge the harmful behaviors, actions, and/or systems they have participated in. Take time to heal the wounds of white supremacy, both for yourself and your family, and for the people of color who were and are harmed. Acknowledging harm done is a good first step towards breaking a harmful cycle.
- If you have ancestors who were part of an oppressed group: acknowledge the harm and generational trauma that is a product of this oppression. Take the time to heal the wounds that have been created and acknowledge that these wounds deserve to be healed.