Friday, April 1, 2011

Doing Your Own Stuff

Yesterday’s mail brought my author’s copies of new issue of the “New York Archives” quarterly magazine.  This issue’s “Genealogy” article ( by yours truly, the official “genealogy” columnist for said periodical) is a two-page spread across page 34 – 35 titled “Keepers of the Family Stuff” in which I discuss some of the steps genealogists need to take to keep and maintain a family archive collection for future generations.

Since I like to use extreme comparisons, I used the Rockefeller family archives at the Rockefeller Archive Center in Tarrytown, which is housed in a mansion on 24 acres, holds 35,000 cubic feet of Rockefeller family “stuff” - much of it relating to Rockefeller philanthropic activities -  and has a dedicated staff of professional archivists, as my “extreme” family archives example.

I figured it was as lot like your own family archival collection …

Seriously, chances are, your stuff pales in comparison to the Rockefellers; I know mine does.  Still there’s no reason it deserves any less attention.

But, other than to announce the issue (and, of course, my latest article) and to tell you (once again) that the magazine is sent ABSOLUTELY FREE to all members of the New York State Archives Partnership Trust, (whose membership info is available here), the point of this blog post is to draw your attention to one of the other articles in the issue.

Dr. Lorrin Thomas, who teaches Latin American and Latino history at Rutgers, has written a fascinating article called “Upholding the Color Line”, dealing with the descriptions of Puerto Ricans’ complexions on their 1930s era applications for ID cards from the Puerto Rico Department of Labor’s Office of Employment.  These ID card applications, which will certainly be the grist for genealogists’ mills in years to come, contain (a.)  a photograph and (b.) basic identifying info such as name, birthdate, address, height and weight.

The article addresses how the description of many cardholder’s skin color was changed from “Blanca” or some other light-skinned label to something much darker, thus putting Puerto Rican émigrés to New York on the “non-white” side of the simplistic white/black color line found in New York and other states during the 1930s. 

As Thomas observes, these racial descriptions resulted in “debased” social status for Puerto Rican migrants, noting that “... the privileges of citizenship were closely guarded and not readily available to the poor or the 'foreign.'"

Of interest to genealogists is the fact that the Migration Division collection at the Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños archives of Hunter College has  ID cards for many Puerto Rican émigrés to New York in the 1930s and 1940s. According to the Center's website, more than 47,000 were issued.

Here’s the point of all this:  genealogists tend to be concerned only with the very specific past that their own personal set of ancestors lived in.  Until very recently (think mid to late 20th century), anyone else who didn’t belong to the “in” group could go pound sand.  Bluntly, very few genealogical societies did anything of value during the late 19th or early 20th century to preserve the records or cultural identity of groups like the Irish, Eastern Europeans or Italians, just to name a few.  All the stuff that’s been done in that area is relatively recent – mostly in my own lifetime.

Not surprisingly, there’s not much of an effort on the part of “mainstream” genealogy groups to do much to preserve the early 21st century cultural heritage of Koreans, Southeast Asians, Indians and Pakistanis or other similar “recently-arrived” immigrant groups.

Because they are not “us” yet, but rather still “them”, these folks tend to be shuffled off to the far back of the genealogy bus.  Still, genealogists – of all people - should know from their own research experience, that, over time, these very same groups will almost certainly intermarry with the mainstream “us” populations, resulting in lots of people with a combined Thai-Italian, Nigerian-German or Pakistani-Irish heritage, just to name a few of the possible ethnic combinations.

I have no doubt whatsoever that in fifty years there will be researchers named Siobhan Kim, Olatunji O’Reilly and Mario Patel wondering why nobody cared to save, microfilm and digitize the newspapers published by the Korean, African and Indian communities – just to underscore a few obvious examples.

So, if you watched  WDDYTYA tonight, keep in mind the ethnic background of the “star” and consider when such a combination came to be considered “acceptable” in general society.  Suffice it to say that even in "enlightened" post WWI New York, an upper middle class Christian woman with a colonial Yankee ancestry who married a physician of eastern European Jewish descent would be denied entrance to any number of hotels and clubs based upon her husband's ethnicity.

Genealogy isn’t just about doing your own “stuff” and preserving the “old stuff” from the past (just so that you can do your own stuff.) 

It’s also about making sure that people in the future will be able to do their stuff, too.  Maybe some of the "deep pocket - big name" corporate/societal genealogical entities should get cracking on this!

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