Wednesday, May 4, 2011

A Jeremiad For May (and Maybe a Cautionary Tale...?)

The Prophet Jeremiah Tells It Like It Is...

One of my perennially recurring jeremiads* (see below)  has been that while most genealogists might be forward-thinking and also be early adapters when it comes to their own shiny playtoys (oh look, a new technology toy! Gee, is there a genealogy app for that?) when it comes to other things genealogical, the future is just that …the faraway distant future and nothing for them to be especially concerned about.

After all, not too many of us plan to be doing much research in May of 2111, so why worry, right?  After all, that can be someone else’s responsibility. 

In other words, insuring that all that neat old stuff gets digitized, indexed and made available RIGHT NOW AND FOR FREE is a “big deal” for today’s researchers.  Insuring that the genealogists and family historians who will not be born for at least another century or so have equally neat "stuff" from the early 21st century to play around in – well, not so much.

Here’s the issue: for the most part, the folks who do genealogy today are the “Us” folks, not the “Them” folks.  Every society has people that get classed as “US” or “THEM.”  

The “Them” folks are never, it seems, like “Us.”  The “Us” folks are concerned (and rightly so) with their own ancestors’ Civil War pension files, their parents’ or grandparents’ 1940 census records (that will be available next April) and those neat old newspapers that record the comings and goings of their early 20th century ancestors.  

 For people who “do” genealogy, it’s all about their own ancestors’ stuff.

The “Them” folks are concerned with learning to speak English well enough to get a steady job making beds in a Holiday Inn and are busy standing out in front of Home Depot in search of under-the-table day labor.  The “Them” folks are concerned with educating their children, not with looking up their great-grandparents. Besides, Cambodia or Cameroon didn’t even have a census a century ago.

Bluntly, “Thems” don’t do genealogy as a hobby. At least not yet.

However, until very recently on the genealogical timeline, a lot of our own ancestors were “Thems” and they didn’t do genealogy either.  They were the folks who did the dirty jobs, cleaned rich people’s houses and did their laundry, were often illiterate in any language and spoke with an accent or wore clothes that made them obviously Not One Of Us.  In fact, no matter how much money they might have amassed through hard work, there were still clubs, hotels, houses and restaurants that were “off-limits” to them. They were “different.”

More importantly, the evidence of their culture – especially their printed culture – was not considered “important enough” to preserve, at least not by those 19th century “Us” institutions that did that sort of thing for the “Us” culture.  For example, try finding long runs of the non-English language newspapers that were printed in the United States at the end of the 19th century.  While they exist, they’re very hard to locate and represent only a small sample of what was at one time available. These, of course, are the very newspapers that documented the daily lives of the “Thems” – who, at least in their own language and culture and neighborhood – were the “Us” folks.

So, look around.  

How many institutions are actively preserving the newspapers that are being published in Gujarati, in Hindi, in Korean, in Chinese or in Hmong?  What genealogical institution, group or club is looking around, seeing people in their own community who don’t look or talk like them and saying institutionally, “You know, maybe we should be doing something to help preserve the history of the local _________ community here.  Maybe we could do an oral history project of those who were first to arrive.  Maybe we should archive, microfilm and digitize their newspapers, even though we can’t read them ourselves.  Maybe we should reach out and encourage archival programs so that there will be stuff of value a hundred years from now documenting this culture.  You know, documenting the patterns of chain migration and all that.”

Frankly, we have the technology.  Frankly, the need is there.  And frankly, it takes more motivation than money, and more creativity than cash. But mostly, it’s not being done, at least not by folks in the genealogical community.

Why not?  Possibly, it’s because those “other, different” people are, well…, still “thems”, and right now many of “us” can’t conceive of “thems” ever becoming connected to one of “us”, any more than they 19th century tycoons on Park Avenue or Beacon Hill could ever in their wildest dreams conceive of one of their descendants actually MARRYING the descendants of their chambermaids and coachmen.

Of course, a look at the boardrooms of today’s business, educational and philanthropic institutions underscores the fact that strange things do in fact happen all the time. Cultures blend over time. And, in the not too distant future, there will be folks doing genealogy with culturally-hybrid names like Brendan Kim-Patel or Bridget Musisi-Garcia looking for the evidence of their immigrant ancestors’ culture from 2020. 

I wonder what they’ll find?  Are we helping?

* Jeremiad (n.) – a bitter lamentation or prophecy of doom. A mournful complaint.  Derives from the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah who did not routinely spread happy thoughts.

No comments:

Post a Comment