Genealogy The Search For A Personal Past

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The pursuit of these family histories cuts across all social, racial, and religious sectors of the population. The Irish, according to the specialist B-Ann Moorhouse, tend more than other ethnic groups “to have one aim and one aim only—to find the exact place of origin in Ireland.” But due to the vagaries of spelling and pronunciation, and the indifference of immigration authorities in recording names properly, it is a major genealogical accomplishment just to identify the port of disembarkation. Professor Herbert G. Gutman’s scholarly The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750-1925 , has, with Alex Haley’s Roots , gained broad recognition for black genealogy, but successfully tracing an African heritage remains a matter of almost incalculable luck. Jews have been aided by Dan Rottenberg’s Finding Our Fathers: A Guidebook to Jeivish Genealogy , and the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York offers help in tracing the European backgrounds of immigrant Jewish families. All too often the search ends in the memorial volumes that recount the names of those destroyed in the Holocaust.

Many opinions have been put forth to account for America’s growing interest in genealogy—the desire for a restless people to find an anchor; the heightened historical sensibility engendered by the Bicentennial; the fact that many Americans have discovered that working out a genealogy table can be as much fun as solving a crossword puzzle; the growing awareness of ethnic roots that reach back before the American experience; the understandable wish to appear more important than one’s neighbor; and even the author Jane Howard’s mordant theory that it’s all due to our spiraling divorce rate: “If we can’t figure out who our living relatives are, maybe we’ll have more luck with the dead ones.”

I think the reason is simpler and more basic. We are interested in genealogy because to ask who we are and where we belong in the scheme of things is the most natural and elemental of questions. Indeed, the current debate over evolution and creationism is a genealogical debate on the grandest scale. The surprise is not that Americans have discovered an interest in genealogy but that they had lost it for so long. What seemed a European affectation was actually a human need.

We feel as people always do, especially when they are feeling lost and perhaps a little frightened.

We want to go home.

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