The Hard Part of Family History

I have to admit: I’ve been struggling with my family history lately.

I find my pioneer ancestors absolutely fascinating. I love learning about the hardy women in my family tree who raised their children in covered wagons and log cabins. I’m writing a book about field trips to take in Indiana to learn more about pioneer history, but this has raised some issues for me, and I can’t ignore them.

I can’t isolate my ancestors from their historical context. Because the fact remains, these hallowed ancestors of mine were part of very real historical systems that perpetuated racism and oppression. They were a part of the force that drove Indiana’s Native Americans from their land. Many of my ancestors had sold slaves before they moved from a southern state into Indiana.  Many of them, if not most of them, held a white supremacist point of view, in that they may have believed firmly in Manifest Destiny, where America was destined to take over North America to the Pacific Ocean and “tame the land”, causing destruction of lives and nature along the way.

We as adults can wrestle with these issues. We can see, if we’re honest with ourselves, the complexities in which our ancestors lived their lives. They did not live in a vacuum, and sometimes it seems that way when we just pencil their names and dates in our family trees. But they lived within history, amidst everything that was going on around them at the time. Sometimes it seems the hardy pioneer was just that – and it seems the idealized lifestyle. But my ancestors were a very real part of movements of history that were not so ideal. Movements that caused pain, suffering, death. Of course, we ourselves are not to blame for their actions, but we benefit from them. And it would in fact be wrong to ignore the consequences of every action, even the ones that may hurt to admit.

What does that mean for our kids? Our kids are growing up in a world that is shaped by our history – a world where racism and oppression are still very much alive. And because of that, if we are studying family history with our kids, it’s important to study it within every context of the history in which our ancestors lived their lives. In order to start to break today’s systems of oppression, we have to address the systems of oppression of the past. We have to be open and honest with our kids. Does this mean totally disparage our ancestors? No. Simply, it means we look at them as human beings that lived on planet earth. We study their sins as well as their triumphs. Yes, we can be proud of our ancestor who raised eight children in a log cabin, but we also need to remember that her family was involved in more complex movements of history of which the consequences were dire. By studying this part as well as the good parts, we come to a more complete understanding of our ancestors’ lives and times.

We must be honest with ourselves, and with our children in our studies of family history. And only by being completely honest can we begin to gain real understanding, and in doing so, begin to break down the walls of centuries that cause oppression, racism, prejudice, and injustice. Family history is a study of humanity, and it can change the world.