Back in the day, we had old-style elitism. The earlier your ancestors came to the US, the “better” you were. “My ancestors came over on the Mayflower.” “I’m descended from soldiers in the American Revolution.” Etc. Those attitudes themselves are very tied up with beliefs in aristocracy and breeding—“blood will tell”—and are kin to the tragic and problematic early modern transition from seeing skin color as a mark of culture, to seeing skin color as a mark of permanent, inherited, biological characteristics. I’m pretty fundamentally uncomfortable with that paradigm.

Contemporary interest in family trees and genealogy, in my opinion, is not a challenge to that paradigm, but simply an outgrowth of it. Opening up the tracking of family trees to everyone—so that anyone can have “breeding” and a long family history—doesn’t combat the fundamentally problematic notion that “blood will tell.” I’ve run into a few people who have done their family history, and the way they talk about the people, characters, or stories that they’ve found suggests to me that they still buy right into these ideas of inherited characteristics passed down along the generations.

Re-inventing this paradigm for the twenty-first century—by using DNA testing to purportedly overcome the difficulties of tracking ancestors through the middle passage—still doesn’t change the essential paradigm. Technology, I think, fetishizes the basic family tree even more, because it makes the essential elements of a family tree—census, parish, immigration records, etc—more easily available.

I see a valued and respected role for researching the history of members of your family. But I fear that most people doing what’s called “family history” are just doing genealogy.

Triggered by discussion on an earlier post, backstory in those comments—that post was a jumble of my prejudices against genealogy and against heritage tourism (which I’m pondering for a future post).

[post edited in first hour of existence]