Monday, May 24, 2010

Teeter Tottering through Genealogy

I've been thinking about labels and about how we choose to identify ourselves.  I read a mesmerizing series in the LA Times by Mike Mozingo about racial and family identity.  Luckie Daniels prods me to examine my own attitudes about almost everything, but especially about self identity at Our Georgia Roots.  My own research has come up against a racial divide with significant evidence of mixed race ancestry provoking disturbing responses from other researchers.  And Martin Hollick sparked more thought with his post The Pandora's Box of Genealogy.  What do we do with information that troubles or disturbs other members of our family?  Do we become keepers of secrets as well as of records?

How we define ourselves changes with each generation.  In my family, ethnicity has been a complex issue. My father's family came from an area where borders and rulers changed so frequently during the 20th century that it seems tidal.  Political turmoil dictated that family ties were interrupted for decades, languages and the role of the church were forcibly changed.   Meanwhile, first and second generation Americans and Canadians defined an ethnicity as Carpatho-Rusyn that had been referred to as Lemko, Ruthenian, Rusnak or Rusin by earlier generations.  Discussions of the ethnicity can become heated.  Are my cousins today in Slovakia or the Ukraine Carpatho-Rusyn?  Many here say yes.  Many of them said no.  And it seems to me they have the right to say just that.  Their lives were transformed by the fall of the Soviet Union and are being redefined by their developing nations and nationalities.  If they chose to focus on that and not on their grandparents and great-grandparents lives, so be it.  Their own children and grandchildren may feel differently.  But surely they have the right to define themselves.  

Can adoptees choose which family they belong genealogically?  I think so.  Genealogy is far more than genetics.  Not all adoptees long for information about their families of origin.  One adoptee I know has a pat but pointed response to those questioning why he doesn't seek out his biological parents, "Why look for trouble?  Healthy families don't give their children away."  Harsh, perhaps, but heartfelt.  Is he hiding his adoption?  Not at all.  It's out there for all the world to see.  Would I look?  Absolutely, but it's not my life.  

How do we research people or issues that cause pain to the living?  I may be darkly fascinated by the raging alcoholics littering our family trees but not everyone is.  For some the stories are reminders of their own lives and not something they want to reflect on or share.  And they shouldn't have to.  Do I record the stories?  Yes, and I share them with anyone who expresses interest.  Do I publish them?  No.

Recent DNA testing has provided some unexpected results and I am torn as to how to proceed.  As a woman, none of the tests are mine.  I am dependent on others.  One result in a family I am researching has a haplogroup B which is clearly African, something that supports several 19th c. census listings of mulatto.  Rather than provoking discussion or interest, the topic has simply disappeared.  I haven't forced the issue, and maybe everyone else is doing the same, but I wonder how far should one push others to examine topics they may not want to examine?  Another test for surname group showed no matches to that surname, but several matches to another surname.  The cousin tested has stopped responding to my emails.  I want to explain that it's great information, that it could indicate a name change, an adoption just as easily as an illegitimate or adulterous birth.  Whatever happened may have been generations ago.  But it could have happened very recently.  He's not interested in pursuing any further testing.  And, reluctantly, I think I have to move away from this project.   

In all cases I am recording the information.  But at this point I am not sharing it unless it is clear the person is ready to hear what I have to share.  It's a balancing act, weighing respect for the living with my research into the past - and I don't always feel well-balanced.


  1. I would have your reaction and be fascinated by the results as well as proud. But that might not be the reaction of my relatives. The Carpatho-Rusyn thing is interesting, too; people at our church give all sorts of responses to the question. Have you ever read Sister Joan Roccasalvo's study? She also got some interesting responses.

  2. I have not, Greta. I've seen her work on the Plainchant referenced, but not a study. Can you point me the right direction? I'd like to read it.

  3. Well, now I am feeling like a crazy woman, because the only one we have here at home is the plainchant one, and I cannot find any mention of the other online, but my husband backs me up - he was also sure that there was such a book (I believe I have seen it quoted elsewhere). I'll have to ask our priest-scholar friend next time we meet up with him.

  4. I'll keep my eyes open, too. I'm sure between us we'll find it. Thanks.

  5. Gotta admit! Your comments brought an immediate smile to my face!

    You see I struggle with the very same questions & issues I pose to the broader community. I'm just not selfless enough to stew on them alone, so I toss them out to you, my genea-family!:-)

    And yes, we do -- to some degree -- become the keeper of secrets too. Or at least, I have. There are stories I've chosen not to tell. However, I am also a firm believer in knocking the wind out of a secret by setting it free!

    The difference for me in respect to the color line is that African-American researchers have no other access to certain aspects of our lineage without the willingness of the descendant who owned our Ancestor.

    That said, if a descendant decides not to share information related to mixed race, you've protected your family history by preventing my ability to ever truly know mine.

    For me, my work is as much about righting historical wrongs as it is family preservation.

    When the line is drawn, I want to be on the side that stood for what's right and that is colorless.

    Thank you for making me think this AM!:-)


  6. WoW! The Mike Mozingo story is mesmerizing indeed! How'd I miss this one?! LOL


  7. Good post. I have been fascinated with the information that has been coming out of the DNA testing, and many years ago, found a challenge with a family that I found that the person they thought was the parent wasn't. Didn't stop them, they chose to follow the line they wanted. That is okay, a friend of mine once said, I chose to align myself with those I like.
    I just like truth.

  8. Delighted I brought a smile to your face, Luckie. I owe you a few more. I'm not sure you know how seminal reading Sandra Taliaferro's and your posts were in my decision to start publishing some of my research here and on

    And I agree with you and hummer regarding the need to get the information out there. Fortunately, the DNA tests have been published and the census records are public. It's the dialog that has vanished. I'm mulling over how to start it up again.


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