Genealogy is tricky. First, you connect names to your name. Then you connect those names to the people who came before them. Then -- well, that's when it gets really tricky. How many of our ancestors left home back East, down South, or in the Old Country to escape bad debts, family feuds, or love affairs gone wrong? We remember the laudable relations, the ones who came to pursue democratic ideals or religious freedom. But in genealogy, all the names emerge to be recalled. The more illustrious family members may be better documented -- they've left a paper trail of deeds, newspaper clippings, and respectful obituaries. But in the end it's the darker characters' stories that usually receive most of the attention.
Every extended family holds within it the full scope of human experience, and genealogy can give us the whole picture, the picturesque, prodigal, or prosaic lives of our ancestors, captured through the schematics of genealogical charts.
Genealogy was once the exclusive province of those of the upper classes in search of proof (or something that looked like proof) to fortify their claims of rank, property, or status. In fact, one of the early English definitions of nobleman was "he knows his pedigree."
Keeping track of one's ancestors began as far back as 1,000 B.C. in china, where entire halls were designated to house family trees. Much later, Hindu royalty of the 16th century kept a bhat on hand to chant the ruler's pedigree, which always managed to move back in time to find its own source in the sun, the moon, or a god. Griots of western Africa were -- and in some places still are -- similar sources of pedigree information, as well as being counselors and storytellers. In Iceland, the sagas and eddas of families going back more than a 1,000 years are still kept on file in national archives, much as oral histories are now preserved here: Family history equals the history of nations. In Christian tradition, the Gospel of Matthew links Jesus back to King David. The Bible itself contains some of the most genealogically complex tables ever written.
Where genealogy took note of the common folk, it was not to stake a claim but to serve the practical purpose of making clear who was or was not too closely linked to be marriageable. It wasn't until Alex Haley's Roots was published in 1977 that America's interest in genealogy went beyond that of bluebloods hoping to document their upper-crust lineage.
All genealogical associations will agree that Roots changed everything. For the first time it occurred to the "common folk," Black and white, that their past really mattered; that their families' lives were part of history. When our forebears moved, history moved with them.
Continued on page 2: Uniting Generations