How accurate is your family history? Do the facts support the stories? How can you be sure?
Most people who pursue their family history draw conclusions and form opinions based on the facts they discover. But history is more complex than that. Undiscovered (or ignored) facts may be even more important than those we acknowledge.
A weekend story in the Cincinnati Enquirer reminds us of how history can be molded around a selective set of facts.
The story written by talk show host and author Tavis Smiley previewed an exhibition that Smiley is bringing to Cincinnati, “America I AM: The African American Imprint.” Smiley describes it as “the largest comprehensive representation of the economic, socio-political, cultural and spiritual contributions made by African-Americans to this nation over 500 years ago.”
Among the items on display, Smiley wrote, are costumes worn by musicians Michael Jackson and Jimi Hendrix and “the original typewriter Alex Haley used to write his world-renowned historical novel ‘Roots’.”
At least one reader took issue with the importance of the exhibit with this comment: “What a ‘life-stirring’ experience awaits me! The typewriter that Alex Haley used to fantasized (sic) Roots and pass it off as real history. Paraphernalia from drug addicts like Jimmie (sic) Hendrix and Michael Jackson.”
That comment obviously reflects an alternate point of view of the three people mentioned based on a separate set of facts. I think, too, that it shows what a slippery slope it is to use “facts” of popular culture to form opinions. Much of what we know about public figures is, at best, filtered through proponents and opponents and, at worst, is pure fiction.
Nevertheless, it’s what most of us do – taking what we think we know and placing it in some sort of context that suits our own purposes. Most of us are capable of doing better. We could be more skeptical, asking ourselves where does this come from and what does it really mean? It’s something good reporters do all the time – a quest for contrary information. Do ALL the facts (or at least as many as you can find) support your conclusions?
In a family history project we’re usually so grateful to uncover any verifiable information about a family member that we pause to reflect on our good fortune instead of pressing on to learn even more. We should work hard to change that.
Writing prompt for the day: Identify something or someone in your family history that you’d like to learn more about and start digging for additional information that will help you form a more accurate and detailed conclusion.
Larry Lehmer is a professional personal historian and chief legacy planner at When Words Matter, Ltd., who connects generations through their stories. To learn more, visit his web site, send him an e-mail or follow him on Twitter.