Friday, May 14, 2010

Family History is Immigrant History

We are a country of immigrants. The only difference between “New Americans” and “Old Americans” is time. Even descendants of the indigenous native North American population would probably find their ancestors came from somewhere else, if only the records went back far enough. Putting aside for the moment the question of who is legally and not legally here, we are all Americans.

For this reason, I was disappointed with Sarah Jessica Parker’s reaction near the end of her “Who Do You Think You Are” episode on NBC-TV this spring. When the WDYTYA folks led her back to her early American ancestors, she said something to the effect of, “I so glad to find out I’m really American.” Well, of course, she’s American! And, so are millions of more recent immigrants.

I am interested in genealogy and family history in part because it helps me understand how I came to be part of the American fabric. My most recent immigrant ancestor came from Sweden more than 100 years ago. My earliest immigrant ancestor came in 1834. I can not claim ties to New England Yankees or colonial Virginia, but my people have been here long enough that I have no first-hand experience with what it meant to be an immigrant immersed in a foreign culture and language.

Because we are aware of our roots, I would expect that most genealogists are less xenophobic that the population at large. If you haven’t thought much about the immigrant experience recently, you might want to pick up one of three books that I have recently read.

In The Late Homecomer (Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2008), Hmong immigrant Kao Kalia Yang shares the experiences and emotions of a Hmong family uprooted in the jungles of Laos, warehoused in a Thai refugee camp, and transplanted in St. Paul, Minnesota. The Hmong are among the newest Americans, and have faced adjustments almost beyond the comprehension of we “old Americans.”

Ayaan Hirsi Ali reminds us that Europe is also an immigrant community. Infidel (New York: Free Press, 2007) recounts her life amidst the antagonisms of Islam, Christianity and a secular West. From a childhood in Somalia, fate takes Ali to Saudi Arabia, Kenya and eventually to the Netherlands, where she was elected to Parliament.

M. G. Vasanji takes us even farther afield in The In-betweenWorld of Vikram Lall (New York: Vintage Books, 2004). This book is enjoyable fiction, but it opens a window on the immigrant experience of an Asian Hindu living in a African nation during and after the British colonial era. Immigration is a global phenomenon.

These books won’t help you do genealogy, but they will help you appreciate family history. Happy reading.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Nova, Smolenyak and WDYTYA

Nova Southeastern University, Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak and the Producers of the TV series "Who Do You Think You Are" have all gotten something right: they have welcomed beginners into the family history-genealogy world.

One of my favorite public radio features, Composers' Notebook, ends each show with the reminder that "all music was once new." And, I might add, the composers were all once beginners. Although beautiful music seemed to pour forth effortlessy from Mozartian prodigies, the vast majority of composers had to learn their craft, progressing from the basics to the sublime.

Some of us started at an early age and many of us started later in life, but we genealogists all also had to start as beginners, learn about out subject matter and develop our craft. This is why I am so excited about Nova Southeastern University's 3rd Annual Genealogy Fair, where I spoke this April. Nova is a non-traditional private university in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, just north of Miami. One thing makes its Genealogy Fair unusual: it is free. Nova's Alvin ShermanLibrary strives to be a resource to the broader Broward County community. The library has a fine genealogy collection and an energetic outreach librarian in Kim Garvey. The library and the university see their free Genealogy Fair as a natural vehicle for community outreach.

The Nova Genealogy Fair is more than an open house with exhibits and vendor tables. Nova brings in top-notch genealogy educators for the day. I shared the program this year with Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak. Most genealogy conferences and workshops are sponsored by local or state genealogical societies. They put on high quality programs, but most have to charge a significant registration fee to cover costs of putting on the program. The people most willing to pay $25 or $35 for a day of classes are commonly people who have been into family history for a while. These local and state society programs often have difficulty attracting beginners, who aren't quite sure they are ready to put money into this family history thing.

When I asked for a show of hands, something approaching half of the attendees at Nova's Genealogy Fair had been doing family history research less than two years. Many were recent beginners (I'd rather call them beginners, or perhaps learners, than "newbies").

The price (free) probably had something to do with bringing in the beginners. Good publicity, including co-sponsorship from the Miami Herald, also probably helped. But, many of the beginners said they had gotten interested because of the NBC show Who Do You Think You Are. Some genealogists have grumbled that WDYTYA puts entertainment ahead of education, making family history research look a little too easy. But, do we really want them to make it look so hard that people get discouraged?

Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak, the Chief Genealogical Consultant for WDYTYA, has written a companion book: Who do You Think You Are: The Essential Guide to Tracing Your Family History. In my mind, writing a book for beginners, or people who haven't even yet begun, is more difficult than writing for more experienced readers. Megan is a superb communicator, and her book communicates something very important for beginners: family history is possible. In an easy-going and welcoming style, she welcomes newcomers to family history and genealogy.

I applaud Nova Southeastern University and Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak for their approach. It is a good thing to encourage people to give genealogy a try. Their encouragement gives us (genealogical societies and professional genealogists) an opportunity to teach. Some of these newcomers will be tomorrow's experts, and then be poised to help a whole new crop of beginners get started. Pass it on.

Monday, April 5, 2010

The GEO in GenEalOgy

More than once, I have accidentally typed "geography" when I meant to type "genealogy." Perhaps, this happens because I once was a graduate student in geography. Or, perhaps it is because genealogy and geography are so inter-connected in my mind.

One of my favorite lectures is entitled "The GEO in GenEalOgy." In this talk, I try to get people excited about the geographical aspects of family history research.

Genealogists often have a fascination for history. Studying our family history brings "real history" to life. Historical events were the backdrop of our ancestors' lives. Geography gives similar context to our ancestors' lives. If historical events are the backdrop, the land is the stage on which our ancestors lived. Our ancestors lived in both time and space. And, our ancestors didn't stand still. They moved around from place to place, leaving tracks wherever they went.

Why did our ancestors live where they lived? How did they get there? Why did they stop where they did. How did the natural environment influence their lives? Mountains and waterways channeled migration. Soil made farmers rich or poor. Climate made life comfortable or near to impossible. By learning about these things, we begin to better understand our ancestors' lives. Without modern climate control, high-tech water supply and water control technologies, or high-speed transportation, their lives were more influenced by the natural world than are ours (or so we think).

So, take the time to study maps and get to know the geography of your ancestors' lives. It will add a whole new dimension to your genealogical research.

(c) J. H. Fonkert, 2010.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

You don't have to be a Celebrity

PBS (Faces of America) and NBC (Who Do You Think You Are) have done their part to make celebrities like Yo-Yo Ma, Emmit Smith, Meryl Streep and Lisa Kudrow look like ordinary people, emotionally moved as they learn about their ancestors.

Most of us aren't famous, but we have something in common with those celebrities: we also have ancestors. It's how we got here.

If you're new to genealogy and have just stumbled onto this blog, you might say something like "genealogists, geologists... what's the difference? They've both got rocks in their heads." Fair enough, but I actually think both rocks and ancestors are pretty interesting. As we chisel away at our family history, we learn a lot about our cultural heritage, the places our ancestors lived, and the times in which they lived.

When the original Who Do You Think You Are? program ran on British TV, millions flocked to genealogy. Many of us are hoping the same thing happens here. But, we are wary. The TV shows can make genealogy look both glamorous and easy, but we need to keep in mind that the networks and their sponsors had deep pockets to hire professional researchers to dig in courthouses, libraries and archives.

Genealogy is not quite that easy, but beginners need not despair. Much help is close at-hand. A little searching will turn up books, websites, podcasts and various other sources of help. I can't begin to list them all, but for beginners, I especially recommend guides at the, as well as Christine Rose's The Complete Idiot's Guide to Genealogy. The Minnesota Genealogical Society uses Rose's book for its beginning genealogy course.

Above all, I want to pitch the benefits of joining a local or state genealogy organizaton such as MGS. Genealogical societies offer libraries, classes, newsletters and journals. But, the best reason to join a genealogy organization is the opportunity it affords for meeting other people who share your interest in genealogy and family history. They are the best teachers because they have passion. And, they are typically pretty interesting people, to boot.

So, when you're talking about Who Do You Think You Are? over the office water-cooler, suggest that your friends join a local or state genealogical society. They'll get good help, and you'll be helping support a network of people who make the genealogical world go round.