Why You Should Dig Up Your Family’s History — and How to Do ItRoundup
tags: family history, American identity
Jaya Saxena is a freelance writer and co-founder of. Uncommon Courtesy. Her work has appeared at The Toast, The Hairpin, The Daily Dot and elsewhere.
My middle name is the name of a Confederate soldier.
Before that it was Scottish, the name of an indentured servant who came here when America wasn’t a country, when he was just one of many who were brought over. The name stayed on the Atlantic coast, passing through my Confederate ancestors, onto my loving grandmother who taught me how to birdwatch, finally landing on me, a mixed-race woman with a Jewish partner living in New York City. Somehow I don’t think that soldier would be too happy about that.
In America, the question of “Where am I from?” usually means, “Where did my family live before they arrived/were forcibly shipped to America?” Recently, there’s been a push to answer that question through DNA tests — Ancestry.com sold 1.5 million kits on Black Friday in 2017 — which claim they can tell us exactly what percentage Norwegian or Nigerian we are. But there are catches. The tests can compromise our privacy, with the possibility that our genetic information would be sold to third parties without our knowledge, and they don’t truly reveal our origins so much as reveal who has similar DNA right now. Also, and perhaps more important: Culture does not come from DNA. It comes from lived experience, traditions and stories passed down, from actual people who shape our perceptions of the world.
This is why I’ve enjoyed learning about my family through good old-fashioned genealogy research. Scrolling through pages of old newspapers or deciphering handwriting on a census is how I found out I’m descended, on my white side, both from Union and Confederate soldiers, from slave-owners and abolitionists, and possibly from witches (I’m still trying to verify that one). And it was in doing this I learned that, on my Indian side, Yeats wrote a very patronizing poeminspired by my third great-uncle.
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