What do ancestors say about us?
A Sense of Belonging
Why do people research their personal genealogies? It might be from curiosity – you find out more about our shared history that way. It might be from a sense of obligation, as well. Those people of the past deserve to have their stories told, after all. A third, and very valid reason for keeping track of the ones who've gone before is to engender a sense of belonging in the present generation. It's important to say, 'I came from somewhere, and I'm here because of these humans and their experience.' This 1939 photo illustrates that kind of motivation.
We don't know a lot about the subject of this photo. In June, 1939, a photographer named Russell Lee travelled in Oklahoma, photographing Americans of all races and ethnic backgrounds who were caught up in the misery of the Great Depression, which wasn't over yet. The people whose lives he recorded in Oklahoma were very poor farmers or 'day labourers', hired farm workers. They lived in homes like the one in this picture. But they had things they were proud of, and they showed them to the man from the Farm Security Administration. Things such as the portraits of their ancestors. They'd carried them with them in their wanderings through the Dust Bowl, that massive and devastating ecological disaster that made so many homeless. That's how important those portraits were.
The ancestors in these portraits belonged to an African American day labourer. Notice how they have pride of place in his home. Notice his willingness to share them with a stranger. What does that say about what those pictures meant to him?
Here's another photo Lee took that June. This boy was an American Indian. He lived near Sallisaw, Sequoyah, Oklahoma. He, too, lives in a house with photos: pictures that bear witness to family connections.
What do these pictures tell us about connectedness? About our sense of place in the world? Why do you think the government photographer took these pictures?
During the Great Depression, the US Farm Security Administration sent out photographers and field researchers throughout the rural parts of the nation. They wanted to document living conditions, determine needs, recommend policies and programmes to get the country on its feet again. All laudable work. But at the same time, these writers, photographers, and historians began to document more than a social situation. They collected evidence of ways of life and stories about history. Put together, their documentary evidence constitutes a treasure trove for those of us who weren't there.
One of the things they did was to collect personal stories from older people who had been born into slavery. Think you might like to read some of these? Go to Born in Slavery, the Library of Congress' website, and learn about the experiences of some of these ancestors. Their narratives will amaze you – and put those Hollywood versions into perspective.
So, look on your mantelpiece. What ancestors do you see there? Do they have stories, too? Have you written them down yet? What are you waiting for?