The Genealogy Gospel: Why We All Want to Know Our Family Tree
Regardless of their fame or fortune, no matter how many books or albums they've sold or level of influence they've achieved, never once had it occurred to me to be jealous of Reba McEntire or Rick Warren.
Yet there I sat, watching country singer McEntire on NBC'S Who Do You Think You Are? (Fridays, 8pm EST) and Pastor Warren on PBS's Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates (Sundays, 8pm EST), feeling the envy rise as they lived my dream—the dream of digging deep into family history.
if I had the spare change or moments, I'd sign up for Ancestry.com and whittle away the hours searching out my family tree. I'd travel to the American South like McEntire did, trying to piece together why my Danish great-grandfather moved his Swedish wife and young daughters out of Chicago, dragged them down to Alabama, and then disappeared. I'd head out West to Washington State to see if I could discern why my great-grandmother became a preacher—a Christian Scientist preacher. And then I'd explore the other side, heading back to Sweden, stopping only in Stockholm long enough to pick up my cousins so we could explore the island our grandmothers were raised on. The one that boasts royal summer residences and yet was the one on which my 10-year-old grandmother was sold to a neighboring farm. The one she fled from at age 16 to come to the United States. Alone.
I used to think it was the writer in me that wanted to know what happened there, so I could tell these stories, try to cull meaning from the bits of generation hurts and mysteries. But now I know differently: The longing to understand from whom and from whence we come is more than an artist's dream.
In an episode of Finding Your Roots—which premiered on PBS last month and runs till May 20—Brown University president Ruth Simmons described her "longing to know where you came from." A descendent of slaves, Simmons lamented having lived her life, until the show, without knowing that. Similarly, when a high-school student learned which African tribe her ancestors came from, she felt a "connection" to these people she had never met and who lived in a place she'd never been.
That's the power of knowing our roots. But it's a power we tend to downplay—especially in the United States. In this immigrant land, one of fresh starts and reinvention and independence, it's perhaps more difficult to admit we are who we are because of who came before.
This seems never truer than now—as we continue to become less rooted, more nomadic, as jobs transfer and families divide. And yet, as this happens, we discover that the places we currently live have less to say about who we are than the places we used to live. And that the people we live with may not say as much about us than the people we live without. As we realize more and more that not one of us is "self-made," but that we are all made from whom and from where we come. It's what we do with who and what we are that's up to us.