Genealogy and history: love & hate

My hate story

Recently I was talking about the main duties of the student archives technician at the National Archives, and it lead me into a tangent about perceptions of archives and the public’s idea that digitization is some panacea for records management, and an easy fix.

What I didn’t get to are my other duties at work. Besides holdings maintenance projects (the ones that started the tangent on the sheer number of materials we have), I also work in the public areas, assisting the public and researchers, and complete research requests for patrons who are off-site but need help. The first of these assignments takes up half of every workday, as it is the job of the students to assist the public so that the full-time archivists can get down to doing the projects and work they are here to do. Not that their duties don’t also revolve around aiding researchers and the public, but if someone has to sit in the textual research room while a researcher is here and she must not leave the room, well, that limits the amount of other activities that she can complete while essentially on lock-down. In this case, right now, I am in the text room supervising a researcher for the Corps of Engineers, and so I cannot leave the room; it allows for time to write journals reflecting on my duties here, for instance. Sometimes, if the timing is right, we can bring a project into the text room and work on it while we’re trapped in here.

The other room is the research room, and that’s the general public area, the one where you do not need a researcher card to enter, and pretty much anyone who can get past the security guards and metal detectors is allowed in there. It means we are safe from criminals, but we are not safe from idiots and crazy people, and we are especially not safe from… genealogists. I am not the first person to write (no, complain) about genealogists as the annoying part of the duties of a student employee here at the Archives.

Not to sound snooty, but historians have a hierarchy, and genealogists are basically at the bottom, maybe even below the base marker. Family history is basically a nonstarter for most of us working here; it just doesn’t matter too much. We get a tiny thrill maybe the first time we see an ancestor’s draft card. That was the first thing I researched when I started working here, because they are commonly requested, and so I used it as a learning experience in pulling WWI draft cards. I found Perley W. Grubb, scanned his card, and refiled him with rest of the Wisconsin draftees. But where my family was positioned in history does not dictate either my feelings about history, nor the scope or basis of my research.

The problem is, most people’s families did really nothing much that would put them anywhere in the historical records. We have federal records here, and most people go their whole lives never really being really involved in federal functions. You fill out your census every ten years—that’s the main thing. Some people have military records—that’s another biggie. And if your ancestors immigrated or filed for a passport, they would also have filed federal records. But even then, in the case of immigration, they would have had to file their petition for naturalization in a federal court, and before 1907, it wasn’t required that they file them in federal court. So anyone who came to the United States in the nineteenth century could file in any level of court—county, state, federal, random Podunk local courthouse. And that’s if they naturalized at all; they might have remained nationals of their birth country.

We have research tools here for people to begin to find records their ancestors more commonly filed—vital records of birth, marriage, and death. Those are records filed with the state, and so are most often held by either the state’s historical archives or the vital records office—depending on how old they are and varying widely by state. People often get frustrated that before the twentieth century (and even in that one, in many cases) births were not recorded officially. If their great-grandfather’s birth was recorded on the inside of some Bible somewhere, I can’t help them.

It’s not to say that I wholly dismiss genealogy. I understand regular people’s need to see themselves in the past in order to make it meaningful for them. Genealogy is a significant historical experience for many people in today’s digitization-happy world. Part of public history is finding a way to make the past matter to an individual; this means including genealogy on the totem pole, for what value it does offer to a public craving connection. Historians whose focuses lie in larger themes, events, historical trends, and connections—oftentimes professional historians and scholars—don’t focus on minutiae of particular individuals unless they did do something significant or relevant to the subject of their study. Whereas genealogists go looking for a particular person to see if he might have done anything worth recording, historians find the things that were worth recording and then find out more about the people who did them. They start from different points, and work in opposite directions.

I understand though, that a large portion of the public we serve is here to do just that, to find their family. So I work in the research room, patiently helping octogenarians use the printers and computers, and try my best to let them do their own research even when it means teaching them how to move backward and forward on an internet page. (Yes, really.) We don’t do the research for them, we give them tools, indexes, direction on where to begin and what kinds of records will serve their needs best, and then we let them loose.

Once you’ve heard about Great Aunt Gertrude once, you’ve heard about her a hundred times. I cannot tell you how boring it is to hear someone rattle off names in a complicated web, as if I am going to remember or care how their whole family tree is organized. Funny anecdotes to them are a dime-a-dozen to me; but I try not to let my eyes glaze over, and always listen politely for as long as seems normal before bowing out and into my little glass room to hide (which doesn’t work so well in a glass room). Also fun: I can no longer count on two hands the number of people who’ve told me they are related to someone who came over on the Mayflower. This comment is my single biggest pet peeve of working in the research room, bar none. First of all, it’s probably not true; there are so many generations to prove unequivocally. (And there were not that many to survive, if you recall.) Secondly, it truly makes no difference to me whether your long-long-ago ancestors happened to live, even if it was in a colony that is super-famous and iconic in American history. You’d be more interesting to me if YOU have been on the Mayflower. Let’s talk about that!

The most frustrating thing about working with genealogists is when they get angry, upset, or even cry over not being able to find much about those farther back in their family tree. I had one lady in tears at 4:45 one afternoon, because an ancestor she had been researching twenty-five years was still eluding her. He was drafted from Michigan into the Union army during the Civil War, and then she knew that the family received record that he died. She was distraught that there was no record of anything in between. Ma’am, I wanted to say, what the heck else would he have filed with anyone? He was at war. Unless he wrote some diary that somehow made it back into the arms of his family after the war, which is highly, crazily doubtful, there would be nothing else. He fought in a war and he died. That corner of the tree is complete. I am sorry if that is unsatisfying. In my experience, genealogy is highly unsatisfying, because it is so unlikely that your ancestors left much of a paper trail.

We make more of a paper trail these days, but it’s technically an electronic trail. Maybe in one hundred years, my Amazon Wishlist will provide a descendent of mine with endless insight into what I was like. They will also be able to read my Twitter feed, which I do think is very interesting to ponder. I so wish I could read the Twitter feed of Young John Allen, or those sent among the members of a nineteenth century quilting group. But until some of those things become “history,” for now we have the United States census, where you can see interesting things like whether or not your ancestors spoke English and were or were not the head of the household. (Am I coming across here as scathingly sarcastic? I do hope so.)

My life is richer, simply because I asked

Or: An oral history project, incredible families, much talk on adoption, China, love, and family, and how I found a title for this project

Last January, I was struck with an idea for a project. I had read a book about a generation of Chinese girls who had been adopted into families worldwide, with a huge number of them becoming part of American families. (I wrote about it too.) Tens of thousands of these girls are growing up Chinese-American, in predominantly upper-middle class families, and they have a distinct perspective on the world, and their spot in it.

 

That Americans have been adopting from Asia is not new information to most people; American families with an adopted Chinese (or more generally Asian--Korean, Vietnamese) child is more and more common in the general public. On the sitcom Modern Family, Cam and Mitchell adopted their daughter Lily from Vietnam, and that diversity is one of the mainstays of the "modern" aspect of the family composition on the show. In your own community, at the grocery store or Target, multicultural families are an ever more common site within the larger populace.

 

What I realized--in one of those sudden ideas that come to mind only when a combination of other triggers intersect perfectly--is that there is an important historical story here, and that I could help to tell it, begin to collect it, with the tools I have. I had been thinking a lot about identity, and the concept of "roots," genealogy, and biology, and thinking about how much, how deeply, it doesn't matter in the end. I had been thinking a lot about how much I want to adopt in my own life. And I had been thinking about the group of people--oftentimes members of Families with Children from China (FCC)--who is here, connected, who live this story every day: the families. Also being a public radio addict, I love podcasts and the new media we have to share stories and collect and share history, and decided the internet combined with an audio format would be the perfect way to tell this story.

 

Over the course of a few months in early 2011, I wielded in and narrowed my enormous original scope, and decided on what would become the final capstone project for my master's in public history.

 

I would collect oral histories of families who had adopted children from China (mostly girls, but a few boys as well), who live in the Metro Atlanta area. They will be delivered in an online format, much like a podcast, and often in small series that connect the stories of various families to each other.

 

I wrote a paper to end the semester, with grand ideas, plans, and notions of this project. Then in the fall, I had to begin to deliver on my many (many) promises. An important thing to point out is that I knew not one singular person in the Atlanta community who had adopted a child from China. I am not in the age demographic of adoptive parents, and I am not even married. Nor do I have kids. I spend a lot of my time at work and at school. So I started cold-calling people, with a very strange request, indeed, when they did call me back or answer my unknown number: "Yes, hi, I am a graduate student at Georgia State, and I am working on a project about families who have adopted children from China. If you are interested, could I explain a little bit about what I am doing?"

 

Strangely, I only felt really nervous the very first time I did a dialing session. That first, painful, jump into the icy water. Turns out, the water was not cold at all. A few returned my calls or answered, and connected me with people who were either more directly involved, or spoke to me themselves. In each case that I have spoken with a mom, dad, or family as a group, I have been allowed a little more access into their lives, and they have shared my project with their friends, people also connected through FCC--the Atlanta chapter and beyond. It has been extraordinary.

 

What began as a few contacts in the fall has snowballed in 2012. I have been graciously welcomed into homes, invited to hear personal tales of how these families became what they are--decisions about family, ethnicity, fertility, biological children, and all other manner of real, complex lives.

 

I ate Chinese food to celebrate Chinese New Year with one very active playgroup, the kids averaging about six to ten years old, and it was a rowdy, wonderful evening, meeting parents and further discussing and explaining this project and my goals.

 

I watched a rehearsal performance of the Atlanta Chinese Dance Company, which has become a haven and passion for a number of adopted Chinese girls over the years, many of whom continue to dance into high school and college.

 

I was invited to a monthly book club begun by mothers of adopted Chinese girls and boys, who found there was a need to read the literature (spanning many topics) on kids, adoption, China, parenting, and a number of issues within these topics, and that reading them together was more meaningful. I have begun attending them, and the most striking note I took away from my first session was that there are issues of confidence, perception from outsiders, and even simple semantics that arise in every adoptive mothers' mind, and that the support from small groups like this one is indispensable for these women. It was so lovely to sit and discuss their most recent selection, Lucky Girl, with them--quite frankly, most I did was listen.

 

I listened to one mother console another on the fear that she, who had never had children biologically, somehow loved her daughter in a less, or different, way than the mother who had two biological boys before adopting her Chinese daughter. This second mother listened earnestly, and then vehemently countered that, having both, she promises there is not one thing different in the love for each of her three children, biological or adopted. She repeats this for emphasis, staring her friend straight in the eye. She is brought to tears when talking about it further.

 

It is moving. There are many times I am near tears in working on this project. The stories, the love, the shared experiences are so moving. I am up to my ears in adoption stories, and pictures of young, growing, and grown-up families; it only makes my conviction and desire to adopt stronger, if that was possible.

 

I was invited by two girls, ages 8 and 9, to watch the videos their older sister (film-producer earning her master's at Columbia, might I add) made of their respective adoptions, after I had finished interviewing their parents. It was the first time in the course of this work that I watched, in moving picture, the moment when a little two-year-old met her parents and sisters. It was remarkable, joyous, and scary, and sad all at once--many in that room captured on film feeling so many varieties of emotions all at once. It is a moment not everyone would perhaps want to share with me; I was honored, yet again, by their gracious invitation into the lives of others.

 

Is it that adoptive families tend to be willing to share, because they are used to being the ones in the room who created their family in a manner somewhat different from "normal"? I don't know the reasons, but I am grateful for their positive responses to this project, the excitement some have expressed, and the thanks others have shared. We all recognize that these are stories worth telling, collecting, connecting, sharing. I think they are especially rich in the aural format, voices captured in this moment in the lives of these families. The little girls, little boys, teenagers I have spoken to--those voices are being saved, and their notions of themselves are now recorded, as documentation that this is how they felt in 2012, about their spot in this wide world. I giggle, I cry, I am in awe as I listen back to the words and thoughts that I have collected. How far I have brought this, into fruition, into something quite extraordinary--something I wanted but that, if I'm being honest, seemed impossibly large to attempt.

 

I have been invited into homes, back into homes, met kids, siblings, parents, friends, interviewed many of them. I've met with people without the voice recorder on as many occasions, listening and talking and proving that I can be trusted with their family's history.

 

I was most recently offered two beautiful, hardcover books that have been compiled from families' personal photographs ad writings, on the China adoption experience. The collection is from photo collections and families across the United States, who all have this same experience in common. The first of the books was compiled and designed in the basement of the family I most recently interviewed, and they insisted they had "too many copies" lying around, so gave me one of each of these two books. They are cherished additions to the resources I have already compiled as I entered this world to begin work on this project. From one, I found the inspiration to finally settle on a title:

A Thousand Ways Richer:

The China adoption experience in Atlanta, An Oral History

 

I have been shown unbelievable support, consideration, and openness as I have thus far explored the China adoption community in Atlanta. The most striking discovery has been confirmed and reaffirmed by nearly every mother or father I speak to: the adoption of their daughter, son, or multiple children has brought them more than just a child--their lives have been enriched in a thousand ways they could not have imagined before. A child, yes. Also, culture, dance, food, language, history. Also, activity, sports, small businesses, and an entire community of support, best friends, love, play groups. Some who share this initial experience go on to become lifelong friends. One man's Chinese daughter has already made him reconsider his perception on race, and interracial marriage--and she's only eight.

 

I will explore many of these facets in the forthcoming website, where I post the stories and some of the audio. But the quick thesis to this thing, what has inspired the title, is a combination of the thousands of ways life is changed by adoption, and the countless ways I am also richer for knowing these incredible women, men, daughters, and sons. The ways my life has been enriched are too numerous to count, and I would have missed every single one of them if I had shied away from doing this, in favor of something easier, smaller, with people I already knew. It has been exhilarating to know what I am capable of, if I just pick up the phone and ask.

Life, at this moment

How can anyone resist a survey, right?
Right now, I am...
:: marveling at my new, beautiful set of rings from an amazing silversmith in Jerusalem, Israel--they feel perfect
:: tired of weekly assigned readings for my classes. I'm truly, honestly over reading for class.
:: laughing because that is what you do when things are out of your control and you just have to embrace the moment, and the unknown beyond it
:: overwhelmed by the effort, art, and never-ending disheartening search for a full-time job after graduation
:: pleasantly surprised that there is a cupcake kiosk right near my office that is better than any I've been able to find lately. dangerous.
:: wondering where in the heck I will be living in 4 months' time (also, what I'll be doing...)
:: grateful for my boyfriend
:: hearing silence, one of my most favorite sounds
:: going to the coffee shop down the street soon, since I skipped breakfast and my regular morning cup earlier
:: planning an art project
:: digging deeper every day into the history, activism, and modern-day issues surrounding HIV/AIDS and its devastation
:: creating new friendships (by being brave enough to seek them out)
:: listening to something greater than me, trusting that having no plan is OK right now
:: saying less is more
:: inspired by every square I view of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, and the stories and lives behind each
:: happy to be in Atlanta, Georgia
:: delighted that my capstone project might actually work
:: waiting to see what meaning I can create out of my passions, interests, and talents -- is there a job that suits all I seek to do, be, change, in this world?
:: being the person I am, each day at a time

Oral history in practice: find the people, and a project becomes real

I've started putting into practice the things that up until this point in my oral history class have only been discussed, that existed only in theory, as things we would eventually have to do. I've begun the process of cold-calling a list of strangers, to me, nothing more than a series of names and phone numbers that I found on a national organization's Atlanta chapter site. And to them, I am a stranger asking to be let into their lives, who is asking to hear their stories, often quite personal and emotional. I am asking, after all, about the process of adopting their own children. This is a very strange thing to explain in a message on an answering machine to a person you've never spoken to.

And in several cases, I've had kids answer the phone, and take the message. This is even stranger, having to summarize in a brief sentence or series of key words to a child or teenager why this random graduate student wants to talk to their mother. (Note: It's about them. Talk about awkward to explain.) "My name is Jessie, I'm a graduated student at Georgia State, and I want to talk to your mom about an oral history project I am starting, on families who've adopted children from China." Hmm, random, indeed.

The first time I dialed a number, I was so thankful it was no longer in service, because I slammed the phone down and felt my heart rate come back down from through-the-roof heights. A few deep breaths, and onto name #2 on the list. Many calls later, I am slowly but surely reaching out to some families. All in its own time, I am in no hurry, and want these families to feel they can respond to my request in time. We're all busy people.

This is, by the way, preliminary work for what will be my master's capstone project: an oral history series and podcast series, compiled and stored on a website that also allows for interaction and visitor submissions, on the stories and histories of Metro Atlanta families who have adopted daughters from China. This enormous diaspora of Chinese girls has spread far across the world, and Atlanta is just one corner of that vast space. This community, the girls and their adoptive (and biological) families, are part of an important historical event, beginning largely in the early 1990s and reaching a peak around 1999 - 2005, and waning in recent years as the process has become extremely cumbersome and slow for adoptive families. This twenty-odd-year period marks an important occurrence in China-U.S. relations that reaches directly into the homes of American families whose families have changed forever because of it; and I want to study this in that historical context, by compiling the oral histories of those living it.

To do this, I've had to muster up some courage I haven't used since my days in student journalism--when it was nothing to phone a stranger and ask them some questions.

But oral histories are by nature very intense, quite distinct from a journalistic effort. And it has been thrilling so far, to find what's at the other end of the line, when you call someone out of the blue--a total stranger--and ask them about something like the experience of adopting their own child.

Exhilaration even more enormous than calling as a journalist. No, I'm not a reporter, I'm a historian, and I want to record your oral history. Just as we have talked about in class, people immediately begin to question you ("How did you get my number?"), and question themselves, retrospect on their own life--"I haven't done anything important." But they have and that's the point of oral histories. They are a part of history.

I am awestruck all over again, every time I think of the phone call I received last night, in return to one of my messages left with a woman's daughter. She was rightfully questioning of me, but I clearly passed the test, because she became so open and willing and engaging, by the time I hung up with her my jaw was literally hanging open. I sat in shock in the driver's seat of my car.

This family has an extraordinary part in the history of Chinese adoptions, from a very early point in the larger narrative timeline. Each of their three daughters is from China, adopted in the 1990s. I have researched this process and read books and articles, and I have never heard of a family like this, ever. And they are part of the exact Metro Atlanta community that I so want to document. I absolutely cannot wait to speak with her further, and collect her story (stories, for sure).

There is a huge difference between theorizing and structuring and dreaming up a plan, a project, and executing it--and making the final product effective, interesting, helpful to participants and the larger public. Without knowing who is out there to talk to, I had no idea if this would even work. I now feel that it is not only possible, but it has the potential of being extremely fruitful. The families who have adopted from China are an extraordinarily connected and close-knit community, across the nation. I hope this small project can somehow contribute to those within that cross-national community, and inspire other initiatives. It's an important international event that deserves to be contemplated in its proper historical context. I'm so excited to bring us a step closer to doing this.

Why I love what I do:

Finishing up the semester next week, and I've got one major paper left. The class is Issues and Interpretations in American History, and without being to prosaic, the professor has decreed that our final assignment is to consider and reflect on the twelve books and three articles we've read during the last fourteen weeks and use them to consider the issues and interpretations we face as future historians. So easy, it's hard.

I'm writing on the meaning of race and class in American history and the relationships of those social constructs to the notion of republicanism--which has been a foundational theme in our class. This is the opening to my paper, and the reason I love what I am doing:

Since the advent of history as a profession in the Unites States, beginning around the time Frederick Jackson Turner declared the American frontier closed and discussed the effects this would have on "the American,” the historian has essentially waged an ongoing battle against a teleological past. That is, we have spent several hundred years constructing a history along a singular line, often blatantly leaving out many of its complications, in an attempt to tell a clean narrative. Then, around midcentury last, we realized our error: the din of missing voices was to loud to ignore, and we began again, reinterpreting our past, doing all we could to stave off that urge to make the past into one nice, clean history. Our natural compulsion leans toward a teleological storyline, and so we continue to teach schoolchildren—and sometimes, even undergraduates—from textbooks that grandly sum things up, so that they can walk away with a set of “the facts.” But the best thing about history is the din of all those voices, every interpretation and perspective, and the elementary truth that in order to tell the whole story, history can neither be simple nor short, nor known by any one person—ever.

So to embark upon a discussion of the issues and interpretations in American history is to admit that there is inherently no crisply-drawn right and wrong in the art of argument, and that all we can attempt to do is add to the historiographical conversation that began long before, hopefully in a constructive way, and come out with a better understanding of our past and the historians who have collected it.

And I plunge from here boldly into the complexities of those stubborn demons we like to muddle, misinterpret, reinterpret, deconstruct, reconstruct, and at times, ignore or pretend do not exist. Race, class, America.