Who Do I Think I Am? The Nerve.

Recently  on the LinkedIn  genealogy discussion group, a link popped up to a cranky commentary prompted by NBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? Don’t click through if you’re feeling a bit cranky yourself.  Suffice it to say that if this guy had a TV show, it would be called Why Should Anyone Care?

I’m not sure what gets certain backs up about genealogy. Years ago, at a party, I fell into a conversation with a woman who, like me, was tracing her family tree and happily addicted to the pastime. It being the B.A. Era (Before Ancestry.com), we were harmlessly discussing microfilms and NARA repositories when the woman’s spouse came by to say hi. Upon realizing what we were talking about, he launched into a diatribe against genealogy hobbyists. He was pretty witty about it but, like, totally negative, you know? Wrecked our buzz big-time, I can tell you. His assumptions, as I recall, were:

1. Genealogy is elitist, practiced by snobs who are on a stuck-up quest for presidential and royal ancestors.

2. Genealogy is pointless, since the silly snobs will never find that royalty anyway.

3. People who are descended from nobodies, like himself, should be proud of who they are and stop the genealogy nonsense.

We're not related. I'm OK with that.

The conversation has stuck in my mind, not only because I wonder how that marriage turned out, but because Assumption #3 is so fascinatingly opposite of what I’ve found genealogy to be. See, I don’t think I’ve got any kings or even any colorful Fenians in my tree. Never have.  The ordinary people I find are more than enough for me. Especially since nobody’s been looking out for their stories as historians have looked out for the kings, queens and presidents. (At least, not until pretty recently.)

Anti-genealogy sentiment is often driven by assumptions that it’s an elitist pursuit. True,  press coverage has a way of playing up this angle. (Hey! Didya see that Brooke Shields is descended from Henri IV of France?) Less covered, but more important, is how diverse genealogical studies have become. The immigrant experience is included, thanks very much — you can read specialized works on tracing Italian, Irish, Polish ancestry. Alex Haley’s groundbreaking book Roots spurred a generation to study African-American genealogy. It’s not all about European royalty.

And yet … If people do find kings and queens in their tree, that doesn’t make them pathetic elitist snobs. It means they found somebody interesting. What are they supposed to do with these ancestors? Give them back?

Obviously I need my own TV show to process this. I think I’ll call it What’s It To You, Anyway?


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