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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6 Comments on “Who Do I Think I Am? The Nerve.”

  1. Hi, Jo,
    I’m nosy, too. And I like your point about testing assumptions; it’s one of my favorite things about studying genealogy. Interesting point about high-profile ancestors being a mixed blessing — that’s not an angle everyone considers!

  2. jo says:

    This is an interesting place that I could just take off with a long comment about genealogy and not the topic of the show. I didn’t see the Brook Shields one, andmaybe i will find it online.

    i got into research deeper because – I am nosy and just have to know- I like to do puzzles a little bit- I get an asumption and I like to prove myself right- I want to find what no one else has found[ often times too diffucult or they would have found it] -preservation of family information, I would like my children to know, but they are a different surname, background and won’t care. -Because it’s there.
    I went deeper into it because of a hint of nobility. A casual remark to my father about something he mentioned at school in regards to duke and his nickname Duke. Evidently. From what I gathered is that he knew of family history and broadcast it at school and was teased. And at a time of war with Germany, it was not such a good thing. Worst yet was the area of the Duke was near a concentration camp.

    So just for some people like that guy. Knowing one is with noble anything or your background is not always in our best interest for releasement to the public. i am glad it has become popular, as it makes our job easier because more and more information is released as more and more take it up.
    In some cases of historical events, some backgrounds are researched and were all the better for it.

  3. Great post and I agree with your points – I just think that when something become popular like genealogy there are people who just feel the need to position themselves as nay-sayers. What bugs me the most is the lack of education on the subject by the critics.

  4. John says:

    I am glad that WDYTYA didn’t start with Brooke Shields. I think it was intentional that they put her where they did in the series of episodes. Starting off with the Gold Rush and Salem illustrated that there were interesting parts of American history that our ancestors may have been involved in.

    • I totally agree — the placement of the episodes seemed aimed at firmly establishing family history as an Everyman kind of thing. And even the Brooke Shields episode had this quality; one side of her family was urban and poor.


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