In this month’s article, I will continue the rant started in July (hey, I’ve got to get it out of my system somehow…).
Last month, I focused on the lack of interest that far too many people have in their town’s or area’s history. This month, I want to drill down further into two additional categories; first, people who don’t seem care about the history or genealogy of their own family, and second, those people who like to think they know something, but haven’t bothered to do the work needed to ascertain the facts.
A case in point… Recently, I happened to overhear a person discussing, in great detail, a recent conversation during which some facts regarding their family’s role in the history of a local town had come into question. It apparently involved a disagreement between this person and a local historian who had written something in opposition to the first person’s beliefs about their family history.
Now, who was right? (Maybe, the better question is who was correct?) I don’t know and I don’t really need (or want) to know… Taking sides is not the point. But, for the sake of clarity, let’s look at what we think we “know” in this case…
First, let’s talk about the person whose family history is at issue. In this case, the person had heard various anecdotes and stories over the years from older family members that led to the beliefs that they have. It’s likely that most people take such conversations pretty much at face value and simply file them away as memories.
In the first case, someone is not interested in learning more about their family history… they are not interested in pursuing or questioning the stories. They do not take steps to dig into their family history and learn more about it. Maybe they find boxes of old photos or bundles of letters belonging to their grandmother… “OK, nothing valuable here, so just throw them out”. (These are often the same people who are prone to tear old buildings down for no other reason than they are old buildings – they do not see value in things that happened in the past). If others in the family want to play around in the branches of the family tree, they aren’t interested in taking part; and usually they are bored to the point of being comatose.
In the second case, the person takes significant pride in their family’s history. However, as in the first case, they do not delve further into the accounts they have heard from their forebears. In other words, “Granddad said it, I believe it, that settles it” or “I believe what I believe, don’t confuse me with the facts”. Aside from what I view as a lack of curiosity, such a perspective results in an inability to look at the past, our community’s past, our family’s past square in the eye. When we fail in this, we discard any chance of seeing our history, and what we can learn from it, in all of its dimensions.
Now, on to the local historian… If they’ve done the appropriate due diligence, they should have some degree of objective documentation (newspaper articles, journal entries, etc.) that substantiates the historical position they are taking. Any good local historian will typically try to corroborate this information with other sources, in order to learn as much as possible about the event or person. Again, any good historian worth their salt will document the anecdotes, stories, tall tales, or urban legends that may accompany the particular occurrence. This allows the history to be a genuinely multi-faceted experience rather than simply a dry, single-sided litany of facts.
So, on a scale of 1 to 10 measuring interest in their about family history, the first case would seem to indicate a rating of 1-2, while the second would maybe rate a 9-10.
In both cases, however, what is missing, at the very least, is a willingness to think critically or objectively about their family’s history. Granted, such a willingness brings with it somewhat of an obligation to accept whatever they may learn (“if you’re not willing to accept the answer, don’t ask the question”). However, what is even more dangerous is there is an unwillingness to look at the past, warts and all, in an effort to learn from the experiences we collectively had, both the good and the bad. As anyone whose has read these blogs previously knows, I am a proponent of never editing our history – it is what it is… such a practice may be discomforting, but it allows us to learn so much more about our past and “forces” us to view our history as it really was, not what we wish it would be.
Over the past several months, I have had the privilege of working closely with a local Italian-American Heritage Society on an exhibit at Vulcan highlighting the contributions of Italian-Americans in early Birmingham. This group of immigrants came to America with little more than dreams and hopes of making a better life. Most Italian immigrants did not know the language or culture of their new country and were often treated with disdain and racial prejudices akin to those imposed on African-Americans by the white-dominated society of the time. There were numerous questions (and perceived concerns) as to whether Italians could be considered “white”. They were subjected to racial slurs and often forced to live in what amounted to “buffer zones” between whites and blacks. They were typically relegated to menial jobs and were often not given their due in terms of civil rights. Coupled with a prevalent anti-Catholic wave sweeping the country at the end of the 19th century and into the early years of the 20th century, Italians were often denigrated and were the target of jokes and conspiracy theories alike. As a result, they often “circled the wagons” and became somewhat of an insular community with a strong sense of church and family.
I have come to both admire and appreciate the members of the Italian-American community. Not only are they enthusiastic about their history and culture, they fully embrace the realities of their past, both good and bad. And while the injustices of the past are not good memories, they recognize that those experiences helped make them the people they are, with a great love for family, church, community, and a passion for life.
For those interested, the Italian-American exhibit at Vulcan, entitled “La Storia” will open beginning Friday, September 19 at Vulcan Park and Museum and will be in place until September 2015..
This article is intended to provide accurate historical information to a general audience. Material contained herein is gathered from reputable online and traditional sources, but unless otherwise noted, is not the result of original scholarship or research by the author.
-E. E. (Skip) Campbell, Ph.D.
Skip Campbell retired from UPS in early 2012 after 38 years as a senior manager, working in numerous locations in the United States and abroad, with primary responsibilities in operations and industrial engineering. He received his BS degree in Applied Science and Operations Analysis from the University of Alabama and holds Master’s degrees in Engineering Management, Quality and Management,. Skip holds a Ph.D. in Organizational Behavior and Development, with concentrations in Organizational Theory and Macroergonomics. Skip is a Senior Member of the Institute of Industrial Engineers and sits on the Board of Visitors for the College of Continuing Studies at the University of Alabama. Since retiring, Skip serves as an Adjunct Professor with the College of Continuing Studies (Osher Lifelong Learning Institute) at the University of Alabama and focuses his academic research efforts on the area of pre-20th century Alabama history. Skip belongs to a number of historical and cemetery preservation associations. He and his wife Denise have 3 grown children and 2 grandchildren.
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