As a child, I hated history class. All that pointless memorization. All those names of European explorers, battle generals, and document drafters that blended together in my brain. So many exact dates we needed to regurgitate, and for what purpose? In my high school World History class, I balanced a cheat sheet on my thighs beneath my desk during every test (don’t tell my kids).
But I also remember sitting in that World History class every day enthralled by the stories our teacher told. I can’t recall the details of a single one of them now; it’s the dichotomy of being interested in the events she described vs. being disenchanted with what we were supposed to remember for our tests that remains with me.
For the past three years, I’ve been exploring my own family history, building the biological family tree I never had due to my adoption. It’s grown from the few seeds I gathered from my birth parents into a small forest of tangled branches holding more than 2,000 individual leaves. Because I haven’t been privy to family stories passed down through generations, I’ve had to do the kind of work historians do: I’ve had to rely on the documents I’ve been able to uncover along with tidbits posted online by distant relatives also working on their genealogy. I’ve had to analyze the evidence left behind by my ancestors over decades in order to recreate the narratives of their lives.
Perhaps the most important thing missing from my childhood history classes was discussion about why the things we were supposed to learn should matter to us. The only history class that made sense to me in this way was the one I signed up for in college on the Vietnam War because I wanted a better understanding of the era during which I was born. Maybe the history kids are taught in school should begin with current events and gradually work backwards to explain why and how things are, similar to the way one does genealogical research. Where we look into the past might be more meaningful if we stepped back beginning from where we are now.
We live at a particular moment in the history of the world, and we can only understand our place in that history by understanding the lives of those who came before us and by becoming familiar with the events that shaped those lives, that led to us being where we are right now, existing in this exact place and time. What choices did our ancestors make that led to this moment? What circumstances forced them to do one thing vs. another? What were they trying to achieve? What were their hopes and dreams, their accomplishments and failures, their joys and sorrows?
I can’t help but think about what it means for me to have for so long been a person without knowledge of my own history and what that means for my own children and their future children. I lacked this knowledge due to circumstances that were out of my control, but many people also lack knowledge of their histories due to silence or ignorance or a deliberate effort to suppress facts. The narratives we learn in our history classes often don’t tell the whole story and sometimes even tell lies.
It’s important to me to reconstruct as much of the history of my people as I can, whether that history is beautiful or ugly, so that I can tell those stories to my children and, by doing so, mend the break in my family’s generational transfer of knowledge so that future generations descended from me will know their story. It turns out that I don’t hate history at all; in fact, I crave it.
*** Edited 8/21/20 to correct number of relatives I’ve documented in my genealogy. I’m very bad at remembering numbers (which is why memorizing dates was hell for me) and should have double checked.