Henry Louis Gates on Genealogy as History

Henry Louis Gates‘ day job is professor in the American History department at Harvard, though his work is better known through the family history programs he’s hosted over the years on PBS, such as African American Lives (2006), African American Lives 2 (2008), and Faces of America (2010), and the currently airing Finding Your Roots. Since that first program, I have always admired the way Gates merges the scholarly techniques of academic research with the emotional drive of our favorite pasttime. He puts heart into history, rigor into genealogy, and shows that while the former may reside in the Ivory Tower and the latter in the living room, the two fields should not be so far apart.

In his recent interview on NPR, Gates makes quite an articulate argument for how to bridge the two:

All historians generalize from particulars. And often, if you look at a historian’s footnotes, the number of examples of specific cases is very, very small. As we do our family trees, we add specificity to the raw data from which historians can generalize.

So when you do your family tree and Margaret Cho does hers, and … Wanda Sykes and John Legend … we’re adding to the database that scholars can then draw from to generalize about the complexity of the American experience. And that’s the contribution that family trees make to broader scholarship.

What an inspiring vision to think that the small details we learn about our ancestors’ lives can add up to a more enhanced understanding of history itself! Often when I read about the events my family lived through, such as the Homestead Strike of 1892, I try to fit what I know about my family into the picture the historian paints about that time. But Gates’ conviction that historians can learn from the individual experiences of my small group of recent Hungarian immigrants learning to be Americans during such upheaval motivates me not only to finish fleshing out this particular story, but also to find a way of sharing it where it can inform the historians’ dialog.

“There are just so many stories that are buried on family trees,” Gates concludes. His personal goal is “to get everybody in America to do their family tree.” In creating Treelines, my goal is to make it as easy as possible for those of us who love working on our family trees to share the amazing stories we’re constantly uncovering with the right sharing tools. From Gates’ remarks, it’s clear that the potential audience is far broader than just our relatives and friends! Our small contributions provide a much bigger window onto the past than we often realize.

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