The Dangers of Forgetting Our Family Stories
I recently made an interesting connection that confirmed my strong belief in the importance of sharing family stories.
At one of my presentations about converting family stories into fiction, a woman asked me about the history of my family name. Someone she knew had the same surname. It was not an uncommon event—there are Frankels from Germany, Poland and all over Eastern Europe. I told her that my family originated from Biblis, a small German village on the Rhine. She texted her acquaintance whose surname I shared, and he responded that his family, too, came from Biblis.
It turns out that we share great, great, great-grandparents. When I saw a photo of this long, lost relative, I was blown away. He was the spitting image of my grandfather. So here I am, talking about family stories, and through a complete stranger, I discover something about myself.
I’ve spent many hours this last year speaking about the importance of family history and listening to other people delve into their relationships with their personal genealogy. It’s convinced me that our links to the past are far more important than we realize. They empower us to be better people, offer a way to deal with hardship in our own lives, provide a sense of historical continuity and perspective, and teach us about values.
A knowledge of “History” provides one kind of perspective, but I’m aiming at a deeper, more visceral connection to history. Family stories offer us a different kind of insight, one that connects us on an emotional and personal level to everyone else whose family came to these shores in search of a better life for their children.
People who come from hardship, or who have experiences of persecution, seem to have a greater need to be connected to their histories. We can start with African-Americans and Armenians, and go all the way back to Zoroastrians, passing through Buddhists, Catholics, Irish and Italians, Jews, Islamic minorities, and every race, religion, or culture that has been in the crosshairs of another. It covers almost all of us.
Perhaps, people whose lives and generational histories have been easier and more uncomplicated, have less personal need to be connected to past generations, unless it is to feel a sense of grand connection to an illustrious past. But I would maintain the opposite. They may have less personal need to connect to their past, but they have just as much—and perhaps a greater—need of the kind of historical perspective that leads to a sense of commonality with other human beings—and to greater compassion and understanding.
We talk about the need to integrate and melt into the American pot, but, at the same time, we extol the virtues of remaining connected to our diverse ethnic and cultural origins. However, if we are to retain the character of our country, we have to maintain a balance between the two. We need enough assimilation to ensure that we have a uniform belief in the freedoms that attracted our ancestors, even as we retain our identity as the children of immigrants—remembering who we are and where we came from. It’s tough to do both, and understandable that those unconnected from their past might lack a sense of historical perspective.
White supremacists who want to return to some imaginary time when blood was pure and the white race—whatever that means—ruled, have forgotten their family stories. Forgotten that although they might be white, their forebears were probably hungry white peasants somewhere in Europe and came here because there was no opportunity or freedom under the thumbs of an entitled white nobility. Those who want to curtail immigration or make it more selective in order to change the racial or social composition of our country, don’t know their family stories. If they did, they’d remember that there have always been people who wanted to retain the racial and cultural flavor of the decade. No Negroes admitted. No Jews need apply. No Irish or Dogs. Italians scorned. Indians mocked. Chinese chain-ganged. Japanese interned. To say nothing of Native Americans—the only people who called this continent home for millennia—evicted from their ancestral homelands.
It doesn’t take long for newcomers to the US to feel a sense of belonging. And it doesn’t take much time after that for some of us to feel okay about closing the doors behind us. The only way to avoid such shortsightedness is to encourage all Americans to share their family stories with their children. Not only to make them proud, but to make them humble, too.