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Generational Histories, Popular Culture, and Archaeologies of Everyday Life

Countless stories await in libraries throughout the country like the Genealogy Center in the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, Indiana (courtesy amyc500)

An enormous volume of historical archaeology focuses on anonymous folks peopling the past, and the discipline has painted a remarkably detailed picture of everyday life over the last half-millennium.  What historical archaeologists understand is that every life is a potentially compelling story waiting to be told by a creative interpreter weaving together material culture, historical resources, and oral testimony.

The lure of everyday people’s histories looms especially large in contemporary popular culture as well.  If we have learned anything from Behind the Music,it is that even the most prosaic fossil musician’s life is utterly compelling: In the hands of a skilled narrator, even the likes of M.C. Hammer and Grand Funk Railroad are revealed to harbor fascinating and even sympathetic accounts of human frailty, ambition, success, and heartbreak that underscore the essential dimensions of human experience shared by all of us.  If we dig deeper, conducting rigorous primary research, systematic oral history, and material analysis we can find consequential stories that push beyond mere biographical details:  Joe Cocker’s life and ancestry likely reveal the creolized cultural hybridity of skiffle; the Carpenters’ story might be soberly told in the context of 20th century bodily ideologies; and the life of Biggie Smalls/Notorious B.I.G. reflects all the fascinating diasporan cultural dimensions of hip-hop storytelling.  And if we had the chance to interpret their material assemblages then it is likely we would weave that into an even more interesting interpretation; admit it, aren’t you a little curious about Biggie Smalls’ domestic assemblage?

Historical archaeology has crafted a far-reaching scholarship that canvasses everyday life across a breadth of scales from individuals to households to cities to global systems.  Yet we still might take some cues from popular culture’s skill crafting generational histories—that is, genealogical accounts of families’ lineage and heritage.  Beyond simply constructing isolated family trees, historical archaeology is ideally suited to approach genealogical narratives as rigorous scholarship and embrace the genuine activist implications such generational histories hold for many of our community constituencies.  We can tell absolutely compelling stories of everyday life: family genealogies can be an element in rigorous scholarship that addresses significant research questions even as those narratives provide fascinating microcosm histories.

A stream of television shows now plumb the genealogical details of celebrities’ ancestry and B-list stars’ family heritage.  There are both American and British versions of Who Do You Think You Are?; a Wales show Coming Home; the British show You Don’t Know You’re Born; and My Famous Family (which takes an ordinary person and finds their famous ancestors).  Henry Louis Gates, Jr. has been among the most visible scholarly proponents of this discussion, hosting the British series Black in Latin America; the American show Finding Your Roots, which focuses on genealogical methods telling the tales of various stars (e.g., Kevin Bacon); Faces of America, in which Gates documents the genealogies of well-known Americans (e.g., Stephen Colbert); and African-American Lives, which illuminates Black public figures (e.g., Tom Joyner’s family story is astoundingly compelling).

Academics have sometimes been reluctant to make the apparent Faustian bargain of embracing popular culture, suspicious of how complex historical narratives will be reduced to a few transparent points in a half-hour show or mis-quoted in a newspaper or magazine article.  Alongside the newfound interest in generational histories popular culture has suddenly begun to pay attention to things as well. A host of television series now examine material culture, including Antiques Roadshow, Pawn Stars, and Auction Kings, though many of us have been uncomfortable with some of the ways material narratives and value are constructed by these shows.  Yet these shows are not going away, because so many people are fascinated with material culture and the stories told by old things, and genealogical shows are not likely to disappear either.  Things matter, and generational histories are consequential to our community partners and have genuine political weight, so we risk crafting an insulated discipline if we cannot embrace that widespread interest in the very things in which we are interested.

The most significant trigger for the recent explosion in genealogical interest has been the rich range of documentary resources now available online.  A host of ever-expanding web pages marshal an exceptionally rich database of primary historical evidence, and scores of people from nearly every walk of life have assumed control over their very own narratives and pieced together many solid genealogies.  Much of the mass embrace of genealogical narrative came following Alex Haley’s landmark Roots: The Saga of an American Family in 1976, which was followed by a very popular television mini-series the following year.  Roots revolutionized African-American genealogical research in particular, but its’ phenomenal popularity (almost half the country saw the final episode) reflects how genealogical narratives can bring some of the nation’s most weighty heritage into public discussion.

The Kunta Kinte-Alex Haley memorial sits on the Annapolis, Maryland docks where Haley’s ancestor Kunta Kinte was sold into captivity (courtesy Mrs. Gemstone).

Scholars, though, have often been reluctant to embrace genealogy as rigorous research or historical interpretation.  Roots and Alex Haley have been targeted by critics contemptuous of the book’s popular success, critical of Haley’s research methods, and suspicious of his political leanings.  Some of this reflects deep-seated resistance to a late-19th century approach to genealogy as an ideological mechanism tracing racial and ethnic descent that implicitly separated White bourgeois from immigrants, people of color, and working classes.  To compound the distance between academics and generational historians, some self-important academics persistently stereotype genealogists as sloppy researchers engaged in utterly particularistic documentation.

Yet in the hands of Alex Haley generational histories confronted ideologically distorted accounts that paid no attention to the marginalized masses; in Roots’ case a creatively interpreted genealogy wrote the African diaspora into American history with a 250-year account of Haley’s family.  Academics observers and generational historians alike can always press for more primary sources, question an author’s interpretation, dispute a writer’s narrative devices, or argue for framing the data in new ways revolving around different questions, but all scholarship is open to such interrogation, whether it is a family tree or an article in a peer-reviewed journal.

Very few historical archaeologists have ever been unwilling to work with genealogists, and in fact many of us have had very productive collaborative research projects with community scholars studying generational histories.  Archaeologists are truly public scholars working in the midst of living communities and rarely if ever conforming to the caricature of an academic sequestered in the ivory tower.  Historical archaeologists actually have focused much of our politics on such community partnerships and engagement, and we understand that genealogical narratives are important to many of our community partners.  Genealogists routinely master a dense array of basic primary resources, and historical archaeologists link individual families’ genealogies to broader historical currents.   We bring substantive scholarly questions to such partnerships, an interest in relating the particularistic historical details of a single life or one family to broader transnational, colonial, and global patterns.  With community partners we turn those discussions into something far more politically and socially important than yet another archaeological case study.

Allen County Library image courtesy amyc500

Kunta Kinte-Alex Haley Memorial image courtesy Mrs. Gemstone

See the Kunta Kinte-Alex Haley Memorial web page for more information on the Annapolis monument to Haley and his ancestor.

On the SHA Blog my piece on the closing of the Georgia State Archives details one of the most draconian and short-sighted of fiscal policies as the state plans to effectively close its Archives to the public.

Adams, Russell L.

1980 An Analysis of the Roots Phenomenon in the Context of American Racial Conservatism.  Presence Africaine 116:125-40.

Stephanie Athey

1999 Poisonous Roots and the New World Blues: Rereading Seventies Narration and Nation in Alex Haley and Gayl Jones. Narrative 7(2):169-193.  (Subscription access)

Barile, Kerri S. and Jamie Brandon (eds)

2004 Household Chores and Household Choice: Theorizing the Domestic Sphere in Historical Archaeology.  University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa.

Cantwell, Anne-Marie and Diana diZerega Wall

2003 Unearthing Gotham: The Archaeology of New York City.  Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticut.

Mills, Elizabeth Shown

2003 Genealogy in the “Information Age”: History’s New Frontier?  National Genealogical Society Quarterly 91:260-277.

Nash , Catherine

2002 Genealogical Identities.  Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 20(1):27–52.  (Subscription access)

Orser, Charles E. Jr.

1996 A Historical Archaeology of the Modern World.  Plenum, New York.

Taylor, Helen

1995 “The griot from Tennessee”: The Saga of Alex Haley’s Roots. Critical Quarterly.  37 (2):46-63. (Subscription access)

White Carolyn (editor)

2009 The Materiality of Individuality: Archaeological Studies of Individual Lives.  Springer, New York.

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