Saturday, March 20, 2010

Who do you think you are?

Sounds like a playground taunt to me, but actually it is a new television series on NBC based on a BBC show of the same name. Each show takes a celebrity on a genealogical hunt through their pedigree. So far it does not seem to be causing a genealogical fervor as Roots did so many years ago, but it may yet gain momentum. So far only three episodes have aired and I have watched each one of them. I have mixed feelings about the show. For good or bad, here is my take on it:

1. I am not a celebrity watcher. I border on anathema towards such. I resent anything that presents a celebrity telling me what I should eat, wear, say, do, what to ask my doctor, or who to vote for, however I have hoped to overcome my prejudice and look at this show as about family history, not celebrities. The stories are and can be interesting and I know that the celebrity factor is to draw viewers. I think you could probably take any ordinary citizen and find something interesting in their family history, but there might not be as many viewers for that. For us genealogists we would probably watch no matter who was in the spotlight, but the celebrity factor draws people who otherwise might not watch.

2. The program distorts the actual process of genealogy research. It would be nice if all of us searching our family tree could walk into an archive and immediately talk to a professional genealogist who pulls out the correct book that gives you the information you have been seeking. Or you happen to walk into a store in an old family town and right off find a second cousin thrice removed who tells you where to go next. Or best of all, travel to all those places where your ancestors originated no matter how far away and find distant cousins or old family friends. Yesssirrreee, wouldn't we all love to be able to do that. But usually there is no one that is or even can be so helpful. Even professional genealogists hit brick walls. Oftentimes our time doing research is hours sitting in front of a screen searching barely legible documents and finding nothing and going on to the next film. Or pulling dusty books off of shelves hoping, between sneezes, that each one will give you some little clue to what you are searching. We even spend time learning the basics of a foreign language so that we can read those barely legible documents. And is it really necessary to travel to the places where your ancestors came from? Any genealogist will tell you that with the onset of the internet - NO. It is nice, and sometimes it is helpful, but it is not necessary. Emails and letters can often do what we can't do when we can't physically go to a place.

3. The specific programs:
a. Sarah Jessica Parker - Hers is a story of America, specifically the United States from the Salem Witch Trials to the California Gold Rush.
b. Emmit Smith - Reviews said that his was the most compelling story in the series. I have to disagree. Yes, it is a tragic story, but ultimately it is about a woman who succeeded in bringing a better life to her offspring than what she had and that is the story of all families - parents working for a better life for their children. I am glad that they did show the part in Africa where they told about modern-day slavery. Too often people think of slavery as only part of the American past, but slavery has been a part of every people and every nation of every age and still exists in many forms today.
c. Lisa Kudrow - To me, so far hers is the most compelling story. Whereas Emitt's story was of life, Lisa's story was of death, specifically murder and torture. I nearly cried along with her when she visited the scene of her great-grandmother's unconscionable murder along with a village full of people at the hands of Nazis, and when she found her father's cousin still alive and with his own family I cried yet again.

4. What I like about the program is the history. Finding the stories behind the names of our ancestors personalizes the past. It brings the events that have shaped our lives closer to us and we can connect to who we are and where we came from. It helps us to know our selves a little better because of knowing our past. By watching this process in others, perhaps we and maybe those who may not previously have been interested in genealogy will see the value in it and start researching their own family history. Perhaps they will find something that will help them to cope with their own life.