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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Comments on Becoming an Excellent Genealogist -- Chapter Nine

This is an ongoing series of chapter by chapter comments on the book,

Meyerink, Kory L., Tristan Tolman, and Linda K. Gulbrandsen. Becoming an Excellent Genealogist: Essays on Professional Research Skills. [Salt Lake City, Utah]: ICAPGen, 2012.

I am now commenting on Chapter Nine: Researching Minorities in the United States by Jimmy B. Parker, AG, FUGA.

I had a very brief connection with Jimmy Parker, just before he passed away, in working on Native American entries in the FamilySearch Research Wiki. He was instrumental in the creation of the International Commission for the Accreditation of Professional Genealogists before it became an independent organization. There is a wonderful tribute to him in an obituary in the Deseret News dated 11 September 2011. 

Jimmy makes an interesting point about minorities. He states, quoting from page 85 of the book, 
The concept of "minorities research" is an interesting one. What is it, anyway? What about a person or group sets them apart as a minority? Every individual, family, ethnic group, religion, etc. may qualify as a minority under certain conditions. What constitutes a minority may vary with locality, time period, and attitude. And even if a person or group is considered a minority, how does that affect research? Are the record different for that group? Does the research methodology change because of that minority status?
I would have to answer these questions with a qualifications. For example, recent news shows that in two states of the United States, California and New Mexico, Latinos surpass whites as the largest racial/ethnic group. Here we get to the crux of the matter. What is a Latino? What is a "white?" Aren't these labels self-imposed? Having lived in Latin America for many years, I can hardly go along with a generalization about either the race or ethnicity of "Hispanics." For example, it your family came from Argentina, does that make you a Latino? What if your Argentine family was of German origin and spoke German and Spanish in the home? Does that make you a Latino? In this particular example, aren't we talking about language? If you speak Spanish as your native language, doesn't that make you a Latino in the United States regardless of your ethnic origin? Are the California universities going to start adding English-speaking whites to their minorities studies departments?

From a genealogical standpoint the concept of a "minority" is useless. At one point in time, every single group of immigrants, including the English, were a minority as they came to America. How many Native Americans were there in what we now call Massachusetts when the Pilgrims arrived? Who was the minority? At the same time, there are certain historical facts about the way "minorities" were treated as they arrived in America that governs where and how their important genealogical records were kept. Researching African American populations in the mid-1800s certainly requires some specialized methodologies and background knowledge that is distinctive from researching German immigrants in Pennsylvania. Recognizing the different cultural, ethnic and linguistic backgrounds of our ancestors is fundamental to genealogical research. In addition, it is important to recognize that as these people moved across political, ethnic, social and other artificially imposed boundaries, the methodology of tracing their history also likely changed.

Where the concept of a minority is generally unhelpful is when the descendants of a minority start to believe that genealogy is "different for their minority." Genealogical research is a broad brush that has techniques and methods that apply to people and are not different simply because someone is labeled a minority. Genealogists learn to appreciate the facts of history that records change depending on political, social, religious and cultural movements and changes, but the process of researching those records is still fundamentally the same. For example, to give an analogy, if I am trying to drive across Los Angeles, I will need to know certain information about freeways and the names of towns. This is considerably different than navigating my way around in rural Pennsylvania. But the process of using maps and navigating is the same. Similarly, if I am researching Hispanic records in California, I use the same genealogical tools as I do when I research records in Pennsylvania. Of course, there are always those "specialists" that have a greater knowledge of their own local records (or streets to continue the analogy) but we are both involved in essentially the same activity.

As Jimmy Parker points out, the key to all of this is knowing the history and background of your ancestors. I am sometimes appalled and even amazed at the lack of awareness of researchers. They dive right into looking for an ancestor without knowing anything about the area where they are researching. I find that many times they do not even know which state they are researching or if the state or county even existed at the time their ancestor lived. My point is that genealogy is not so much a search for names and dates as it is a search for records. Every one of our ancestors came from a different place and we need to know if there are records for the time and place before we start searching for names.

Here are links to the previous posts in this series:

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