Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Being politically correct in genealogy

One of the hallmarks of our time is the issue of political correctness. It is not my intention to get into a discussion of whether or not we should adapt our daily speech to reflect whatever is currently politically correct, but I note that this attitude of limiting our vocabulary to respond to someone's preconceived notion or correctness is pervading even the genealogical community. Right up front I need to point out that genealogy deals with history. Sometimes history isn't pleasant. I have been re-watching the Ken Burns film on the U.S. Civil War. I also note that 2011 is 150th anniversary of the start of the war with the first shot fired at Fort Sumter in the Charleston, South Carolina harbor, April 12, 1861 at 4:30 am. Watch the show if you want to know what I mean about history not being pleasant.

So when we are researching our genealogy, do we gloss over the "politically incorrect" parts and try and make everything as acceptable as possible? In reflecting back on some of the circumstances of my early childhood with an adult perspective, I realized something I never appreciated or understood as a child; I lived in a segregated community. In my case, the segregation was not between Black and White, but between Spanish speaking and English speaking people. To what extent do those early experiences influence how we compile our personal family history. Should we write out any prejudice or discrimination? Do we re-write history to suit the current style of political correctness?

Because of my extensive background in linguistics, I am usually painfully aware of the distinctions made in speech. I learned very early in my life that words that were entirely acceptable in Argentina could have a very offensive meaning in Mexico and the opposite was also true, Mexican words were sometimes taboo in other countries. The same thing happens at all levels of speech with what people think is acceptable. Political correctness deals with how different groups within the same society communicate with and refer to each other. Even in my office at work, I can no longer comfortably refer to any of the employees as "secretaries." They are now either para-legal assistants or simply legal assistants. But does that mean when I find an offensive tern in an historical record that I must change it on the chance that it will offend someone in the present age?

I am not addressing the issue of "delicate" subject matter, facts that would embarrass people still living, but I am looking at the problem of what to call someone or something. Just the other day, I was called a "gringo" and the person using that term referred to the person next to me, who spoke German, with another more offensive term. I was not offended but I wondered if my friend was. Reality is that years ago people used language that if used today would get you fired or arrested. (Some use the same language today). But we are genealogists/historians, to ask the question again, do we sanitize the facts to suit our concept of acceptability?

My answer is a definite no. Facts are facts. Enough history gets re-written as it is without me contributing to the drift off into fantasy. From my present perspective, I may believe my ancestors to be racists bigots, but that does not give me leave to alter their record to make believe they were something else. If you begin to alter your ancestors' history, you might as well go all the way and chose your own pedigree, one you can be proud of and makes you more distinguished. If you would like a few different viewpoints look at this post by DearMYRTLE back in September, 2010.


  1. Interesting post. I agree. History should not be re-written to suit our day and notions. As you say, facts are facts.

  2. I have addressed this in some of my posts about 19th century Hawaii. When I transcribe documents for Amanuensis Monday I transcribe them exactly, even though some people asked me to leave out some words. I even highlighted several very racist cartoons for historical reasons. Why hide them? It is interesting to see how people thought 100 years ago, and to see how little we have advanced sometimes.

  3. It's hubris of the highest order to presume that we must pass judgment and condemn our ancestors for not having our same values and customs. For example, imagine a man living in the 19th Century, who spent long, difficult hours working on the farm just to survive from day to day and from year to year. Why should we feel it necessary to condemn that man for being insensitive of women or for not caring about freeing the slaves?

    Projecting our values while we sit in relative comfort, have plenty to eat, and have a decent future ahead of us denies the very real problems our ancestors did face.

  4. I agree with Heather. Why hide history? It is what it is. If we hide it we can't learn from it. We should learn from it and (hopefully) not make the same mistakes the second, or in some cases, the third time around...

  5. THANKS for the shout-out James. It is important that we look as objectively as possible to the context of our ancestors' lives.

  6. I agree about keeping our transcriptions true to the original language. History is history.

    I transcribed a sermon given by an itinerant preacher in the 1800s. It's a great (somewhat funny looking back)sermon which is also very politically incorrect. But is it what he said and I have no right to change it.

  7. It was good to hear how someone else is tackling difficult issues. I had an ancestor who drank too much and beat his children. It is an 'open secret'; something everyone knows and no one addresses. I have come to no decision as yet on how to handle this when it comes time to put together a publication on this branch. You gave me some helpful insights.

  8. One of my great-grandfathers was a bigamist. I am not going to bury that fact, nor am I going to be so silly as to refer to him as indulging in "uxorial redundancy." As a genealogist and as a university-trained historian, I keep myself conscious of the need to avoid "presentism" -- that is, not to judge the people of yesterday by the standards of today.

    What I have done is investigated and thought about the social milieu in which he lived, the circumstances surrounding his indiscretion, and come up with a man who got caught in a situation from which he saw no good way out except to take off and leave his family. He ended up in another state, friendless, alone, and probably confused and ashamed. From that he build a good life with his second wife (great-grandma got an uncontested divorce back home). His descendants by that marriage are honorable, fine people who have served community and country.

    That's the take-away.

    That, and the fact that he did liven up an otherwise dull genealogy!

  9. Agree. I have a WWII letter home from Italy in which my relative referes to the 'Wogs and sand' of his service in Africa. Not particularly complimentary in it's day and downright racist now, but it's what he wrote, in his own handwriting to his parents, whom luckily he did get to see again. It's a critical part of my family's documentary history and I refuse to see it sanitised in transcription (and one relative even wants ot destroyed!).