Art by Peau Porotesano
The increasing availability of DNA sequencing technology and ancestry databases makes it easy for people to learn more about themselves and their families’ pasts. People should take advantage of these technological advances as much as they are able in order to keep the memory of their ancestors alive.
It is easy to dismiss the lives of distant relatives as irrelevant to one’s daily routines. The idea of honoring one’s ancestors seems antiquated to many people today, and is often caricatured as somehow primitive or superstitious, or even potentially hostile and tribalistic.
Yet a connection to one’s forebears can deepen and expand one’s conception of self. It allows people to see that they are not only isolated individuals existing for the short span of a single human life; rather, they are the latest individuals in a long line stretching back to the very origin of the human species itself. To know even a fraction of this story can be deeply revelatory. Stories of our ancestors’ lives and ambitions can inspire, teach and also warn us. They remind us of our deep and often unseen connections to one another, to the places we inhabit and to the unfamiliar past.
These services are becoming more fashionable and more profitable: Ancestry.com, for example, reached $850 million in sales in 2017, according to Miguel Helft’s “Ancestry.com DNA Database Tops 3M,” published by Forbes on Jan. 10, 2017.
The high cost of some services may be prohibitive to some. 23andMe.com’s standard Ancestry package stands at $79, while a basic membership package with Ancestry.com costs $19.99 per month. It may also be alarming to see something as personal as one’s family history be commercialized, with its prices subject to market fluctuation like any ordinary product. But it may also be the most practical means of beginning one’s research, for those whose schedules prevent them from searching out information on their own.
The alternative, of course, is independent research. My great-grandmother Kathryn Sims took on the immense task of recording the histories of her immediate relatives as far back as she was able. Before the resources of the internet were widely available, she scoured local libraries, church records, newspaper archives, court documents and others to piece together the stories of her near and distant family. She left behind a wealth of information which is treasured by our family to this day.
For some, even basic information about distant family is scarce or entirely null. Historical traumas, like slavery in the Americas, have erased access to entire lineages and whole populations often find themselves at a disadvantage when researching their pasts. Though historians such as Henry Louis Gates Jr., and projects like Discoverfreedmen.org have made great advances to combat these challenges, they remain prominent for many African-American researchers with ancestors who were enslaved.
For all these setbacks, it is likely that there are more easily accessible avenues for studying family history today than at any time in the past. Even if prospects seem dismal at first, people should glean what they can from these available resources. They may find more information than they ever expected to.
We are each the latest member of a vast lineage which eventually connects us all, whether we acknowledge it or not. Searching back into one’s family history can bring profound meaning to one’s life and instill a deeper conception of self, family and one’s relationships with others.
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