Productive Procrastination

If there’s anything that’s more difficult to write than the introduction to a dissertation, I don’t want to know about it. At the moment, you see, it’s all about the introduction for me – or more specifically, the introduction revisions. The introduction is at a good starting point, which means that I’ve got at least a decent foundation. That doesn’t change the fact that I find intro-revision process to be very daunting. Still, there comes a point in every dissertator’s experience when you simply buck up and deal with it. Actually, that comes often, particularly as you’re nearing the end.

I’ll admit that today has been, well, not my most productive. After resolving a dissertation problem (following a brief nap), I started to think about how I really, really wanted to watch last Friday’s premiere of NBC’s Who do you think you are? show. So I indulged. And ironically, watching the show seemed to help even more. Unlike my nap, I didn’t come away with solutions, but I came away excited, a bit inspired, and thinking about women’s history.

I didn’t watch the show last year when the first season aired, but the premise isn’t that difficult: celebrities get to go research their ancestors to learn about their past. It’s perfect in a lot of ways for historians because it highlights the research process (in certain ways) and makes doing history feel like detective work – which is really what studying history is all about.

The episode I watched featured Vanessa Williams on a search to learn about her father’s ancestry. I read an article somewhere recently that mentioned that one of the hurdles the producers encounter with African American participants is that quite often, the historical trail goes cold when you reach back into the pre-Civil War years. Williams’ story was fascinating – as it turns out, part of her father’s family came from New York (one ancestor served in the Civil War in a black regiment). The other part of the family came from the south, including a relative who was one of the first black members of the Tennessee House of Representatives.

Altogether, the episode was really worthwhile, and I’m a big supporter of anything that will get people interested in learning about the past. Williams’ story was also neat because her family’s history exemplifies so much of what we read about in African American history in the US: a family theme of the importance of education; her Civil War veteran ancestor used money from enlisting to buy property for his family (and was married to a white woman); and Williams got an up-close lesson about the effect of Jim Crow and segregation on freed slaves and their families in the late-19th century south.

But by the end of the episode, what really struck me was what this show has to teach us about performing research and – more specifically – studying women’s history. For her own part, Williams appeared most interested in her father’s family because her father passed away five years ago. For her, uncovering her father’s past was key – and by the end of the episode, that meant learning about her great-great grandfathers. The final segment of the show gave her an opportunity to express her excitement over learning about the men in her family history in particular.

And yet, what about the women? The census records in the episode offer the names, racial identification, and occupation of at least two of Williams’ female ancestors. One was white, one was mulatto; both, from what I could tell, listed their occupations as “keeping house”. One female family member – her father’s mother, or perhaps her father’s grandmother – went from being someone with no name to someone with a name when a researcher found the woman’s obituary. I had more questions about these women than anything else, and would have loved to know more about them and what the researchers might have found.

So although Williams focused her interests on the men in her background, I was more curious about the women. As a women’s historian, I recognize that uncovering the women in Williams’ past probably would have been the trickier thing. And, maybe the researchers did spend more time on that then we saw.

What would be really fascinating, however, would be for a show like this to address the questions not only of “how do we uncover the ancestry of someone of African American descent” – but also “how do we uncover the women in someone’s ancestry.” I’d love to see how they tackle not just roadblocks from racial heritage, but also sex.

I hope they’ll bring that question in this season, but in the meantime, I think I’ll keep watching. Although for now, I promise I’ll get back to revising this introduction.

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One thought on “Productive Procrastination

  1. When I finish all my research projects and have time on my hands (this is definitely a fantasy!) I have planned to research my family history but instead of following the father’s line which is traditional, I want to follow the mother’s line. This will be easy as far as my mother and her mother is concerned but then it will get trickier. My maternal grandmother’s mother was an Irish Catholic who married into a Scottish Presbyterian family and converted when she married. I only found this out recently. I am interested in bringing out this story but given the fact that this story has been subsumed (or more likely deliberately hidden) it may be a bit tricky to find more information.

    Women have such an important role in shaping family life and culture – it seems silly that genealogy does not recognise this and instead focuses on the male line.

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