16 March 2012

Does the Mona Lisa Smile?

There has been a great deal of research done on the dwindling ability of our young to understand facial expressions. When you play with an infant, they become more engaged and animated the more your face alters its expression. They learn how to tell if you are happy or sad or angry because you make those faces. The problem is, with our ever growing computer culture, we are getting less expressive. As a consequence, we are also losing our ability to differentiate the expressions we do receive. The less we interact face to face, the less we understand the myriad of clues our face provides. I'm sure you've had a conversation with a younger person and found them unable to understand your emotional state (either accusing you of yelling when you aren't or not understanding how upset you really are) or found a blank face staring at you insisting that they are devastated. Maybe you are like me and wonder why movies today are full of emotionless mannequins with no ability to emote what their lines seem to be suggesting.

Now why in the world is this relevant to your genealogical research? Well, have you ever run across an unanswerable question only because you cannot justify a relative's actions? You find a relative in an orphanage despite his father living in the same town. Someone in your family owned, sold, or was a slave. They seemed to pick up stakes and move for no reason beyond it was a Tuesday. Sometimes, you know why they did what they did; or at least you think you do. What you are really wondering about is how it must've felt. You are looking for an emotional "why". The problem is, you are looking at a 19th century life with 21st century eyes. You are the stone faced teen unable to read what's clearly written on your ancestor's countenance.

So you end up with a brick wall. Not so much out of lack of information, but a lack of understanding. You stare blankly at a document telling you where your ancestor lived, died or worked and it makes no sense. What do you do? Well, don't take this the wrong way, but you READ. This can be as simple as looking on Wikipedia for a historical sketch of the time and/or place your ancestor lived in. It can be an in depth look at the history of the founding of a town or mass exodus of a people. Or it can be my favorite kind of reading: classic works of fiction for fun. If you truly want to know how your family felt and thought, pick up an author from their time and country and read. Historical works are fine and good, but are often written in hindsight and always from the winning side; so keep that in mind. And a fictional story from a contemporary writer is usually the easiest way to tap into the communal attitudes of the time. One of my favorite authors, Dickens, has a myriad of fictional works that can put the reader smack dab into the middle of English life in the 19th century. Bringing to light the foul treatment of children and poor families, his works tug at our hearts and open a window into the world in which he (and many ancestors) lived. To read Dickens is to understand the social order and philosophy of his world. Want to know how it felt to be a slave? Read the accounts of freed slaves like Frederick Douglass. What was the attitude of whites during slavery? Read a white author born and raised in the time of slavery, especially if they have black characters in their narratives (ever read Crusoe?). Curious as to the treatment of women? There are several women authors throughout history who delve into issues important to them in both fiction and nonfiction. It doesn't take much perusal of Jane Austin to know how bored she must've been with her life. Suffragette pamphlets, while biased, can make for a fun read and really enlighten you to the discord felt by women (especially after WWI when many had tasted work outside of the home for the first time). Read a medical journal on women's health and find yourself shocked (and a little amused) at what the "leading minds" thought caused women to be sick (hint: it was usually because of a faulty uterus). Moreover, fostering a love of literature will enrich your life and provide you with a broader cultural awareness. And who doesn't want that?

In the research on facial recognition, scientists found that the more expressions a person was exposed to, the better their ability to differentiate them. The same can be said for a well-read person. The more time periods you choose to read from/about, the more you choose differing ideals and philosophies, the greater your chance on picking up the subtle clues in your family's past. By exercising your literacy, you also exercise your cognitive abilities. Exposure to a vast array of ideas only helps you to hone your own reasoning skills to a finer edge. Everyone should read more books!

Now, I have no problem helping people with their brick walls or understanding their ancestors. "Ask and you shall receive" has always been a mantra of mine. But I think people have forgotten, or never knew, how to research. I have gone to actual courthouses and societies to do research, but 90% of what I do to help others is online. When I am asked a question on Ancestry's Facebook page, I'm going to Google anything I don't readily know. Most of the questions I answer for others are things they could find within 20 minutes of a simple Internet search. Sometimes it takes a special knowledge of the time or place in question, but not always. When you run into a question, your first stop should be a Google search. The answer may be readily available to you with nothing but a few keystrokes. Can't find it or still confused? Now ask for help. But ask correctly. When you ask another to help in your research, tell them what you know right now (names, dates, locations), where you've already looked and what specifically you want to know. I can't give that bit of advice enough. Asking a generally vague question will get back vague answers if any answer at all. And always remember that how we feel about a situation isn't how our ancestors felt. They may have been good people in a bad situation.... but they could've also been bad people making their own situation worse.

Ours is not to judge, but to learn.

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