I am always interested in people’s reactions to episodes of “Who Do You Think You Are?”, the television show which follows a celebrity’s search for his or her ancestors.
Usually there are plenty of positive comments, interspersed by remarks asking for more information, or profferring same, or astonished announcements that someone descends from the same line as said celebrity. Occasionally, though, I’ve noticed criticisms, particularly around why the show only traces the ancestry of well-known persons instead of that of John or Jane Doe on Main Street. (An interesting t.v. show concept on its own.) I take issue with that criticism. Though I disagree with the favoring of certain people over others merely because they happen to be country music singers or football stars or movie queens, I think the show’s format serves a higher purpose than some viewers are able to discern.
I first got interested in genealogy as a teenager, because I wanted to see if I could find any other people like me in my ancestral past—any musicians, writers, or rabble rousers who went against the flow of what was expected by society. I did find much of what I was looking for. Music, it turned out, ran in my German grandmother’s family for some three centuries, and there was ample evidence on both sides of love of the written word. It took deeper digging before I found some of the individualists I was hoping for. Of course, as a descendant of immigrants to North America dating back as far as the Mayflower in 1620 and as recently as the Queen Elizabeth in the 1930s, all my forebears were individualists or they could not have broken away from their respective old countries to try life in an untamed wilderness across the sea. But those unique personages with whom I felt a kinship beyond sharing of blood began to emerge from the mists. There was the thirteenth century Princess Elizabeth of Hungary who sold her jewels to buy food and medicines for the poor and sick, insulted in her lifetime and sainted after death. There was Pilgrim Elder William Brewster, who gave up a life at the glittering court of Queen Elizabeth I for the greater purpose of founding an ideal community of faith on the inhospitable shores of New England. There was Christina Stein, illegitimate daughter of an imperial lieutenant of the von Buseck family of Hessen, who in 1662 sued her deceased father’s powerful family for formal recognition of her rights and, despite being a non-person in the parlance of the day (a woman, a bastard), won. Closer to our time was my third great-grandfather, Samuel Mason, who risked his life (and shortened it) by crossing enemy lines to fight for the Union in the Civil War. And his grandson, my great-grandfather, who had the temerity to welcome black friends into the parlor of his home in northern Texas, despite his wife’s objections amd the real dangers of white associating with black in that KKK-dominated era.
As I studied history through the lens of my ancestry, I began to see people either as agents of change or victims of it (or, as in the case of my slave-holding ancestors, agents in the victimization of others). I could see my ancestors not as names and dates to collect, or distant diadems to brag about, but as actors contributing to the general drama of history. I could see how just one life could affect so many others, just as so many lives could have an effect on a single individual. This insight led, in part, to my becoming a biographer. It also led me to use genealogy as a tool for social justice—for the reconciliation of old wounds like North American slavery, equal rights for women and for all of the world’s citizens who happen not to fit the general mold. I could look into the faces of the black people whom my ancestors presumed to own—remember their names and contemplate their personal histories, destinies, their loves, hates, and dreams—and try to find ways to help heal the immortal horrors of North American slavery, which so many of my forebears supported and condoned. Increasingly, I see this as the only real reason to pursue my ancestors along the dark footpaths of the past. Not to benefit me, but to benefit you.
This I why I feel “Who Do You Think You Are?” is on the right track. Aside from the fact that each segment helps dissolve the silly illusion that celebrities are any different from non-celebrities, more importantly, the format encourages the celebrity—and by extension, those who watch their journey of discovery—to see their ancestors in the way I have described above, as players in the great play of life, as agents for positive and negative purposes in the larger human community. There is a “moral” to each segment, if you will. The researchers who assist in these segments could find that in anyone’s ancestry. The rub is whether this would suffice to gain the attention of most prime time viewers, which is to say most John and Jane Does. I say, bring on the celebrities, because both they and those who watch them time-traveling into their genealogies are learning something about the limitations as well as the uses of fame. Like the better angels in our ancestries, they are putting their power to good uses.