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  • Writer's pictureDevon Noel Lee

Family Historians Should Avoid Presentism In Their Books

As Family History writers, our job involves being objective narrators. We don’t paint our ancestors with a good brush or a bad brush. We paint with a neutral brush with the context available to our ancestors at their time and let our readers decide for themselves how they want to feel about an ancestor or what lessons they want to learn from their lives.

“What kind of future do we have if we destroy our past?” - Douglas Murray, author of The Madness of Crowds.

Can You Truly Judge Your Ancestors?

If your ancestor was a slave owner, were they:

  • Entirely good

  • Entirely bad

  • Or a bit of both?

If your ancestor was a white, black, or something else, male or female, wealthy or poor, where they entirely

  • Oppressed

  • Privileged

  • Or a bit of both?

As genealogists and family history authors, we need to avoid the dangerous path of judging our ancestors by today’s standards.

We must be careful that we don’t project onto the past the thought that they should have known better and done something more.

Don’t Distort The Past

Let us be an objective journalist who reports the past as best as we are able. Hopefully, by adding context and keeping our ancestors within that setting, we can present what Mr. Murray calls “the nuance, complexity, and context that is history.”

When we project our myopic vision of the past, we distort the picture. Here's an example of presentism in my primary education.

As a child, I was taught that women didn’t work outside the home until 1940.

That’s not entirely true. It’s a projection of my teachers about what constituted work outside of the home that women engaged in.

As I researched genealogy, I discovered many instances of this distorted statement. One female ancestor became a doctor after her husband died during the Civil War. That would be the 1860s and 1870s. Other female relatives were postmasters, teachers, and other occupations. As a business owner with my husband, I also know that women often joined their husband’s work.

While the percentage of females working ‘outside the home’ has increased since the 1940s, a modern perspective of what constitutes employment distorts and damages women's lives in the past.

I can think of numerous other distortions that I have heard over the years, and only digging into the context of the lives of my ancestors has helped correct the perspectives of the present.

Don’t Insult Your Readers

Many family historians desire their relatives to read their published books. The last thing we want to do after enticing a relative to read our stories is to cause them to reject our efforts because we inserted our opinions on our common ancestors.

I asked people who aren’t in the genealogy community about how important it is for writers to be historically accurate. Consider this the voice of your future reader.

Don't use presentism in writing - reader feedback 1

Do you understand how easy it is to turn our family members against us if we write something that projects modern values on the actions of the past?

Don't use presentism in writing - reader feedback 2

Jennifer sums it up best, “don’t purposely change history to tell a different story.”

Such actions insult your readers. Let them read the stories you write and decide for themselves what they wish to take away.

Can you criticize people for things they did that were bad?

In a discussion involving a history Ph.D. candidate, the person said people who disliked projecting presentism on the past do not want people to criticize people for what they did.

So, can we criticize our ancestors for the things they did?

Yes, but there is a format and a place for that.

What is the goal of most family history projects?

  • Is it to put your ancestors on trial?

  • Is it to invite your family members to learn about their heritage and let them decide what to do with that knowledge?

For the average family historian, you will want to write a story that invites your relatives to learn about their ancestors. Thus, you will wish to write a neutral history telling a full picture of your ancestor.

However, if you want to write a critique of your ancestors, that’s an option. You could write about how your ancestor’s choices and actions impact your present.

One common point for those who support adding presentism to past histories is the example of Thomas Jefferson holding conflicting views regarding the definition of “All men are created equal.” Thomas Jefferson having contradictory views is a prime example of human nature. History and the present are full of people who are hypocrites. And that makes for very interesting stories, do they not?

Your readers will want to know this objective at the beginning of your book. On the title page, in the preface, or in the opening chapter, explain that what they will read is a critique, not a generalized family history story. The thing I invite you not to do is to ‘hide’ that you’re critiquing your ancestors. Your readers will not appreciate the deception.

Additionally, if you choose to write criticism, be sure to cover the whole person within the context of their time as you judge them for something you believe they should have handled better.

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Remember the Circumstances Our Ancestors Overcame

As family historians, we should remember that people always act on their available knowledge, just like we do today.

While many today discuss the lasting effects of slavery, might I ask, do you know the lasting effects of how deaf people were treated in the US?

There are many ‘causalities’ in the battle over Oralism vs. Manualism.

During the early to mid-1900s, hearing parents with a deaf child received counsel and compensation that sent their offspring to state-funded schools for the deaf.

Well-meaning ‘experts’ told many parents not to learn American Sign Language. Meanwhile, the child learned ASL. How do you think that turned out?

In short, the resulting language barrier split apart families.

I met several deaf persons who were raised in state schools and separated from their parents. As adults, they lived in the same town as their siblings. Since the hearing siblings never learned to sign and the deaf persons couldn’t speak, these blood relatives rarely saw each other Only when an interpreter offered to help could the siblings interact. It broke my heart to serve as an interpreter.

If my child was deaf, I would make my family learn sign language. How could those families be so cruel? Wait! I just projected presentism on the parents of the past. Didn’t I?

Many parents were caught up in a struggle where the information that we have today, if available back then, would likely have resulted in different choices and outcomes. Thus, as a writer, I need to provide as much information about the context, choices, and consequences but leave out my judgment when sharing the stories.

It’s possible the experiences our ancestors went through made them stronger or gave them the knowledge to correct policies from the past. Abuse, neglect, injustices, injury, and the like are turning points in many people’s lives. Some people become bitter, while others take a different road.

That different road is summed up in these lyrics by Rascal Flatts:

“Cause when push comes to shove, You taste what you're made of. You might bend till you break, 'Cause it's all you can take. On your knees, you look up, Decide you've had enough. You get mad, you get strong, Wipe your hands, shake it off, Then you stand, then you stand”

Our ancestors didn’t have the benefit of OUR hindsight. They couldn’t know the future.

They had the benefit of THEIR hindsight and their present conditions.

And each generation’s duty is to build a better world than the one that came before. But let’s be mindful of the trap lurking as we reflect on the past.

Instead, let’s write so our readers can decide, “Did our ancestors achieve or fail at improving the world in which they lived?”

Handling Morally Objectionable Actions of Our Ancestors

How do we handle things we find morally objectionable that our ancestors did?

First, recognize that what is morally objectionable is not universal. The following example might not bother you as much as it bothers someone else.

Next, consider this example.

Suppose your paternal ancestors were German immigrants. German Villages sprang up around the US, and many of them had breweries because, stereotypically, Germans like to drink.

However, your ancestors, for generations, couldn't control their liquor and were drunks. Their drunkenness led to abusive behavior for generations.

Now, suppose one ancestor stopped drinking alcohol but was still abusive both physically and verbally. They had a religious belief that said alcoholism is a sin, but so was abusing their wife and children. Thus, this person, by your standards, is a hypocrite and worthy of criticism.

And yet, this ancestor quit drinking during a time when Alcoholics Anonymous and other modern support systems did not exist. And yet, by becoming sober on his own, this ancestor changed the trajectory of his family history and stopped the cycle of alcoholism in his children.

When writing this family history, would we serve our readers well by:

  • Criticizing this man for not completely ending alcoholism and abuse?

  • Or writing his biography in such a way that includes both the positive and negative aspects of his story?

Perhaps the answer lies in whether we label our project about this man as a criticism of him or whether we're writing his biography. One can have presentism, and the other shouldn't.

For a well-thought-out discussion of how to consider the context of the time, check out this video called “What is Presentism?”

A close cousin of presentism is historical perspective. This video discusses marriage rules for windows in the Middle Ages.

Remember, It Is What It Was

One final thought.

While living in Humble, Texas, I attended my local genealogical society meeting. During a presentation about how to research the Five Civilized Tribes that were forcibly relocated to Oklahoma, the speaker opened my eyes to a lesser-known truth. Some Natives owned slaves. One Native American-owned slave was her ancestor. Have you heard of Native Americans that owned slaves before now?

As I continued listening to her quest for her ancestors, she said something profound that I will never forget. Regarding how she felt knowing that her ancestors were slaves of Native Americans, she simply said,

“It is, what it was.”

As family historians, we need to tell what the past was in the most historically accurate context we can. If we will write with a neutral view of the past, our readers can have a brighter future because they better understand their past.

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