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From the Green Valley News, Friday 27 July 2007, page B10

Genealogy Today, by Betty Malesky

Debunking "Genealogy is Bunk"

The cover of the July issue of Smithsonian magazine states boldly, "Genealogy is Bunk." By definition bunk is nonsense, meaningless. Perhaps the magazine suffers from the summer doldrums and made this declaration to sell a few more copies. At any rate, it created a stir in the genealogy world.

Internet blogs and lists frequented by genealogists buzzed with comments for days with many wondering why Smithsonian would publish an article sure to irritate many of their two million subscribers. Not a few professional genealogists have written letters to the magazine protesting the one-sided article that truly is bunk.

Author Richard Conniff’s take on genealogy, "The Family Tree, Pruned," resulted from the interest his daughter has in the subject, a pursuit he suspects is "bunk." He is said to be a science writer, a master of research, and a speaker with a fabulous eye for observation. Conniff’s books include The Natural History of the Rich and The Ape in the Corner Office.

In the article he conveys his opinions that: 1. Only those hoping to find famous ancestors do family research; 2.We all have thousands of ancestors so why waste time researching them; 3. Many genealogies are fictionalized and plagiarized; 4. If we go back far enough, everyone’s ancestry is identical. While each of the charges contains a fragment of truth, they’re certainly not true of the discipline as a whole. Just because food can make us fat, we don’t quit eating.

Conniff feels we are defined only by what comes from within ourselves, not by our genealogy. The science of genetics and current strides in DNA research are summarily dismissed. Family history research is history on a personal level. Isn’t the Smithsonian pointing fingers at its own Institution’s mission, ". . . the increase & diffusion of knowledge . . ." including our history and culture? The bottom line is, all history is the result of the people who lived it, our ancestors.

Coniff also mistakenly believes many African Americans feel cut off from their heritage by the slave trade, but another recent article quotes race relation experts who believe confronting one’s personal history is crucial to moving forward. The article published June 24, 2007 in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution describes the discovery of an African American woman who traced her enslaved great, great grandparents to their former slave owners among whose descendants are a Memphis, Tennessee college professor.

Her research included census data, vital records, property records, and historical archives at the University of North Carolina, the Tennessee State Library and the Family History Library. The researcher, Katie Bennett, now collaborates on family research with Jameson Jones, the 91 year old professor. Jones is quoted saying he is "grateful to have lived to a time when descendants of slaves and descendants of slaveholders can approach one another as friends."

It appears Conniff is woefully ignorant of the impact of genealogy today. Genealogists are often hired to testify in court cases, help find missing heirs, and comment on social history. Many universities now offer courses in family research. Let’s hope Richard Coniff’s teenage daughter continues to pursue her ancestry and he returns to studying apes and baboons.

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