History is a dusty business. One person’s dust is another person’s dirt. This is especially true when the history in question is that of a living community, no less one that venerates its founders’ memory. What you consider an insight others might consider a scandalous impossibility.
A college mentor told me of a white Southern family that hired a historian, who was to research the family history and share his findings at the family reunion the next year. He did as he was told, reporting nothing until the foreordained moment. After the picnic lunch, he nonchalantly told the gathered family members how their descendants included not one but several African-American fathers and Anglo-American (or, apparently, mixed) mothers. The parents quickly told their children to go play on the playground and demanded their money back. They were not who they thought they were.
When I wrote my monograph (forthcoming in May, the first of many, I hope), it was accepted for publication by my first choice publisher (Oxford), the top in my field – but not initially. I received a resounding rejection. Among the reasons given by the anonymous reviewers (and there were many) was my tendency to be too sympathetic, hagiographical even, in my treatment of the founders of the community in question. In my recounting of their founding narrative and subsequent analysis of it, it was often impossible to distinguish my authorial voice from theirs.
During the ensuing months of revision, I succeeded in distinguishing my conclusions from theirs. Attempting to see things through their eyes was an invaluable tool, but I then needed to acquire some critical distance. Outsiders can see things that insiders may not. Outsiders may be willing to reach conclusions that seem improbable, unfair, or absurd to insiders.
Such conclusions, however, can come at a price. You may hope to find your boldness rewarded with dialogue and engagement. Yet, after tasting what you hope is knowledge, you may find yourself estranged from what had seemed like a home.
This story reminds me of my rather gregarious bus driver when I took a guided trip to Ireland some dozen years ago or so. He was questioning the tenancy of “yanks” coming back to find out who their ancestors were. “Don’t you know” he commented “Ireland was full to the brim of drunken criminals under British rule”. “I’ll tell you” he added, “You probably won’t like what you find. But if you insist, I can point you to some folks who can dig that out for you. Yes for 300 quid you can find out who your ancestors were, but it’ll cost you 300,000 to bury it again.”
I suppose the morale of the story is don’t ask questions if you are not prepared to handle the answers. Some dogs are best left to lie.
The challenge for those of us who go digging is to remember that we are not unearthing abstract insights. We are revealing and interpreting facts about other people’s families, whether in a natural or spiritual sense. It is good for me to remember that my research can have personal consequences for people who are not me.