Rethinking Family History: Storytelling and Scholarship

Thursday, January 5, 2012: 3:00 PM
Armitage Room (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Kendra T. Field, University of California, Riverside
For this panel presentation, I will draw from my current book project, a family history that documents the migration and settlement of African Americans from the Deep South to Indian Territory after the Civil War. The project relies deeply on oral testimony and storytelling as well as archival research, and I am a descendant of two of the principal actors, both my great‐great‐grandfathers. I have had access to a handful of family letters from the turn of the twentieth century, as well as extensive genealogical detail and family stories, which may have been otherwise unavailable. This project ultimately belongs to several twenty‐first century descendants, and it references their myriad journeys to ancestral homeplaces in present‐day Virginia, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, West Africa, Mexico, and Canada. I have followed these descendants’ leads, testing their memories, narratives, and speculations about their ancestors’ lives against the archival record and the writings of others who traveled the same routes and encountered similar experiences. While I faced a bit of initial skepticism, ultimately my project was fully encouraged and supported by fellow scholars and mentors in part because of my personal access to this little‐known history and my careful approach to it. While the questions I have pursued have frequently diverged from those that most interest familial descendants, local genealogists, and amateur historians, the opportunity to work alongside these individuals has deeply enriched my knowledge and understanding of the impact of my intellectual work. In turn, I have developed an accountability to a community well beyond academia that is no less critical and meaningful to my work. Drawing upon this particular research experience, in this panel presentation I will raise expansive questions about intellectual motivation, access to sources, accountability and audience, and the relationship between professional historians and communities of other kinds.
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