Thoughts about Faces of America

Just watched the first episode of Faces of America American Lives, the annual February PBS documentary by Henry Louis Gates Jr. He looks at the immigrant experience, and the family history that brought certain people to the United States – the parents and grandparents of Americans of note– Kristi Yamaguchi, Yo Yo Ma, Mike Nichols, Louise Edrich, Mehmet Oz, Elizabeth Alexander, Malcolm Gladwell, Eva Longoria and Mario Batali (I guess we hear more next time from Stephen Colbert, Meryl Streep, and Queen Noor). The heart of this episode dwelled in the events of World War II, and the way that great event shaped the lives of ancestors of Yamaguchi, Ma, Nichols and Edrich.

One trademark about these Gates productions is the revelation about an ancestor. You watch Gates direct the person to turn the page of the book and take in the surprise fact about the Ancestor To The Celebrity. What did figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi’s grandfather do when he served in WW2? Surprise! What became of the other family members of Mike Nichols who stayed in the old country? Surprise!

Some surprises are affirming and uplifting, others are revelation of unknown tragedy, examples of prejudice and injustice. Still others exemplify the torn loyalties of new Americans who support their adopted country that is now at war with The Old Country.

“Faces of America” illuminates the variegated tapestry of American history. That subject we studied in school—history—is far deeper and more complex than we thought when teacher so-and-so told us about this event or that war or the other. (History? Are we bored yet? When’s recess?) The great events of the ages affected all people who experienced them. There are thousands of threads in that tapestry. What happened to your people in World War 2? What happened before that?

It’s fascinating what our ancestors experienced. One thing I can point to is that my great-grandmother corresponded with the first female congressperson to serve in the United States House of Representative. I don’t have first-hand proof, but only the words of Great Grandma Fannie writing to her daughter about receiving a letter from from “Jeannette”—Jeannette Rankin, Representative from the state of Montana, who was elected to Congress in 1916 and began serving in 1917… a few years before women received the right to vote nationwide.

I love the way that history is told in the particular stories of what happened to this or that person’s grandfather or grandmother. This is history, people, writ large, and small.

There will be a time when, generations from now, we elders (or our children, when they are elders) will be asked, “What did you do when that attack happened on 9/11?” and “Were you there in the flood after that hurricane, Katrina?” and “What did you do during the near-Depression of the early 21st century?” Or “Were you there when… [events of this or next year or the year after] .. and what did you do? What happened?”

Other thoughts: The immigrant ancestor? The most recent immigrant ancestors in my family history emigrated to United States from Ireland in the late 1800s (Mom’s Dad’s family. Ireland. (The same family line as James Cagney. Srsly. No joke. He and my Grandpa were second cousins.) Other than that, my people go way way back. But two of my brothers have married first generation immigrants, so we hit the reset button on ancestry for the next generation.

I’m looking forward to the next episode.

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Posted by Susan A. Kitchens on February 10, 2010 in • HistoryPersonal History
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