Out on a limb

By Samuel Charles

The federal government released data from the 1940 Census last week to the great anticipation of historians and curious descendants. Until recently, I was never that interested in where my family came from. I’d always just accepted that I was what my family told me. Since I grew up on the Southwest Side, I was Irish, Polish and Italian by definition.

After a little digging through various family tree websites, I discovered a few pretty interesting things about my lineage. Turns out I’ve had approximately six relatives knighted in the British Court. Two weeks ago I had no idea I was even British.

The point isn’t that my family ran the show in 15th century Britain—even though that’s pretty cool—but that there are fascinating stories to be found in everyone’s family tree. Most just don’t care enough to look.

History is a great indicator of not just where we’ve been, but where we’re going. Most high school history students can attest to teachers telling them about how if Adolf Hitler had read about Napoleon Bonaparte, he wouldn’t have tried to invade the Soviet Union and effectively take himself out during World War II.

We live in a culture consumed only with looking forward. But looking and moving forward are attitudes that need to be differentiated.

It’s a given that no civilized society ever wants to regress. Moving backward should never be an option. But to look back upon what already happened is never a bad idea. From looking at our pasts, we can see what and who we are through a lens clearer than any other.

Unfortunately, I’ve met several people who can’t trace their lineage back very far because they are first generation Americans and the country their parents came from doesn’t have the same quality record-keeping American citizens are afforded.

But just because one’s individual records might not be available, a country’s history is almost guaranteed to exist thanks to centuries of historians. That should suffice for a while, at least for a few generations, until my friends’ grandchildren get bored at work like I did and decide to look up their family’s history.

I’m fortunate in the sense that I have friends who nerd out for history to the same degree that I do, but it’s not as common as it should be among people in my generation.

Winners write the history books. But the people who read them will be even more successful if they pay attention.