Magazine article New Internationalist

Digging into Silence: Tracing Your Roots

Magazine article New Internationalist

Digging into Silence: Tracing Your Roots

Article excerpt

EVERY few months I rejoin an underground community. I travel up to London to stand all day heaving down huge heavy volumes, to thumb through page after page of names written in beautiful curling script; or else I spend my day in a half - lit subterranean world where hundreds of people tremble breathlessly over cranky microfilm machines, straining desperately to read the scrawl of someone who wandered from house to house on a doorknocking survey 150 years ago.

You would never know this strange community of searchers existed. But it grows by the day, involving people who travel across the world to partake of its addictive pleasures. We are reclaiming history from the textbooks, digging our own ancestors out of the silence.

Time was when genealogy was the business of dukes -- or of social climbers anxious to find a hidden aristocratic connection. Maybe Alex Haley's Roots helped to change that. Suddenly a generation of black Americans gained a new sense of themselves from thinking about individual African ancestors rather than a mass of uprooted slaves. This sense of vital connection with your ancestors is common to most of the world's cultures but it has been largely lost until now in the progress - obsessed West.

I started taking an interest when my first child was born -- as for many parents, an event which altered my slant on life. Suddenly it seemed important to know where Kate had come from as well as where she was going to. Five years on I still often look at all the names and what I know of the personalities stretching back into the eighteenth century and marvel at the wondrous, implausible fact that my children could never have existed if even one of these people had never lived too, and that she carries part of each of them in her. …

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