Black sheep, genealogy and Sensitivity

+9 votes
349 views
Just a random thought.  My daughter is doing a project in school that involves a family tree among other things.   While I was able to give her information, my wife pointed out that that kind of assignment may not be fair to others who either don't know their history or don't want to know.  

Granted the teacher said that a person could do the same project on their immediate family.

But she does have a valid point.   Many don't know who one or more of their parents are.  And that can be rather embarrassing to a young person to admit.

Like also, many have black sheep ancestors and in some cases they can be fun to have, such as an old west cattle rustler but in other cases, person X in the family tree could have been an abusive alcoholic.

I do have a stellar example of a bad black sheep.   Growing up, I knew a family where the mother was from Germany and was born in the late 30's.   A little known family secret that I learned after they moved away, that the mother's father was a member of the SS and had died during the war.    Not something anyone would want to admit.   That same person, I'm told had horrible nightmares about the allied bombings of her home town, years after the war ended.

We enjoy genealogy but we do need to remember and be sensitive to the fact that for some people, it can be a rather painful subject.

This may be obvious but it's something to think about from time to time.

Back to the school project, but I feel it would have been appropriate for the teacher to give an alternate project to those not wanting to delve into their family history.

Just some thoughts.
in The Tree House by Craig Albrechtson G2G6 Mach 8 (84.3k points)
A simple solution would have been to assign building a family tree for the person of the student's choosing. Their own, an entertainer, an athlete, a world figure etc.

11 Answers

+7 votes
I agree that it is a poor idea to ask children to do such a project. A bright young fosterling of ours reverted to atrocious behaviour when this subject came up at school being too young to have come to terms with his situation. As an adult however I hope I could face the truth whatever it was, not being in any way responsible for what my grandparents did. If I didn't want to know the truth I wouldn't be doing this.
by C. Mackinnon G2G6 Pilot (237k points)
+6 votes
I agree with you, Craig. I was a teacher and while looking at a topic like “identity”, I was expected to do activities like this. While I have seen some amazing family stories, I have seen many students who have struggled to find anyone interesting and for some families, the past is not a safe place. It is not a topic I would tackle now.
by Fiona McMichael G2G6 Pilot (147k points)
+7 votes
I have two thoughts on this: Black Sheep is a very subjective term. We use it here in WikiTree to denote and work on profiles where they were considered outcasts due their professions or actions (e.g., Pirates, Gangsters, etc.) where it went against society standards as a whole. These people generally understood that they were "Black Sheep".

In regards to a member of the SS... not so much. Just because most of society condemns the actions of the Nazi's and their leader, many of those SS members themselves thought they were fighting for their country and rights - whether or not anyone agreed with them. That very same thing happens all the time (Japanese bombing Pearl Harbor, etc.) Do we call them Black Sheep as well?

As for this being a homework assignment, as long as there is an alternate project for those who may take issue with this, I think it is fine.
by Steve Harris G2G6 Pilot (387k points)
edited by Steve Harris
Granted, being a member of the SS may not necessarily constitute being an official black sheep in itself, but if such a person were part of a unit responsible for war crimes or even a guard a concentration camp, they would most certainly fall into that category.

Regardless, having a close family member being a member of the SS would be considered terribly embarrassing.

I was thinking the other day about the descendants of Benedict Arnold and since he had children, I would guess he has descendants living in England.   I wonder what their perspective is.   In Britain he's a minor figure at best, in America he's utterly despised to this very day.
I agree, it is based mostly on perception - and whose perception it is makes a difference as well. I don't want this to turn political, but think of the current political climate in the United States. Two parties with vastly differing opinions and perceptions (and I will leave it at that!).
I agree with Steven and believe that it is an excellent homework assignment. Had I known more about my family history I would not have made many of the mistakes that I have in my past. I also am the "Black Sheep" of my family, however I am the only one that seems to have an interest in our ancestors, so whatever that tells you.
The three of you bring up legitimate points about others that did what they thought was right. They were not black sheep. They were heroes to their cause just like anyone else was. This should not have to happen to the minds of children or even adults.
Imagine having six or seven direct ancestors (and a host of uncles, uncles by marriage and many, many cousins) who were Confederate soldiers and trying to talk about that in today's climate.
Correct again my friend. The problem is not north or south soldiers but it is the climate of today's society. I once asked my older son at an earlier age about people that mistrust and dislike and he replied "Life is short. Eat dessert first" it is a lot more fun than counting to 10 before giving an answer.

I’ll go for that! laugh

Right there with you Pip.  I too have several Confederate ancestors and relatives.  However, living in Texas that "climate" hasn't caught up here as much as the east.  But I have reason to believe tht one of my Confederate ancestors wasn't particularly enamored of the cause, so try explaining that to the rest of the descendants down here!
+4 votes
I also agree, No doubt some of our more colorful family members and the black sheep of our family would look great. If I may take it one more step, Even in Wikitree I see members trying to decide if a certain member should be included in a tree. It could be a black sheep or a family secret kept for years or even a heart breaking death of a child or family member. Most of the time several members answer to suggest that it is ok to add these profiles to WikiTree for everyone to see. IMHO, if something makes you deliberate if you should include someone's profile, then do NOT add the profile.You may regret it or feel saddened later, Once a profile is entered it is there for everyone to see. This may have weighed in on your mind. Again this is just my opinion so please do not send anything negative or berating me or my opinion. There is always room to add to the conversation nicely. I would not like to see someone face anxiety or depression just to show a profile that they would not like to show, This happened once to me and to this day emotions begin to stir every time I look at this profile. Someone else's curiosity  may not be worth the pain. It may not be worth the cost. BTW I have not included several other family members  for the same reasons. It is not the end of the world if someone does not know and I think that respect should always be above interest or curiosity..
by Jerry Dolman G2G6 Pilot (167k points)
Good points Jerry, may I add that I consider myself the Black Sheep because I am the one that never goes to the family reunions. I saw a comment once where someone was saying causes of death should be put on a profile, I disagree with that statement, as that is way too personal of a matter. When I called my mother's cemetery once to ask a question, the guy was absolutely rude as h*** and said something horrendous, which burns me up to this day.
Colleen, it is up to you alone if you want o or able to go to a family reunion. Nobody should respond otherwise. They do not know your thoughts or feelings one way or another.

I do not think that cause of death should be revealed. Yes it is too personal and private. In fact, I believe that  most genealogical sites want information that is too personal especially about death. People can be as rude as heck in any aspect of life or death. Some things are personal and should be left out. Please do not get burned up about it, do not allow someone's rudeness  bother you and the way that you live. A smile will outshine someone's rudeness See?  ---->    :o)
Jerry it is not up to me, or I would go! Thank you for your kind words, it feels good to vent about it and I do feel better!
+3 votes
This reminds me of when I was a child, in elementary school. Every year we had a little cultural fair/festival where we'd be required to bring in foods from one or more of our ethnicities, in addition to giving a presentation to the class about our ancestors and the countries they came from.

At that point in time, I didn't know who my mother's parents were as she was adopted, and people were doubting my biological father was my biological father (turns out he was my biological father, thanks for doing a DNA test before you left this life, old man!). So I used my adoptive father's ancestry instead for the first year I had to do this, and I not only failed that assignment, but I wasn't allowed to participate in the festival/fair, eat any of the foods, play any of the games, but I had to watch everyone else enjoy it. And my mom was sick with cancer at the time so little G. didn't bring it up because I didn't want to worry her... if she had known her first grader was put through that, she would have raised hell.

Long story short: instead of a family tree, how about an "immediate family web"? Instead of a culture fair where you look up your own culture, a culture fair where you have to present on a culture you have no ancestors from?

Here's hoping if any teachers run past this, they'll think twice about the family tree thing.
by G. Borrero G2G6 Mach 9 (91.5k points)
+3 votes
When I was in 8th grade, my history teach asked us to do a project on our family ancestries, but he didn't explicitly asked to delve into the "black sheep" of our families.  I might not have been able to deal with it then.

Now, it's a different story.  My mom's brother "let the cat out of the bag" before I died.  I still don't know who my missing great granddad is and I'm not too sure if I want to even though he probably influenced my genetics in some way.  If my 2nd cousins and I DNA test ourselves, we might find some autosomal matches not coming from my great grandmother.
by David Hughey G2G Astronaut (1m points)
+8 votes

I'm sorry, I feel like I'm always the dissenting voice on Wikitree. But this subject has been talked to death even just in the couple of years I've been here -- the Black Sheep Project seems to hit a nerve with people.

My own grandfather is a murderer. I included the information on his profile. If I sanitized his history, it'd all look very well and good for any cousins that might see it -- but wouldn't I be, in effect, erasing his victim out of history? My grandfather took a human life. Should his victim be erased out of the story because it is inconvenient to my narrative?

There are several people on here with ancestors who were conceived via a rape. This is an ugly but true aspect of life. I can't speak for anyone else -- but in the (horrifying to contemplate) circumstance that I was raped and had a child, if someone sanitized it to make it seem like that child was conceived from a consensual love affair, I would come back from the dead and haunt them. I promise you I would. I have enough piss and vinegar, and some of my grandfather's nasty temper.

That's really the problem with a lot of this whitewashing of history. People are victimized once (by being enslaved; raped; colonized; murdered, etc.) and then re-victimized by having what happened to them minimized and dismissed.

by Jessica Key G2G6 Pilot (160k points)

Jessica Key, I agree with you.

I think there is (has to be) a way to present the bare bones facts of a matter, without sensationalising it.  It is as important to record these things as it is to record birth, marriage, death.

Had I ever had a child from rape, I absolutely agree with you that I would not want it written up as though it had been a consensual occasion.  Thankfully I am not faced with that issue.  (I'm not sure I'm ready to place my history in that much depth on any website, not even this one, but I do speak from personal experience regards sexual predation.  It is not a "horrifying to contemplate" situation.)  For years, however, I have declared survivorship, not victimhood.  As such, I would not wish to be revictimized.

I agree with you 100% Jessica Key.  I always have a dissenting opinion about the Black Sheep catagory.  I've been shut down by others who feel adamant about protecting future relatives from the awful truth.  I'm all about truth.  Maybe because I'm an Aspie (Aspergers), but whitewashing history is lying.  Lying is the root of all evil to me. (Corrected spelling)
Very good points Jessica, don't apologize for it! There are so many different people, you can't please them all and I gave up trying long ago.

@ Colleen, I feel like I have to hedge my words because I can already tell that I have a different perspective and mentality from, perhaps, the majority of G2G. Genealogy is the study of human beings and history as measured in human lifetimes. Humans are messy creatures, and if someone cannot handle that, perhaps genealogy isn't the hobby for them.

I am not responsible for the feelings of hypothetical people. Besides, where does it stop? If someone disagrees with "race mixing", do they get to delete interracial marriages out of their genealogy? If DNA reveals that grandpa fathered a child out of wedlock, and it upsets someone to think of grandpa cheating on their grandma, is it acceptable to delete that child from the tree? It makes some folks upset to learn that their ancestors were slave owners, should we pretend all those Africans willingly got on a boat and came here to toil in the cotton fields?

To go back to my earlier point, if I had a child conceived from a rape, the only person who's feelings matter in that scenario is the child itself. Not the rapist's feelings. Not the feelings of the rapist's second cousin. Not the feelings of some Pam from Minnesota or Stan from Iowa. Not the feelings of some hypothetical person who's not even been born yet.

0 votes
I agree with you Craig, but I think a better school project is needed for all the students.  I'm originally from the U.S and had this assignment in school as the only white kid in my classroom.  While I was lucky to already know more about my great grandparents (4 of which were still alive) than most kids knew about their grandparents.  What I learned about my classmates' families felt sad and sometimes embarrassing, but I'm also lucky to have grown up poor in prodominately non-white communities of Los Angeles.  My perspectives on social issues eventually led me to University in my 40s with a double major in Social Justice streams.  So, although it is an inadequate school assignment I hope your child grows up with added empathy because she has a conscientious parent like you.
by Dash Dwyer G2G6 Mach 1 (14.3k points)
+3 votes
Well some of these things are sure tragic, but they happened - to me we are putting history down, and what happened happened - like it or not.  I have to agree that feelings could be hurt - but if it is the truth then it should be put down for the future people looking back to see - I have folks who fought and killed "indians" and I have First Nations people who in all likelihood had ancestors that killed whites - so many families can go back and trace to where they had ancestors on both sides of the civil war, etc

Now as an assignment in school if a kid did not have that information, or had negative information in their tree they maybe could just make up a good story that covered, as I agree maybe kids are not old enough to understand all the changes and different times that we had that came down to now in their lineage, but I do think it is a valid way to try and take the boring subject of history and bring it alive for kids - I did not much enjoy history until college and now I just love it as I can see how my ancestors played their part in it and we forget that in that way we are history
by Navarro Mariott G2G6 Pilot (143k points)
Hi Navarro, I wish someone would have instilled the importance of family to us growing up, not many of us are having children it seems. Edited comment.
It is like with trigger warnings and sensitivities are such a big deal these days that people are not facing reality!  It is valid to have feelings of horror when you see the horrible things some people have done - they are facts and facts are true and we should know the truth - it is bound to be discovered eventually so why try and cover it up?  Makes no sense to me - what happened happened and we have a duty to add the good with the bad - I am intolerant of the fragile way everyone seems to be so sensitive these days - grow up and face the truth and move on!
+1 vote
1. In Israel EVERY schoolkid has to do a family tree while in school. That way the interest of Gilad Japhet was sparked. Today he is the CEO of MyHeritage.

2. Every family has its black sheep. Actually my mum is the black sheep in my family. I won't tell what it's about as she doesn't talk about it, but one day some years ago, when we were cleaning the house she said something I didn't know until then. As I said she doesn't talk about it and I didn't ask, but I found the confirmation when I scanned her naturalization documents. So to have a black sheep in the family is the most normal thing.
by Jelena Eckstädt G2G6 Pilot (464k points)
Everyone has the good side and the bad side to them - we are all just human and so not perfect - seems the black sheep thing is kind of arbitrary
+2 votes
When I write biographies for Black Sheep, or for that matter, any person, I leave out any person opinions I may have of the person. The only thing I put in the profile are facts, which may include a biased or ignorant newspaper clipping from the period.

We are writing about lives that have already been lived. For those lives, choices have already been made. Consequences have already been meted out. We are reporters, not judges of human character. Everybody can formulate their own opinion, but it is up to us as genealogists to give our readers all the facts we can find.

Like any good book, readers will have their own feelings and opinions, and a good plot will have challenges with outcomes of both failures and successes. The best thing we can do as genealogists is to make the adventure as rich as possible with facts, so that each reader can make sense of the characters, as well as of the conditions and settings in which the characters lived. The last thing we want to do is point fingers and attach our personal judgments to the profile.

As genealogists, we have no responsibility for how people will react to facts. Also as genealogists, we want all readers to know the truth. Keep in mind that we are all related to other people, and yet, we are all independent beings who make our own choices.
by David Thomson G2G6 Mach 1 (12.6k points)

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