Remembering “family”: Should we be doing “family histories”?

  • Posted on October 27, 2010

Sean Field, Director of the Centre for Popular Memory at the University of Cape Town Sean Field, Director of the Centre for Popular Memory at the University of Cape Town

For several years it has been seemingly ‘inappropriate’ for progressive or radical historians, memory and heritage professionals to do ‘family history’ research. Why is it the case that our recent intellectual heritage has silenced or ignored such a fundamental sphere of human history? What are we avoiding? Do we fear that we might offend our parents and ancestors? And in 2010, what might serve to make doing ‘family history’ research more acceptable? Let me be explicit from the outset, this is not my field of research, however as an oral historian, these questions have bothered me for several years. In what follows, I explore some of the issues and concepts that the Centre for Popular Memory is beginning to discuss for a future oral and visual history project. Given my past and current oral history work with trauma survivors, I am especially interested in how apartheid violence, such as forced removals and political repression, have impacted on ‘family networks’, through its experience and construction within them.

Oral history interviews primarily focus on memories of lived experiences (i.e. first person narratives) constructed through oral story-telling and performances. Since the mushrooming of oral history projects in the 1980s and again in the post-TRC period, oral historians, anthropologists, sociologists and various qualitative researchers paid considerable attention to the stories of victims of various pre-apartheid or apartheid forms of violence. However, the History discipline has tended to neglect family and especially children’s experiences of apartheid violence. Internationally, cross-generational memory studies have been well developed within Holocaust Studies but far less beyond this specific field. Moreover, while childhood and family dynamics have been rigorously researched within the psychology discipline, there are research lacunae related to childhood, memory and subjectivity within the History discipline. For example, in the rare occasions when children do figure in historical research they tend to be portrayed as passive victims at the mercy of parents or other adults. The exception is literature on student protests and activism but these studies tend to have an overt political resistance framing, where family life rarely features. But children in general do hold various forms and conditions of agency, which fluctuate over time. In my view, the time has come for historians, memory and heritage researchers in South Africa to pay more attention to how ‘childhood’ and ‘families’ have been, and continue to be, shaped by the legacies of apartheid and pre-apartheid pasts.

A significant task, however, involves the need to re-think what is meant by the term ‘the family’, given that nuclear and extended family structures have been dramatically impacted on by the apartheid system, poverty and the HIV/Aids pandemic. In our initial research planning at the Centre for Popular Memory a proposed central focus will be on identifying the discrepancies between: the facts of past and present family life in South Africa and how people select, remember, forget and imagine their childhood/family memories. This we think will be fertile terrain for historicizing and analyzing the contradictions of human subjectivity. In part, my own interest in ’family histories’ stems from a broader aim to explore what ‘historicising human subjectivity’ might involve intellectually and epistemologically. Furthermore, we are thinking about how to do ethical and rigorous research involving life and family history interviews as well as the collection and use of family images/albums as mnemonic triggers and sources for the construction of ‘family histories’.

Another crucial theme is how experiences of violence tend to leave behind ‘traumatic traces’, which continue to be reconstructed through individual and collective memory forms. Dominic LaCapra argues that ‘limit events’ are created by ‘traumatic experiences’, which are ‘incomprehensible’ (in part, ‘trauma’ is always outside of language) and/or emotionally ‘intolerable’ to victims. But do we know enough about how living with post-traumatic legacies is or is not ‘transmitted’ to the next generation? How can we move beyond a bio-medical understanding that portrays ‘trauma’ like a ‘disease’ that ‘infects’ the next generation? In our view, the bio-medical frame is conceptually problematic and we therefore need to re-think the concept ‘trauma’ as an inter-subjective construction, and to consider whether ‘trauma’ is in fact ‘transmitted’. I have no doubt that this will sound controversial to many readers, but do bear me out: I am suggesting that we rather need to explore how the parenting styles, behaviour and actions of ‘trauma victims/survivors’ has been affected by how they live with their own post-traumatic legacies on a daily basis. In short, the post-traumatic legacies of parents/caregivers are inter-subjectively constructed between themselves and their children. I am suggesting that we have yet to adequately understand the social and emotional dimensions of the inter-subjective construction of the ‘impact’ on the next generations. 

This inter-subjective approach might be a fruitful avenue to reconceptualising and researching ‘family histories’. Whatever our approach or paradigm, we must move with a great deal of sensitivity and respect, and simultaneously we need to ask challenging questions of ourselves as academic researchers and as members of our own families. Self-reflexivity is crucial, and it is essential to work through what our emotional investment might be in doing this kind of research and intellectual work.

I am also proposing that historians, memory, heritage professionals and those in cognate disciplines need to do more work on how childhood/family experiences and memories have been shaped by what has historically occurred in - and specifically around - the space we call ‘home’ or the ‘family home’. For example, it is common for us to wax lyrical about ‘communities’ and ‘publics’ but what currency do these concepts have if we continue to ignore ‘the family’ in its diverse, real and imagined, forms? And finally, in developing Heidi Grunebaum’s term - ‘the archive of the ordinary’ - perhaps we should explore both ‘the family’ that nurtured us as children and the ‘intellectual family’ (and its heritage) that continues to constitute us? Maybe the critique of these particular ‘family histories’ should be directed towards the symbolic ‘fathers and mothers’ of our respective professional disciplines.

Sean Field is director of the Centre for Popular Memory at the University of Cape Town.

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  • Wonderful post! I think that we need to remember that individual histories form larger community, regional, and national history. I have read much recently on the problems with teaching children to value history as a discipline and I think your post speaks to that idea. By focusing on the idea that history begins with each of us and that we should “teach history backward” we realize how important “the archive of the ordinary” is. Our lives hold many stories that are representative of other’s experiences. Whether we are exploring apartheid, poverty and pandemics or searching for general information about how specific types of people lived and dealt with the day-to-day events that surrounded them, we need to pay more attention to history on a smaller scale, in communities and families. It is vital that cultural heritage professionals recognize the value of personal papers and personal stories so that we can build solid collections that are truly reflective of diverse human experiences.

    By Melissa Mannon on 04/11/2010
  • While I welcome Sean’s newly found appreciation of family history, I’m afraid he has set about a straw man. Or maybe he really does have evidence that, “For several years it has been seemingly ‘inappropriate’ for progressive or radical historians, memory and heritage professionals to do ‘family history’ research”.

    The ‘History Workshop’ movement was defined by Raphael Samuel as being “the belief that history is or ought to be a collaborative enterprise, one in which the researcher, the archivist, the curator and the teacher, the ‘do-it-yourself’ enthusiast and the local historian, the family history societies and the individual archaeologist, should all be regarded as equally engaged.”

    Unsurprisingly there have been feminist historians who have been very interested in family history, such as Linda Gordon and Eaine Tyler May in the States. In England there is Elizabeth Foyster’s “Marital Violence: An English Family History, 1660-1857″. Feminist history projects often make interesting use of family history, including The Voices of Feminism Oral History Project http://www.smith.edu/library/libs/ssc/vof/vof-narrators.html

    Radical History Groups such as Radical Tradition in Australia often explore the family histories of radicals. See for example “Raised a Radical - The Englarts in Brisbane 1920-1939 - Vince Englart” http://www.takver.com/history/englart/growndx.htm

    The fourth most cited artcle in Radical History Review during September 2010 was Judith E. Smith’s Our Own Kind: Family and Community Networks Radical History Review Apr 01, 1978; 1978: 99-120.

    In the 1990s I taught the hugely popular and successful Family and Community History course at the OU - an organisation which has hardly been known as reactionary. I also was the lead researcher on Paul Thomson’s major study Family and Social Mobility.

    By Graham Smith on 05/11/2010
  • Sorry about the delay, the marking deluge is now over, so here is my response to the messages:

    To Melissa: Many thanks for your kind words and yes recording people’s memories and stories of every-day family life is crucial to teaching school kids the value of history. From 2007 to 2010 the CPM conducted an award winning school’s project, “Bridging the Digital Divide”, where we taught oral history research skills to over 1000 learners across the Western Cape region. The CPM trained 14 to 16 year old school learners who conducted various oral history interviews with elders in their communities. For more info on this project, visit our website: www.popularmemory.org.za. For phase 2 of this project, from 2011, we will focus on high school educators and learners across a larger range of schools, in both urban and rural districts.

    To Graham: Firstly, my primary audience and focus for this blog was South African historians and heritage professionals, where family histories tend to be descriptive and lack deeper critical analysis and theoretical reflection. And note I did not accuse family historians in South Africa or internationally of being ‘reactionary’.

    Secondly, as this is a blog not an academic article, I had no intention of doing a comprehensive literature review here. I am well aware of Raphael Samuel and Paul Thompson’s work in this area (Paul was my Phd supervisor!), and another key name for me is Catherine Hall. In fact, I had Catherine’s voice in mind, when I wrote the blog, as I remember her telling students in an Essex University seminar in the early 1990s, that it was important for radical and feminist historians to do family history research. So yes, I fully recognise the voices and texts of Paul Thompson and Catherine Hall, especially given that they both mentored me.

    Thirdly, on the other references from the USA and Australia, thanks very much, I will add them to our reading list, as we prepare for future research.

    Fourthly, and most significantly, you miss the point of my input: I am not a ‘convert’ to family history research. On the contrary my ambivalence about the historiography and conceptual frame of family history remains. Rather, the CPM and I are interested in thinking about what is the best way to use our oral and visual history skills to record, analyze and archive a fundamental domain of human experience that has been dramatically transformed in the South African context. What was once the family (nuclear and extended), especially for working class South Africans, has been hit by a myriad of dramatic changes over the past 100 years. For example, in the contemporary South African context, the unemployment rate is between 24 to 40% (varying government and academic estimates), one in ten people are HIV positive (17% of the globe’s HIV-positive people live in SA) and in SA, only a small fraction of people have access to anti-retrovirals (hence being HIV positive in SA is still life threatening ). So there are child-headed households, often the income per household is shouldered by a grandparent or elder or social grant for child care or disability, sometimes there are no genetic family members involved but rather a communal familial network. All these variations are irrevocable changes in family structures and yet we do not have a name or clear definition for these phenomena. It is in this context that I made a plea for us to re-think what we mean by the term ‘the family’.

    There are also many examples of the apartheid legacies that still affect communities. For instance, the migrant labour system ripped African working class families apart and thousands of these families remain scattered across rural and urban areas.  I have interviewed many angry and saddened African pensioners in old age homes in Guguletu and Langa (working class townships in Cape Town), who spend their remaining years alone in these facilities, unable to relate to or return to family homes in rural areas because of years of disconnectedness produced through the apartheid migrant labour system.

    We need to better understand these complex social and emotional phenomena through rigorous historical research but we need to also ask the uncomfortable question: In South Africa, how (if at all) does the family still exist and what has replaced it? There is no doubt that the belief in family is profoundly significant for most South Africans, hence the significance of holding onto real and imagined notions of family. I referred to family networks as an initial attempt to think about the many different formations that have emerged to take care of children, grandchildren, orphans, across different class and cultural contexts. Do we then need new conceptual tools to interpret and understand people’s experiences, forms of agency and the social implications of these family networks?

    Finally, the central questions I raised remain (and for which I am requesting constructive responses): does the intellectual heritage of the history discipline, and especially ‘family history’, provide us with the conceptual means to understand the dramatic changes in family-networks in South Africa?  And what are the best ways to approach, research and analyse the contradictions of real and imagined families, and how have subjectivities and memory formations been shaped around such notions.

    Perhaps a critical memory approach such as Marianne Hirsch’s “Family Frames”, with its sensitivity to psychoanalysis and visual ways of thinking has more to offer than family histories. I also acknowledge Ronald Fraser’s path-breaking book, ‘In Search of a Past’, which defies any simple categorisation of historical research.  But for now, the CPM and I feel it is important to be open-minded on these questions while gradually developing a well designed methodology and approach which best meets the complex challenges of doing this research in South Africa.

    By Sean Field on 16/11/2010
  • At the risk of venturing into a debate for which I am not academically qualified, I would consider Sean’s input to accurately reflect the South African situation, to quote Professor Deirdre Byrne, Professor of Minority Studies, Department of English, Unisa:

    “In the past five years (my insert: 2005-2010)South Africa has seen an upsurge of “life writing”, telling the stories of ordinary people in the post-apartheid era. These works (including Adam Levin’s Aidsafari, Chris van Wyk’s Shirley, Goodness & Mercy and its sequel, Eggs to Lay, Chickens to Hatch) are a reaction to the totalising “grand narratives” of apartheid and colonialism, which held (if implicitly) that there was only one available identity for each racial group in South Africa, and only one story to be told for each of them. For blacks, the story bemoaned oppression. For whites, it celebrated superiority. For those in between, it was another story altogether. In the wake of the destruction of these grand narratives, life writings refuse totalising narration: instead, they assert the value of nuance and particularity. Instead of group narratives, they insist on local and individual stories. They offer a timely intervention in national discourse about homogeneity and the levelling of identities.” LitNet, 2010

    While many of the books falling into the SA life writing category may not be written as ‘family stories’ they do bring a sense of the ‘private’ into the ‘public’ realm.

    Yes. There is an incredible resource in the multitude of oral histories gathered by researchers at academic and popular history institutions, but the general focus of these has been to paint the broader lines of class and race in society.

    In truth, many published ‘histories from below’ which cover the role of key anti-apartheid struggle families have a commonality in that they are English-speaking urban, (emerging) middle class narratives, even if they are framed in ‘progressive’ discourse. Language abilities are still a key limitation in oral history research.

    The land claims process brought many ‘family histories’ to the surface, many of them with their own issues of shame, dysfunctionality and conflicted identity. This makes the process of land reclamation extraordinarily complex.

    This does not diminish the determined work done by many in the field over the last decades, often under conditions of personal danger to both interviewer and interviewee.

    I would like to propose a further progression in the area of ‘family history’ and that is the family histories of personae in South African colonial history, as well as in the English-speaking liberal and progressive white political elite.

    As Professor Njabulo Ndebele indicates in his writing, there is a noticeable gap in the narration of this area of family histories, which he calls ‘pretence.’

    There is a rich literature on Afrikaans families, including narratives which are now surfacing in the post-apartheid area of shared ancestry with indigenous South Africans. It is English-speaking liberal and progressive families that are reluctant to tell their stories.

    I grew up with formalised, colonial-style English-speaking records of the achievements of notable ancestors. There appeared to be a natural progression from missionary paternalism to white liberalism, then into anti-apartheid structures such as the Black Sash, later for the younger generation to engage with the broader liberation struggle, even if shortly through the so-called white left.

    I am arguing that the ‘history of families from the commanding heights’ is extremely important as they indicate the processes of subversion of subordinated identities, and the roots of the pathologies of ‘white identity’. This involves a critical examination of the embedded myths which form the ideological bedrock of our society.

    My own research for Lekgowa found a number of silences in my ‘family history’, closely associated with the Black Sash, which followed a ‘regression’ to colonialism, abolitionism, slavery, mercantilism and beyond, following a number of conflicted identities and erasures - and shame, shame, shame.

    These investigations need to go beyond the frame of embellished colonial narratives and probe records which are part of the erasures, silences, gaps, elisions, ‘limit experiences’ etc of what is now known as ‘white identity’, a self-perpetuating template for all other identities.

    I think this is where we will begin to find the possibility to progress beyond ‘pretence’. Our common sense of shame, to re-phrase Paulo Freire (and others).

    These are just some initial thoughts on the subject.

    By Tony Harding on 17/11/2010
  • Dear Sean,
    Might I be able to come and discuss with you ideas for gathering and self-publishing Cape Town-area as-told-to personal history narratives, as well as personal history stories from workshops and oral history archives? I am visiting South Africa with Ingrid Askew, who led a year-long pilgrimage retracing the route of trans-atlantic slavery from Massachusetts to West Africa (and South Africa) cooking up a personal history project specifically oriented to anti-apartheid activist years. Unfortunately I will only be here until March 27.

    Please see my business websites, www.modernmemoirs.com and www.whitepopppress.com to verify my experience/sincerity.


    By Kitty Axelson-Berry on 18/03/2012
  • My relations Tom and Nancy Roberts Father and dahetugr. He was Postmaster at Coates for a considerable time, when he died Nancy took over as Postmistress.My Grandmother was Agnes Price nee Roberts.I believe she grew up there and i know she got Married from there,I remember going to Coates Post Office every Sunday Afternoon for Tea.I haven’t been to the village for ages,but i can remember the exact spot in the main street.

    By Josh on 13/08/2012
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