In the summer and fall of 2015, my good friend reached out to me regarding some family history that he needed help with. Ever since uncovering some deeply held family history, he has been working through the meaning and implications of what he discovered.

When we look back into our personal histories, sometimes we will be uncomfortable with what we find. This discomfort should be expected. The good and the bad are part of our own histories, no matter what is talked about within the family or what is remembered by the individual. As much as we may want to fully know and understand where we are from or what is in our past, we are often uncomfortable with that history.

Writing history is not just about uncovering what is in the past. It also entails composing the story about what happened and telling it in a way that makes sense to the present audience.

In my family’s history, we had told ourselves a sanitized version of our family history. Possibly it was out of shame or embarrassment, but the family referred to a suicide as being “killed by his gun.” We didn’t talk through what that meant. It was possible that when the story was originally told, the audience might have known the truth, but when the story was passed down to subsequent generations it was morphed into an accident. Maybe that is because the culture shifted slightly to accommodate the other meanings.

However, as historians, it is our responsibility to uncover the truth, even if it is uncomfortable. We must strive to be as honest and impartial as possible when documenting history, even if that means exposing aspects of our family or cultural history that we might prefer to keep hidden.

Of course, it is important to consider the impact that our writing may have on individuals who are still alive and may be affected by what we write. In this case, my friend’s family may be uncomfortable with the truth about their history being exposed, and as a responsible historian, it is important to weigh the benefits of uncovering the truth (and telling that story) against the potential harm that it may cause.

One way to approach this dilemma is to be transparent about your sources and the limitations of your research. If you are unsure about the accuracy of a particular aspect of your history, acknowledge that and avoid making definitive statements. Additionally, if you are documenting sensitive or potentially damaging information, consider reaching out to the individuals or communities that may be impacted and seeking their input and consent.

Being a responsible historian requires us to confront the uncomfortable aspects of our personal and cultural history. However, it is important to approach these topics with sensitivity, impartiality, and transparency, and to consider the potential impact of our writing on those who may still be affected by the events we are documenting.



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July 2024