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Editor’s Note, November/December 1999

My History Is America's History

By Mary Lou Beatty | HUMANITIES, November/December 1999 | Volume 20, Number 6

We have a new project at the National Endowment for the Humanities called "My History Is America's History."

It says we all have a story to tell. Our grandparents told stories to our mothers. Our mothers told stories to us. And we have stories to tell to other people.

At first glance, the project may sound like genealogy, but genealogy is a fraction of what we are trying to do. It takes in Alex Haley and "Roots" and more. We want to join every American's family history together in a portrait of America at the beginning of a new century. It will be both a gift to ourselves and to future generations.

Mark Twain once said flippantly that the only trait he found Americans had in common was a fondness for ice water. That may be. We share some parallel experiences. We are most of us immigrants, though some more recent than others. By definition, we have been "the other." We have encountered new and strange cultures. We have suffered. Some of us have been heroes. Some have encountered war. And at many times, we have encountered each other.

In each of these threads is the history of our country. Several months ago, Oprah Winfrey was on the radio talking about her new film, Beloved. At the end, she talked about how the film forces us to confront our common past. "My history is nothing without yours. And yours is nothing without mine."

We are trying to put the yours and the mine together. My History Is America's History is an ambitious project, embracing all kinds of institutions-our state humanities councils across the country and across the seas as far west as the Marianas, libraries, state historical societies, the National Archives, the Latter Day Saints, the National Park Service, the Census. Through it, each of us has our own passageway into the broader sweep of American history.

It starts simply-asking each of us to collect and tell and record our family stories, to gather family photographs, and write down who is in them and when they were taken, and why. At this point we will look at our common history. We will place these stories in the framework of the times: the Depression, World War II, the Baby Boom--or in the shifting economics: getting a car, moving to a new house--or in social movements: the migration north, the sit-ins of the sixties. Just one example: The children of the Vietnam protesters have their own children now, and so do the children of the soldiers who fought there. That period is already second-generation history and time is fleeting.

From each of these threads we hope to weave together a piece of our history. Whether it turns into some grand tapestry is too soon to say. In this issue of Humanities we make a beginning with some stories and with a conversation between NEH Chairman William R. Ferris and Adele Logan Alexander, who has written a book called Homeland and Waterways about three generations of her family, beginning with her African Irish great-grandfather, who came from Liverpool to join the U.S. Navy and fight to free the slaves. Later this year, we will have a workbook out on My History, and a website for our stories. We will be able to roam and find ourselves-people whose great grandparents fled the Dust Bowl for California, or whose grandparents fled Kristallnacht and wound up in Pittsburgh, or who themselves traveled half the world to become shrimpers in Texas. It is possible to hang hundreds of years of American history out there in cyberspace.

Eventually, the material on the web may be made available to scholars looking for new resources, or to teachers looking for new ways to teach periods of history, or to kids in a classroom restless for new and authentic voices. And what if some of these family stories have somehow grown into myth? The scholars can deal with that. After all, Oprah is right.

"My history is nothing without yours. And yours is nothing without mine."