“Who Do You Think You Are?” — No, Really.

Life just gets more and more hectic, doesn’t it? Between classes, thesis, worrying about PhD applications (I’m a finalist at one school – invited for an all expenses paid on-campus visit in 2 weeks!), trying to be a good Dame, and everything else I have to do, it seems there’s no time in the day. Certainly not enough time to take for yourself.

The idea of taking time for yourself, of understanding yourself, is partly where the idea for this post came from…

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Who do you think you are?

I’m not asking this sarcastically, I’m asking this in earnest. Who are you? And why are you who you are? How did you become this person?

Now, the answers to these questions are complicated. In fact, there’s more than one answer. There are many. But, seriously, think about it. Who are you? Is who you actually are different than who you think you are?

I think so. No, scratch that.

I know so.

It’s no secret on here that I’m studying to be a historian, and that I, well, love history. So it should come as no surprise to you when I tell you that your history — your family’s history — is a big part of you and why you are the way you are.

When I was in seventh grade, I had to research my family tree for Social Studies class. At age 13, I knew nothing about my family tree. Talking to my parents and my grandparents yielded some information — enough to present on my poster for class — but not enough to satisfy my interest in my family tree.

This project started a 10+ year odyssey of family tree research that will probably never end.

My interest and, at times, obsession with genealogy (the proper name for researching one’s family history) has largely been a personal venture and not one that I publicized to my friends. I mean, I admit to being a nerd in high school, but I sort of figured that admitting that I had a subscription to Ancestry.com wouldn’t help my popularity any.

I wasn’t always dedicated to genealogy either, in spite of how much it interests me. Researching your family tree isn’t easy. It takes time, patience, hard work, perseverance, luck, and a little faith. Because of this, genealogy isn’t a constant for me. I pick it up, I put it down. I’ll work feverishly for months and then not look at it again for months or a year.

So, imagine my surprise and my envy when genealogy took America by storm.

Two years ago (in the Spring of 2010), Lisa Kudrow, the actress who played Phoebe on Friends, decided to help launch a new show on NBC called Who Do You Think You Are? — a program, already several years old and very popular in the UK, that followed celebrities as professional genealogists helped them trace their family trees.

The first season followed 8 celebrities: Sarah Jessica Parker, Matthew Broderick, Lisa Kudrow, Emmit Smith, Brooke Shields, Spike Lee, and Susan Sarandon. The second season followed: Vanessa L. Williams, Tim McGraw, Rosie O’Donnell, Kim Catrall, Lionel Richie, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ashley Judd, and Steve Buscemi.

Each celebrity discovered something about their family, and in turn something about themselves, that they previously did not know. But, the message of the series is that it isn’t important who you’re related to. It’s about how we perceive ourselves in reference to where we and our families came from, and how that knowledge changes us.

It’s about the sense of guilt Sarah Jessica Parker felt before she knew whether her ancestor was an accuser or a victim during the Salem witchcraft trials, the sense of amazement of Brooke Shields when she learned she was a direct descendant of the French royal family, Matthew Broderick’s disbelief when he helps solve the mystery of an unmarked Civil War grave, or the sadness and anger of Kim Catrall when she learns the fate of her wayward grandfather.

The third season of Who Do You Think You Are? is currently being broadcast on Fridays at 8pm on NBC. If you’re not home at this time (don’t worry, I’m not usually either), you can catch the episodes on NBC.com or on Hulu. Here’s Lisa Kudrow’s (the show’s executive producer) preview of Season 3:

Of course, everyone’s family tree will not be filled with such “extraordinary” tales. There are many celebrities whose stories don’t make it on the show because they’re not interesting enough. My family tree certainly isn’t this fascinating. But that doesn’t matter, because your family tree doesn’t have to be full of royalty or heroes or famous people to be important and interesting.

You wouldn’t be here without that family tree.

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So, think about it.

Who do you think you are?

I can tell you who I thought I was.

I was Joni. White girl with curly brown hair and freckles from working-class Ohio with college educated parents and working class grandparents who were all born in this country. I was Slovak and Lebanese and Croatian and something called (as my Mum puts it) “Heinz 57”. When my Gram would talk about how one of her ancestor’s married a Native American woman, my cousins and I thought you could quantify that — like we’re 2% Native American somewhere in that Heinz 57 mixture. Now I know that it doesn’t work like that.

Because your ancestry isn’t so simple.

With a lot more digging, a lot more questioning, several hundred dollars worth of subscription fees to Ancestry.com, and a whole lot of luck, I know a whole lot more.

Because who I am is about  a lot more than simply ethnicity percentages. It’s also about more than those ancestors that are long dead. It’s about those still alive.

I am 25% Slovak. I am 25% Lebanese (perhaps originally Syrian). I am 25% Croatian. But I’m not Heinz 57.

I’m English, Welsh, and Irish. My Gram’s ancestors were original Americans. From Jamestown, Virginia circa 1620.

You learn through the genealogy experience that it’s not all about the ethnicity, not all about where you’re from. It’s about how your family got to where you are.

It’s about the journey.

And you learn the strengths and hopes and dreams and character traits and struggles of these people who you wouldn’t be here without.

I learned that it took a lot of bravery for my Grandfather to survive a German POW camp, that it took a lot of bravery for his mother to cross the Atlantic Ocean by herself at 14. I learned that my Gram’s family were some of America’s first settlers, starting in Virginia and New York, moving to Maryland, then to West Virginia and Pennsylvania. I learned there are historical markers at some of the places they lived.

Your ancestors are not simply names and dates on a page. They were live people living in a present that only happens to now be the past. They passed on ideas, traditions, traits, and wisdom that, whether you realize it or not, is somewhere in you and in your family.

So.

Who do you think you are?

Who are you, really?

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If you’re interested in researching your family tree, the internet is your best friend and Ancestry.com is the best website to get started. Although I said that I’ve spent hundreds of dollars on their services, you can use the website for free to access basic information. My suggestion is to use the free services and search some of your grandparents or great-grandparents. If you find a lot of information and want to know more, I suggest trying out a subscription for a month or two. (There’s a 2-week free trial too!)

Happy Hunting! (And don’t forget to watch Who Do You Think You Are? on Fridays at 8pm on NBC! You won’t regret it!)

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3 thoughts on ““Who Do You Think You Are?” — No, Really.

  1. I loooooove this show! I’ve had to watch a good deal of the episodes online since I’ve either not been free at the time it was on, or lacked the cable to watch it. (Such was life on my own in my cozy little apartment… lol). SJP’s episode was probably my favorite, but I feel like Steve Buscemi’s will probably be pretty interesting.

    • Steve Buscemi’s was on last year and it really was very good. I’m pretty sure you can watch it on NBC’s website. I watched the new one on Marisa Tomei on Hulu today and it was great!

  2. Suggestions for more viewing:
    Time Team – UK Archaeological programme – 20(!) series – one episode covered Jamestown ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ohfAx4a-Ijo ). The Time Team Specials have also covered a wide range of archaeological digs not directly linked to the programme. There’s also a US version which I believe has now been renewed for a second series.
    UK Version of “Who do you think you are?” – over the 10 series so far you’ll find a lot of familiar faces such as Jerry Springer and Minnie Driver

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