Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Right and wrong in the past

We can't change the past. But we can have attitudes about it. And they can't be altogether concealed.

* Is a baby born out of wedlock "illegitimate"? That was the word in the not-too-distant past; now it's often frowned upon, in that it casts aspersions on an innocent party. But we have to label the situation somehow.

* It's certainly trouble, but is it "incest" if a 30something man has a baby with his wife's 17-year-old niece living in their household? By some present-day definitions, yes.

* When a white northern family moves to Texas in the 1880s, is it a reasonable part of the context to note their many connections with the same white racist officials who were busy disenfranchising black people at the time?

These are not hypothetical examples, and I'm sure you can add more. My preferred solution is to state the facts, without euphemism but without moralizing either, so that the reader knows the picture and can put her own label on it. (Elizabeth Shown Mills has often pointed out the importance of swallowing our 21st-century ideas and quoting precisely whatever racial designations were used in the 19th.) But that can be pretty tough to do sometimes, especially when readers want certain things forgotten or sanitized, or alternatively want a good round condemnation.

Harold Henderson, "Right and wrong in the past," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 31 July 2013 ( : accessed [access date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]


Melanie D. Holtz, CG said...

On my blog, I give an example of this when I show the birth record of an abandoned child they called a bastard.

Normally in Italy they were more diplomatic than this so it was interesting to me to see this in a civil record. Perhaps that official had issues with this child's birth mother? In small towns, officials often knew who the mother was, even if the child was then abandoned.

Harold Henderson said...

Thanks, Melanie. That would be