Why Do Genealogy

The Rewards of Researching Your Family History

Author Alex Haley circa 1980.
(Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

by Alex Haley

Alex Haley wrote the Foreword to Ethnic Genealogy: A Research Guide, published by Greenwood Press of Westport, Connecticut in 1983 and edited by Jessie Carney Smith. Ethnic Genealogy: A Research Guide is no longer in print, so check with your local libraries to see if they have a copy.

Selections of the Foreword to Ethnic Genealogy: A Research Guide

Tracing ancestors as far back as possible has brought to many people great satisfaction and pleasure. Even documenting one’s family thoroughly for but a few generations can prove just as exciting and fulfilling as a more sketchy documentation across two or three centuries. Each individual ancestral relative previously unknown and genealogically discovered is its own special thrill! No less thrilling is the discovery of records rich with information, which would have remained untouched, which would never have come to light, unless you had gotten caught up in the multiple, magnetic lures of genealogy.

Young and old alike find that knowing one’s roots, and thus coming better to know who one is, provides a personally rewarding experience. But even more is involved than uncovering a family history, for each discovered United States family history becomes a newly revealed small piece of American history. Stated simply: a nation’s history is only the selective histories of all of its people. It is only through an unfolding of the people’s histories that a nation’s culture can be studied in its fullest meaning.

Serious search for one’s roots requires strong dedication; genuine longing to unfold the past; some would say a nigh-fanatical pursuit of each lead. The result is a sense of fulfillment as ancestors become real, coupled with a sense of disappointment because yet so much remains unknown. Moreover, one’s pleasant, comfortable, and regular routines must be altered, if not sacrificed, in order to submerge one’s self in libraries, archives, and other repositories of information. Finally, there must be a deep commitment and sense of purpose, which must not diminish until the final lead has obviously been exhausted. Even then, the serious genealogical researcher must retain an optimism — a real hope that one day may present some brand-new lead to be explored to the fullest, of course. Indeed, optimists rather than defeatists have produced the results for which serious genealogical research is best known.

Every genealogical researcher shares one frustration that I know I will always live with. Was there something else I should have uncovered? My long curiosity about my family’s roots and the twelve years of obsessively pursuing and writing about them surely have not ended my curiosity. Again put simply: I have learned to live with my genealogical addiction….

My book Roots likely would never have been realized without conscious assistance from some living family elders and, I truly believe, and unconscious inspiration from ancestors in their graves. Oral history, the telling and retelling of family stories, was practiced throughout my family’s generations; the elders fed the interest of their children and their grandchildren in continuing the tradition — this is how the stories finally reached me.

I feel that our tradition passed along the family historian role to me, who happened to be a writer. Somehow as a writer I felt that a book fusing the history and the genealogy of the Kunta Kinte family in Africa and then in America might have some impact. But I repeat: It never could have happened unless our family’s earlier generations had preserved our history orally. …Ethnic Genealogy…promotes oral history and family history as solid valid genealogical research methods. The authors rightly stress the importance of talking with older family members and recording all possible information now, while they remain with us. Moreover, Ethnic Genealogy illustrates how oral and written family records can attest to ancestral family unity.

Ethnic Genealogy is not only timely, it is necessary. Had this work appeared long before now, many a genealogical researcher could have experienced far less frustrations. Now, the volume can immensely aid countless researchers who are just beginning their search, or others who have become muddled and confused in the pursuit.

After the appearance of the television program Roots in the late 1970s, Alex Haley became one of the nation’s most well-known genealogists. Indeed, he is often credited with helping revive American interest in genealogy. Although Alex Haley has passed away, he is still, in a way, influencing American genealogists, because the idea for the genealogy television program Ancestors was his.