I confess, I have dealt with a sort of guilt as I bounce between the two environments. It is as though I am cheating on my true passion. But which is my true passion?
I am, then, neither the ideal social historian nor the stellar lineage-driven genealogist. After years of trying to decide which field would get my purest energy and commitment, I finally realized something: my passion lies where these two fields intersect, and that is where I want to invest my mind and heart, without guilt or apology.
I am a genohistorian.
Do not bother looking up the field in the dictionary. It is not there…yet. But when it finally does become a dictionary term, I imagine the definition will look something like this:
Genohistory, as it has long been practiced in guilty secret, uses the tools and established knowledge of both genealogy and history. But it goes broader than the first and more specific than the second. It starts with a set of people, like my Mayberry ancestors in Bibb County. I do the normal genealogical research, gathering the available details about them all. But then I go further, looking outward from them to the world they knew. Their enslaved people are of primary interest. I want to know about the neighbors, community, and town; their industries, roads, schools, and churches; their traditions, morals, and faith; and the events that shaped their lives.
Local and regional histories become essential to expanding on the genealogical framework. They offer the broader landscape around my ancestors and the people they enslaved. As I consult histories, I am not reading for general interest in a town—though local histories tend to be written with the municipality as the main character. My attention is anchored by my desire to know what my ancestors experienced as they looked outward from their daily businesses and lives. It does not matter if they are mentioned in the history; it matters that the history shows me what they saw. It causes me to read with different eyes, different filters, different questions.
Beyond history and genealogy, the “cross-disciplinary” nature of genohistory can include any field that illuminates the lives of a specific set of people in their time and place. We can use anthropology, sociology, psychology, archealogy, agriculture, literature, religion, art, architecture, geology, geography, language, foodways, and the list goes on. To know my greatgrandfather Otha Payne, for example, I need to read up on basket-making. Genohistory can never grow boring. If you find history far more interesting when your own ancestors are the main characters, you might be a genohistorian, too.
If you are a genealogist who keeps “dawdling” in one generation, on one branch of the family, curious to find more and more, you almost surely are a genohistorian. I encourage you to join us at Genohistory on Purpose (genohistorian.com) as we flesh out what it means, how it works, and what a quality genohistory might look like.
Donna Cox Baker is the director of Alabama Heritage.