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History: it’s all about identity

I had a conversation recently with someone who said they didn’t know who their grandparents were and asked why I bothered doing all the research. My immediate response was, for their stories.

Finding out about our ancestors and learning where they lived, the times they lived in and the work they did also tells us something about ourselves. Their beliefs and attitudes are as often filtered through generations through words spoken and remembered and passed on, just as their genes can determine physical appearances and characteristics.

How can I know who I am, if I don’t know where I came from?

I remember having a discussion along these lines many years ago at University. We were studying the controversial Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Colour Purple by Alice Walker. The tutor asked us to explore the theme of identity in an essay entitled ‘Who Am I?”’ Without going into the plot too much, the character Celie was a young, much abused young African American girl who eventually found her way to be self-determining.

The concept was not about what you did in life, but rather where you belonged regardless of race, gender or ability. The story was confrontational, but also offered hope. It was a story of the time. A time when the laws did not protect those a patriarchal western society considered weaker, inferior or unimportant: people of colour, women and children. Attitudes rooted in the past but unfortunately still prevalent today.

My stories are inspired by those women who strived – sometimes against the odds – for the best life they could have for themselves and their children. Women like Brigid and Gwenna, like Emma and Elinor, who overcame hardship: the lack of a warm home, good food, and often a good man. These women endured, sometimes leaving their place of birth, their family and everything they knew to find a better life elsewhere. Sometimes, they succeeded.

Fortitude is an old-fashioned word, but stories of that courage in the face of adversity tells us much about who our ancestors were and what they were like. What they thought and believed in.

Stories of their achievements however small, and the hope we can do as well, if not better, can inspire us too. Maybe, one day, our descendants will be proud of who we were. It’s all in our attitude.

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