Fall 2022 - Reckoning with Inequality via Critical Family History

Susan Thorne
Fall 2022
Wednesdays, 2-5 PM
GLS House, 2114 Campus Drive

Recent reckonings with race remind us that as Faulkner famously put it, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”[1]  This course engages the history of inequality from the vantage point of the family, one of the most influential sites at which the past is imprinted on the future.  The family plays a key role in  the intergenerational transfer of wealth as well as the transmission of identities and values from which difference is culturally constructed.  The study of family history is itself an important site at which historic inequalities are reproduced as well as contested.  Genealogy as embraced in the United States during the second half of the 19th century advanced deeply racialized claims to national belonging and respectability that have had enduring  consequences.  In organizations like the Daughters of the American Revolution, founded in 1890, and the United Daughters of the Confederacy, founded in 1894, elite white women used genealogical descent to  recast legitimate political authority and citizenship itself in terms that reinforced the political hegemony of White Anglo Saxon native born Protestant men over their foreign-born and formerly enslaved counterparts.

Family history is no longer the preserve of leisured patrician whites.  The expansion and desegregation of public education and archives alike, along with the digitization of source material, sophisticated search engines and powerful data bases have made it possible to learn a lot more about all sorts of people than simply the ancestral lineages of the 1%.  There is now an impressive body of scholarship devoted to locating the histories of particular families in deeply researched historical contexts, resulting in more detailed understandings of how privilege and opportunity have been preserved as well as  challenged at specific times and places. There are still vast inequalities in preservation and access to source material, but the insights being gleaned from more critical approaches to family history are many and profound.  And the transformative potential of family reckonings with inequality is even more transformative when the family in question is one’s own.

Course assignments:

Scholarly literature:

We will be reading scholarly accounts of race-making and resistance at the local level.

Linda Gordon, The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction

We will also sample scholarly accounts of race-making or resistance in their own or other’s family history. 

Edward Ball, Slaves in the family

Kendra Taira Field, Growing up with the country

Christine Steeler, “Critical Family History:  An Introduction” special issue Genealogy 4/2 (2020) 64.  https://doi.org/10.3390/genealogy4020064  [MDPI Scholarly Open Access Publishing]

Diane Kenaston, Geneaology and Anti-Racism:  A Resource for White People


Students will research their own family history utilizing the burgeoning digital source base available on-line.

Christine Steeler, “Critical Family History:  An Introduction” special issue Genealogy 4/2 (2020) 64.  https://doi.org/10.3390/genealogy4020064  [MDPI Scholarly Open Access Publishing] and https://www.christinesleeter.org/critical-family-history

Diane Kenaston, Geneaology and Anti-Racism:  A Resource for White People

Our Black Ancestry:  https://ourblackancestry.com/

Coming to the Table:  genealogy guide https://comingtothetable.org/project/genealogy-support/

And/or students will conduct research on race relations in a particular neighborhood, town, or county to which they have some personal connection.

Writing assignments

Students will submit 1-2 page reactions to scholarly readings on the designated Sakai forum 2 days before class meets and respond to their classmates’ posts the following day. 

Students will create a blog on which to record their local/family research findings.  For inspiration see  Robyn Smith, Reclaiming Kin, Kay Strickland,  Shoots, Roots and Leaves




[1] Requiem for a Nun (NY:  Random House, 1951), p. 92. 

About Susan Thorne

GLS Advisory Committee Term: 2019-2022

Susan Thorne, Associate Professor of History, teaches courses on the social history of Britain and the British Empire, and on the history of European expansion more generally. She is currently working on Charles Dickens’ influence on Anglo American “ways of seeing” the children of the urban poor.  The Dickensian Affect:  Reckonings with Reform in Early Victorian Southwark (in progress) juxtaposes Dickens’s representation of criminal poverty and urban childhood in his most popular novel, Oliver Twist (1837-8) to archival accounts generated by the poor law’s reform during the 1830s and hungry ‘40s.