Le Vicomte de Labrye

March 1, 2023

graphic by Binny Bae

We would all like to know where we come from. However, I have always wondered if genealogy facilitates the construction of one’s identity or if it merely diminishes family histories.

I began inquiring into my genealogy last summer for two reasons. First, I wanted to find someone rich. Maybe if an ancestor of mine was an aristocrat, I could claim their hypothetically abandoned chateau for myself — we are in a housing crisis, after all! — and bask in my completely undeserved glory. If this certain vicomte (the nobleman I counted upon) refused to show his face on a branch of my tree, I at least hoped for an ancestor of historical relevance.

Lo and behold… I found neither.

Genealogy is the study of family ancestries, in which one must sift through copious amounts of archives researching oddly-named strangers — I’m looking at you, Zozime Modeste Sénateur — to establish an account of descendants. After months of this seemingly endless task, one which sprouts two heads for every birth certificate found and four heads for a marriage license, I concluded that I came from a long line of peasants. Embarrassingly, I found it difficult to hide my disappointment. But with time, I grew to feel much pride in my heritage and figured that my ancestry meant absolutely nothing and everything all at once.

Although genealogy is an integral part of many cultures across the globe through ancestral worship, oral narration and other practices, my family rarely cared for passing down stories about our ancestors unless someone directly asked them to. My mother started mapping out her family tree when she was in high school, but the technology available at the time did not allow her to go very far without direct access to archival records.

Alex Haley’s “Roots: The Saga of an American Family” (1970) popularized the practice in the United States. The book followed the story of Kunta Kinte, a slave from Gambia, and his descendants through seven generations, expressing the author’s earnest longing to connect to his past. This message strongly resonated with Americans, especially African Americans, who yearned to understand their ethnic origins and heal the genealogical trauma of the slave trade. Other ethnic groups similarly used genealogy in an effort to understand their immigration stories and shape their present selfhood. However, my mother never started inquiring into her ascendance as a search for herself but out of pure curiosity. Growing up in Picardy and having Norman parents was hardly the identity crisis of a family tree hacked apart by centuries of deracination. Nevertheless, the search for one’s ancestors is meaningful, regardless of one’s cultural background. It explains various traditions that have persisted through generations and crystallizes the DNA of a family. Most importantly, it creates a narrative from which one may infer their present realities. Why does that matter?

Why are we obsessed with knowing where we came from? How does the journey of strangers who passed away a long time ago say anything about who you are as a person and what your place is in the world? We are not the sum of the places we have existed in, nor are we the confluence of endlessly intertwined stories. We are whole on our own.

graphic by Binny Bae

If I’m honest with myself, I did not start my inquiry for wealth or historical relevance. I wanted to prove that I was a true Norman. I have a confession: I did not grow up in France. In fact, I only lived there for a whopping three years during my childhood. As a consequence, I have often heard people dismiss my cultural identity as performative and not inherent. While not entirely wrong, the dismissal of one’s identity — however self-crafted — is a sting of a special sort. But, when I found these many generations of born and bred Normans buried in the (digital) archives of distant villages I had never heard of, I felt absolutely nothing.

A genealogical inquiry can be as exciting as it is superfluous. As I gradually placed names on the ever-growing branches of my family tree, I realized that I did not feel any different before and after the process. I was merely finding birth dates, marriages, professions, and deaths. Occasionally, I would stumble onto an address yet ultimately hit a roadblock when finding that an ancestor’s father was unknown. However, this familial archaeology did little to construct a family history made up of different personalities and characteristics. My efforts failed to forge an identity based on common values and beliefs.

I realized that the best genealogical studies cannot be measured in the number of generations traced but in the amount of actual stories uncovered. Although I did not find an ancestor who fought in the French Revolution, I found a way to connect to my present family. Living as an expatriate for most of my life, I haven’t had the chance to see my extended family often. Years passed until I could no longer hold a conversation with my grandparents. I was so physically and emotionally detached from my country that I lost all interest in learning about my roots. So, when I started my genealogy, I was inspired to ask my grandparents questions about my ancestors. Their endless stories were what brought my tree to life, not the hundreds of archives I painstakingly dissected for a fraction of a person’s life. No amount of research could have recounted how my great-grandmother opened her own delicatessen and dairy shop in Formerie before ultimately moving back in with her father when the Second World War split France in half.

I will never forget the look on my grandmother’s face when I printed a copy of her family tree. Her eyes lit up as she instantly started pointing at the names she remembered. Her eyebrows lifted as she learned about a distant aunt’s single mother or another tumultuous marriage. Her lips curled up at the many locations she remembered visiting as a child. And her arms extended to my grandfather so he could revel in her enthusiasm.

So what if my family is condemned to our memories? I have come to understand the importance of passing on stories, however banal they may seem, to fortify the links that connect us. I may not have learned much about myself in the process. However, I have begun to assemble the portrait of a family I have long misunderstood. ■

graphic by Binny Bae

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