Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Genealogy and Family History: Narcissism or Love?

Is it narcissism? Blinkered sentimentality? Is it nationalism of the exclusive and pernicious sort? Is this concentration on self, on my history, my family, my community anything worthwhile or am I self-deceived?

These are the questions, the doubts that trouble me in this family and social history project of mine. It is a project of self-discovery, self-recovery, and several other hyphenated descriptions beginning with the prefix self. It is a project about me and mine isn’t it?

A voice whispers, “Humble yourself. You’re not that important and your community’s struggles are not as weighty as those of others.” In our little known Franco-American subculture, humility is a family value, a value that serves us ill amid the din from today’s chorus of carnival barkers. 

I am sitting on the porch with a small group of my fellow French-Canadian descendants. There are about 20 of us and we’re attending a gathering in a remote conference center in Maine. Night has fallen after a day of presentations, readings, and discussions that leave us stimulated but exhausted.  This is our time to just hang out.

Franco-American Baseball Star
Napoléon Lajoie:
"Nap, comment dit-on 'can o' corn'?"
Jokes are told in French and English. Someone bursts into song for a moment only to be drowned out by raucous laughter following a muttered quip. Someone asks how you say “pinch hitter” in French. Another person grabs an iPad and looks it up, which leads to a quiz of baseball terms in French, each person talking over the other while everyone hears all that is said. “How do you say curve ball?” “How do you say grand slam?” I want to know how you say “can o’ corn” in French but I’m not quite sure what that means in English. Bilingual conversations and sidebars start, stop, dart, and scatter like aquatic insects.

This is the way Franco-Americans hang out. It is different from the way New England Yankees hang out, or Latinos hang out, or African-Americans hang out although if asked to define these differences I’d find myself on thin ice. I do know that it is as familiar as my own hand and as loveable as my best friend.

What are we doing in affirming this sameness, in basking in this familiarity? The obvious question to ask is whether this affirmation of sameness is about excluding the other. Are we building a Great Wall of self-identification in order to hold back the barbarians or is this something else?

“It’s about love. I love these people and they love me.” So said Cajun musician and poet Zachary Richard in the film about Franco-Americans, Réveil -Waking Up French. It’s about love, Monsieur Zachary, if we want it to be.

To recognize the sameness, to feel the love and familiarity we had with each other on the porch, is to build up a reservoir that we may take with us when we return to our multicultural world. Most of us no longer live in le petit Canada, the neighborhoods in pockets all over New England where French was spoken and our identity affirmed. On the porch, we recognize our humanity in a way that is easy so that we may build up a reserve of this rare form of energy in the moments when this recognition proves more difficult.

I can draw from these reserves in those moments when I perceive irreconcilable otherness, the irritating clash of competing, but closely held, values; when rage at our differences, at “how wrong you are!” covers over our sense of the humanity of the other. In these moments I may draw from the natural resource I mined on the porch.

It is in these difficult moments that I will resolve to draw from a time when it was very easy to affirm our humanity, our personhood, that oxymoronic unique-sameness that makes love real. This sameness may give us access to the other, access to the beauty in the diverse, the many, the multiple. Once our people milled cotton and wood and now we mill something else, drawing on another natural resource as essential to human life as wind or water. “It’s about love.” 

This conference I attended driven by an interest in our unique culture, our histories, the progress of our DNA contributors through history, need not be narcissistic or exclusive. This is not a Nuremberg rally telling the troops whom they ought to hate and why. A Christian teaching, almost never applied in practice, says, “Love your enemies.” I’m not the first person to ask how it is possible to love our enemies when we can’t even love our friends. 

What am I doing gathered with a handful of fellow Franco-Americans in this remote spot in Maine?  I’m learning to love my friends.

I won’t stop there.

A Distinct Alien Race, a book by David Vermette from Baraka Books, Montreal, 2018


  1. Okay so my four years of New York City High School French would indicate to me that Napoleon Lajoie would pronounce his last name as Lah-JWAH (something like happiness). But when I've heard it in other venues, it's LAH-joe-ee. Can someone straighten me out on this? If they do I will explain what Can-o-corn means
    Fritz C.

    1. In the accents of North American French the final vowel sound in Lajoie would be somewhere in between la-zhWAY and la-zhWEH. My gr-grandfather had a brother named François. In the 1871 census of Canada the anglophone enumerator wrote the French names (unfamiliar to him apparently) phonetically. He wrote François as "Franceway" which is how he heard the pronunciation and this reveals something about our ancestors' accents. The Franco-American last names were all anglicized in pronunciation. My last name is not pronounced correctly. We pronounce it using English sounds. Some of the Franco-American families even translated their names from French to English, Racine became "Root," Boisvert became "Greenwood," etc.

      Now what were you saying about a can o' corn?

    2. A "can-o-corn" is a lazy pop fly, usually to the outfield. The expression comes from a long time back when grocers used to stack cans, corn in particular, high up on shelves. They would use a stick with a claw on the end of it to loosen the top can so it would tumble forward, and catch it in their aprons. The lazy pop fly is compared to that
      Fritz C

    3. And thank you, from now on I will pronounce Nap's last name as La-ZHWAY.

  2. Very thoughtful and insightful post. It highlights something that I've only begun to appreciate and that is the fact that the French Canadian communities (some at least) of the Northeast US are much more recent arrivals which gives them a unique perspective. You've had a true immigrant-family experience, which is something most F/C in the Midwest or Louisiana cannot say. But that said, I don't think longterm identification with the group is necessarily predicated on that. There is something about being F/C that because we are more akin to Hispanic immigrants than, say, German or Italian ones. For many people I know or speak with, I get the sense of a much deeper sense of history and identification with the land. Of course I'm dealing mainly with genealogists...

    1. And a very thoughtful comment, James. Yes, I agree that there is a difference between the New England and the midwestern F-C/F-A experience. There was a quasi-ghetto aspect to life in many of the New England mill towns that I do not think existed in the midwest or at least not to the same degree (I have some branches of my family that went to Ontario circa 1860 and drifted into Michigan). In New England the phenomenon of chain migration created 'blocks' of people in the mill towns many of whom had come from the same place in Quebec and who now found themselves suddenly transported from a rural milieu to an industrial one. Your comment goes to my observation that the various Francophone or Franco-gene peoples in North America definitely have their distinctive histories and characters, as do the various Hispanic groups, and yet they share a root, a commonality that is rarely celebrated -- or even acknowledged.

  3. Another great post David.. I could not do what I do if it was not for the love of it all ;)


    1. Thanks, Lucie. I couldn't do what I do without your kind support.