Reflections on Researching Racism in America

Thomas Bivins Probate Inventory (1857), Marion, Inventories and appraisements 1852-1904, "Georgia, Probate Records, 1742-1990," FamilySearch.

I have agonized over what I would say in a blog post that would speak to the gravity of where our nation is today. I question if it is my place to say anything or if this is even the forum to do so. The more I debated in my head, the more convinced I became that I needed to write something, if only to amplify the voices of those speaking out against the racism they face every day.

I am a white woman who has spent my academic and professional career working with people of color. I am a public historian, oral historian, and genealogist whose projects, research, and lectures have involved Native and Black communities. In doing this I am constantly reminded that I have the privilege to study racism without having to experience it.

I have sat for hours with descendants of slaves listening to their life stories, filled with the challenges imbedded in systemic racism and sexism. I have witnessed the simultaneous joy and pain in the eyes of a client when we finally found their direct ancestor listed in the probate inventory of their slave owner. As a mother myself, I have wept over the pages upon pages of registers of babies born into slavery, separated from their mothers, generation after generation.

It is emotional work. It is uncomfortable work. On multiple occasions I have presented my research in front of an entirely black audience that questioned my decision to pursue this work. Why would I in all my white privilege want to study racism, slavery, and colonization? Am I just trying to exploit their communities for my own gain? Valid questions I reflect upon daily that help keep me focused on finding ways to promote voices coming from Native and Black communities without making them my own.

While I have expertise in the methods and
theories in all these fields, I do not feel it is my
place to educate the Black community about
their history – they know it well.

While I have expertise in the methods and theories in all these fields, I do not feel it is my place to educate the Black community about their history – they know it well. I see my role as a negotiator, to listen to the community to determine how I can use my knowledge to best serve them.

The most important lesson I have learned while pursuing this work is to listen. Discussing a troubled and painful history which has shaped the systems at work today is hard. It’s hard as a white person in that space because it is uncomfortable. But through that discomfort there are many rewards that bring forth more dialogue and understanding. In every instance I have found listening to be the most powerful way to connect. Something so simple yet so powerful.

I am so grateful to work for an institution that has made great strides in promoting the voices of the Black community. I hope to continue use my knowledge to help our members and patrons amplify more of those voices in the future.

Meaghan E.H. Siekman

About Meaghan E.H. Siekman

Meaghan holds a Ph.D. in history from Arizona State University where her focus was public history and American Indian history. She earned her B.A. in history from Union College in Schenectady, New York, the city where she grew up. Prior to joining the NEHGS team, Meaghan worked as the Curator of the Fairbanks House in Dedham, Massachusetts, as an archivist at the Heard Museum Library in Phoenix, Arizona, and wrote a number of National Register Nominations and Cultural Landscape Inventories for the National Park Service. Meaghan is passionate about connecting people with the past in meaningful and lasting ways. She enjoys finding interesting anecdotes about an ancestor to help bring the past to life.View all posts by Meaghan E.H. Siekman