The Tenement Museum in New York tells the story of a tenement building in the city used as low-income rental apartments for immigrants coming to the US between 1863 and 1935. Over these years, the building housed over 7 000 immigrants from more than 20 countries.
The museum takes you back in time through the re-creation of the apartments and tells the stories of the different people who lived in them. On visiting the museum recently, it was the life of Natalie Gumpertz, a Prussian immigrant, which touched me. After her husband went missing in 1874, she raised three girls alone and pulled her family out of poverty through dressmaking and a small inheritance. Focusing on stories like Natalie’s helps you realise that everyone has a story, even those who are seemingly forgotten.
Visiting this museum got me thinking about my own history. I am lucky because I have a dedicated relative who has spent an enormous amount of time tracing the family roots. As a result, I have information about my relatives, at least on one side of the family, back to 1769.
Without boring those who are not interested in my background, what has been significant about the process is to see how the family has changed over time. There are successful relatives as well as those who had problems, like alcoholism. However, what is undeniable is that even after periods of hardship and some relatives sinking into poverty, the family recovered and moved forward.
I understand this might not be the case in all families, and appreciate that in the South African context it has been difficult for many people to lift themselves out of poverty because of apartheid. However, one of the other impacts of apartheid and colonisation is that many people have lost touch with their history. Most South Africans know little about their families beyond the memories of living relatives.
Families were separated because of apartheid migrant labour and even whites were often cut off from their country of origin. The result of this has been a simplifying of the South African story. The dominant view is that all whites are somehow descendants of privilege, and diverse cultures in the black community are perceived as homogenous.
Of course, this is complicated by the fact that in South Africa, whites, largely because of apartheid, ended up being more advantaged than most black South Africans, who were shamefully discriminated against by whites. But thinking of South African national identity through the prism of the present can be limit- ing.
Many extraordinary historical stories of everyday resilience in the black community have been lost, or superseded by the bigger story of fighting against apartheid. That many white immigrants to South Africa were fleeing persecution and poverty is also underemphasised. Of course, this cannot hide the larger story of how many of these individuals then persecuted black South Africans. But my point is that losing touch with one’s history means one is more prone to repeat its negative aspects rather than learning from them. This results in those who were mistreated maltreating others, or those who make it out of poverty even today forgetting about their fellow citizens in the poverty trap.
I am not advocating a sanitised and sentimental trip down memory lane or suggesting that having poverty or discrimination in one’s background justifies one’s actions. But, rather, the process of uncovering my own family tree has taught me how change happens and to appreciate resilience, and that all history is marked with imperfection.
South Africa, not to mention Northern Ireland, could do with more complex and nuanced historical storytelling. It is only when we become aware of the indivi-dual journeys we have all travelled, and particularly how flawed these are in most cases, that we can really get to know one another and transform the present with a sense of humility and purpose.
This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 25 April 2008 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.