CONNECTING THE DOTS: A LOOK AT MY HISTORY PROJECT
A couple months ago I joined the History Project. I was excited to use a digital platform to celebrate the stories of ordinary people. As a History Concierge, I would be in a role I knew best. Serving as a trusted guide, I would support clients ready to share their personal histories. When I was given the task of making my own history project, I felt vulnerable. I have spent a great deal of my life as an observer. Usually helping people tell their own stories, or being the trusted listener if someone needed to be heard. Beginning my project caused memories of childhood and adolescence to surface. Some memories were joyful, while others were painful.
I remember my parents candor in reminding their children that coming to the United States with one portmanteau (suitcase) was not for the faint of heart. My mom told many stories about her love of science — molecular biology — a subject I did not understand. Watching cells move under a microscope supported her belief in something beyond what the human eye could see. She took pride in conducting experiments that affirmed a life force in all things. Dad spoke candidly about African immigrants joining the larger American tapestry. Proudly stating that we belonged to a new generation with our own perspectives, triumphs, and challenges to share. He found joy in knowing that we were a new and developing life force, forging our own destinies.
The more painful memory was knowing that they had planned to return to Nigeria after receiving their education. I could sense their defeat whenever they made international phone calls home, knowing that their return home was uncertain. International calling cards became a staple in our house.
In sharing my story, I would have to find my own truth in sorting out these memories. My history project challenged me to find a story among many disconnected pieces. As the History Project Concierge, I know that mining through your personal history can be an enriching and overwhelming process. If your story is not so clear cut, here are three useful tips I would love to share to help you with your project.
FIND A THEME
When looking through my family lineage, I see a presence of absence. Relatives I would love to chat with are deceased. Modern technology helps connect living family members over space and time. Yet, it does not replace the desire for a real time connection with important members of my family. Sometimes, even the innovation of social media cannot comfort the heart. For all these reasons, I decided that I would not be able to think of my history in a linear way. I chose to work with a theme to weave different events, people, and ideas together. I named my project, “Roots: A Celebration!” I wanted to celebrate how our roots are the same even if we have taken different paths.
Finding a theme to connect your story might be useful. Look through your photos, sift through your memories, and talk to your family if it feels right. What major messages strike you about your life? What can you acknowledge about your personal history? What makes your life compelling? These questions can help you go deep into your own values and ideas.
ADD HISTORICAL EVENTS AND FACTS
Even though my people are from Nigeria, there’s only so much I know and remember. I visited Nigeria when I was very young. I remember fragments of seeing my grandpa laugh. I also remember that one of my grandpas was a talker, and might have told me something important that I have now forgotten. Growing up in the States has chipped away at these memories. I cannot deny that I have assimilated into a dominant culture that makes holding onto your personal narrative difficult. In my journey to remember and retrieve my history, I have had to re-learn my origins. Finding historical events or figures — especially events and figures my family connect to — helped in shaping my story.
My father loved Chinua Achebe (considered the father of African literature). He quoted him in his thesis and his books were in his study. The first thing I did was read up on Chinua Achebe, learning how his writing continues to embolden a people. Of course, I love his writing too!
Looking through the collective history of your family can bring a larger perspective and understanding of who you are. Adding historical context helped me see my story as more than an individual effort. So look for a picture, a video, or a document. Even better, interview your family on what they thought about larger historical events to give your project a level of intimacy.
FIND FAMILY QUOTES, MANTRAS, AND SAYINGS
My mom told me that her mom would always say, “Show me your friend, and I’ll show you who you are.” My mom used this phrase with me when I was growing up. She valued the cultivation of good character. Her mom would say this same phrase to warn her to stay on the right path. The right path meant nurturing a solid sense of ethics and morality. As a somewhat feisty teenager, my ethics could be shaky at best. I wanted “cool” friends. Coolness meant finding friends that took risks, were defiant, and would often lie to get out of trouble. During these trying years my mom repeated this mantra frequently. When I turned sixteen much of my unruliness and defiance left me. I suppose my mother’s words latched on because soon I was reciting the same phrase. Now, I see her words as a gentle reminder to follow the path that’s right for me. Her mantra reminds me that friends can be a reflection of self, so choose wisely. In this way I live with integrity, while honoring the wisdom my grandmother and mother passed on.
What are the quotes you’re folks lived by? What sayings do you remember them repeating when you were a child? Ask your family if there are any proverbs, sayings, quotes, or mantras they held dear. There is a lot to learn from the words people often repeat. Where did they get that from and why? You might be surprised at how this connects to your life now, and to your personal history.
Finishing my history project allowed me to see my story as something alive and not limited to a timeline. I hope that in making yours you see your personal history as a living project that is always re-defining and re-imagining itself, because really our stories do just that.
Thank you to Itoro Udofia for contributing this article.
ABOUT THE HISTORY PROJECT
The History Project empowers families to connect artifacts and memories across media to build experiential stories that transcend generations. The History Project offers a set of mobile and online tools to intelligently collect, beautifully curate and delightfully collaborate in building your personal life story. Preserve and relive the memories that matter most through The History Project. For more details visit www.thehistoryproject.com.