Last month I wrote about the topic of history. Heritage is different. While it involves history, it refers to that which belongs to a person by reason of birth, passed down from preceding generations. Each of us has a personal heritage, found in the history and origins of our families.
Consider, for example, the African American families who founded nineteenth-century settlements in Indiana and whose descendants still gather each year to remember them. In 2013, Indiana Humanities helped to fund a documentary on the Roberts Settlement in Hamilton County. As the accompanying website states: “The documentation of our family heritage is a legacy that we leave to our children, grandchildren, and their offspring.”
Communities – whether bound together by geography, ethnicity or choice – have a shared heritage. When I first joined Indiana Humanities in 1982, the council was just completing an extraordinary project called “This Far By Faith: Black Hoosier Heritage,” a traveling exhibit tracing the journey of African Americans from rural to urban life throughout Indiana. The exhibit is no more, but a PDF of the project’s illustrated booklet, edited by Emma Lou Thornbrough, is still available and may be downloaded from the Indiana Humanities website.
Heritage is compelling because it is personal. On the micro level, it is “the story of me.” I was amazed when two of my cousins, one a retired biochemist and the other a former urban planner, recently set out to trace the history of the two sides of my family. Their archival searches turned up such details as the Seattle street address where my grandfather had a tailor shop in the 1920s and the date when my mother and her sister left Manzanar (a WWII internment camp for Japanese Americans) for Chicago.
On the macro level, however, heritage combines to become the story of our nation. An important keeper of this story is the Smithsonian Institution, where history and heritage are freely offered as resources for all of us.
So, my thoughts: It is first important to understand one’s own heritage, to go in search of that which belongs to us personally. And then it becomes possible to appreciate the heritage of other people, to learn about their experiences through the work of historians, writers, museum educators and indeed the descendants themselves. This is a broad spectrum, and the opportunities for education are extensive and universal. When we celebrate heritage in this way, we make connections between our ancestors and our children, ourselves and each other.
This blog is part of a blog series, All Good Things. The series, written by Nancy Conner, will run throughout the year to reflect on topics that have been central to our work at Indiana Humanities.