Learn Your Family’s History

Ordinary photos and stories can connect you with your roots: Your weekly guide to the best in books

A grid of family photos, showing men, women, and children turned away from the camera at the beach
Photo-illustration by Joanne Imperio / The Atlantic. Source: Eric Bard / Corbis / Getty.
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Flipping through old photo albums, enjoying long conversations with grandparents—these experiences are familiar and treasured parts of family life. But they can have a significance that transcends personal connection as way of creating and preserving a precious historical archive.

This work is vital. Learning about our elders doesn’t just connect us with our roots; it also opens us up to bygone ways of living, Elizabeth Keating argues in her book The Essential Questions. Plus, listening to this lore is good for kids’ development, Elaine Reese, the author of Tell Me A Story, wrote in The Atlantic in 2013. It helps children understand emotions, deepens their sense of identity, and makes them better at constructing their own narratives.

The value of these archives becomes even more stark when they’re threatened. Megan Buskey, who wrote Ukraine Is Not Dead Yet, couldn’t access secret-police files about her older relatives when Ukraine was under Soviet control. Only after a new government took over could she see the files and think, “So this is what my grandfather’s handwriting looks like.” Now, she writes, if the archives don’t survive the war, others won’t be able to do the same. But even after the most destructive conflicts, people find ways to remember. Daniel Loedel, the author of Hades, Argentina, whose half-sister was disappeared during the Argentine Dirty War, has long cherished the photos of her that remain: a blown-up yearbook portrait; a snapshot of her with her boyfriend, “smiling mischievously”; pictures of her as a child with “round cheeks, light hair, searching blue eyes.”

Indeed, mundane images and stories can be powerful. “They remind you that they were a person, not a stat, not a little side note, not a little entry in a genealogical chart. They were a real, living, breathing human being,” Noah Lewis told Clint Smith in 2021 of his reaction to hearing his great-great-grandfather’s account of daily life under enslavement. Too often, Black Americans in particular are depicted in one-note ways—as either under violent attack or utterly exceptional. Everyday snapshots, such as those gathered in Black Archives by the artist Renata Cherlise, offer an alternate portrayal. The photos in Cherlise’s book show no pain or pretensions of eminence. Rather, they capture the simple pleasures of living—the tenderness, the fun, the togetherness.

Every Friday in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas. Know other book lovers who might like this guide? Forward them this email.

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What We’re Reading

photograph of a family at the beach

Smith Collection / Gado / Getty; The Atlantic

The questions we don’t ask our families but should

“Whole ways of life were passing away unknown. A kind of genealogical amnesia was eating holes in these family histories as permanently as moths eat holes in the sweaters lovingly knitted by our ancestors.”

a parent and child playing at the beach

Arben Celi / Reuters

What kids learn from hearing family stories

“What most parents don’t know is that everyday family stories ... confer many of the same benefits of reading—and even some new ones.”

Soviet-era archives with a silhouette of a woman's profile cut out of them

Matt Chase / The Atlantic. Source: LOC.

The secret-police files that revealed my family’s history

“Given the Soviet tradition of warping the truth, history research in Ukraine has an important political function: It allows what was hidden to finally be known.”

Family photo of the Loedels

Courtesy of Daniel Loedel / The Atlantic

My sister was disappeared 43 years ago

“The search for ghosts, the effort to prevent the dead from being entirely disappeared, is inevitably a communal one, a strange multigenerational game of telephone. And, as in that game, all you get and have to pass on is a whisper.”

A woman sitting in a brown chair with her leg thrown over the arm holds a baby while looking at the camera.

Reprinted with permission from Black Archives: A Photographic Celebration of Black Life, by Renata Cherlise

What ordinary family photos teach us about ourselves

“The pleasure of viewing photographs in Black Archives derives mainly from the fact that none of the images are abstract, and they don’t engage in righteous protest, defending, or rebelling against cultural and social erasure. The book’s pages are dedicated to familiar joys and listless days, to the sense of personhood that remained intact while the war for civil rights continued just outside the frame.”

About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Kate Cray. The book she’s reading next is Autobiography of Red, by Anne Carson.

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