In this lesson, students will explore the ways in which family narratives are woven into individual identity, as illustrated by Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s revelation to actress Maggie Gyllenhaal of her own family roots in Episode Six of Finding Your Roots.
In the Introductory Activity, students are asked to plot out the different sources of their own “identity factors” and discuss what their responses may reveal about the relative influence of family upbringing, community values, genetic inheritance, and individual choice. In the Learning Activities, students explore five different family narratives for Maggie Gyllenhaal and their relative impact on her sense of identity. In the Culminating Activity, students are asked to interview a parent or other older relative to compare his or her sense of identity against their own, and suggest explanations for the generational differences.
This lesson is best used as part of or an introduction to a unit on genealogy or personal identity.
After completing this lesson, students will be able to:
- Weigh the relative influence of family upbringing, community values, genetic inheritance, and individual choice in an individual’s sense of identity.
- Theorize on why genealogy is more important to some individuals than others.
- Discuss the significance of narrative in family history and suggest why it is so subject to embellishment and/or romanticization.
- Explain why certain family ancestry is more easily traced—either by traditional or technological methods—than others.
- Discuss how traditions are created, how they evolve, and how they sometimes come to be rejected.
(2-3) 45-minute class periods
Starting Points Video
A Long Journey Video
Noble Blood Video
Faith and Rebellion Video
As American as it Gets Video
Founding Mothers Video
For each student:
- Two copies of the Roots of Identity Student Organizer
For use in the Learning Activity:
Part I: INTRODUCTORY ACTIVITY
- Ask students to suggest which factors contribute to their sense of personal identity. (Answers will vary and may include ethnicity, religion, family, talents, tastes, etc.; encourage students to be specific—e.g. “my father” or “my taste in music.”) Distribute the Roots of Identity Student Organizer and have each student list the top five “identity factors” in the left-hand column, ranked from 1 to 5, with 1 being the most important.
- Explain that the table on the organizer suggests a number of primary sources for each identity factor. Allow students 2-3 minutes to determine and indicate on the organizer which sources account for each identity factor they’ve listed, from most to least influential (ranked 1 to 5 respectively).
- Divide the class into groups of 4-5. Allow groups 10 minutes to discuss what they’ve written on their organizers and consider answers to the six questions at the bottom of the organizer.
- After 10 minutes have passed, have each group offer their answer to one question for the class, and have every group answer the last question. Explain that there are no right or wrong answers here; this is simply an exercise to get everyone thinking about the different ways in which we come to develop our own senses of identity in the world, and the greater or lesser role played in that process by our communities, our families, our peers, and our own individual choices. Explain that the remainder of this lesson will be using video excerpts from the PBS series Finding Your Roots to explore how actress Maggie Gyllenhaal has come to understand her own identity as a product of many different traditions and choices.
Part II: LEARNING ACTIVITY
- Based on the responses they gave on their organizers, ask students for a show of hands indicating how many of them would characterize their identities as being more about their own individual choices rather than family heritage or community membership. (Response will vary, but should be significant.) Explain that the episode of Finding Your Roots profiling Maggie Gyllenhaal also features actor Robert Downey, Jr. While his story will not be explored in this lesson, the indifferent attitude of Downey’s parents to their own genealogy is not uncommon, and is worth exploring. Provide a focus for the first video segment by asking what Downey knew about his family roots prior to meeting Dr. Gates. Play the video segment Starting Points.
- Pause at 01:57, after Gates offers highlights of Downey’s film career. Review the focus question: What did Robert Downey, Jr. know about his family’s origins prior to meeting Dr. Gates? (Very little beyond great-grandparents, and even they were hazy.) Why does Downey think so little importance was placed on family roots in his household? (Downey describes his parents as “counterculture artist types” who didn’t think family origins counted for much.) Ask students why they think genealogy might be of little interest to “countercultural artist types.” (Accept all answers, but suggest that artists are often more concerned with inventing their own new identities than with passing on what’s come down to them from older generations, and that those who further identify as “countercultural” may go even further by actively rejecting family identities rooted in established social orders.) Tell students that they will be returning to the theme of counterculturalism later, but for now, provide a focus question for the remainder of the video segment by asking what Maggie Gyllenhaal’s motivation is for learning about her roots. Resume playing Starting Points through to the end.
- Review the focus question: What is Maggie Gyllenhaal’s motivation for learning about her roots? (Being pregnant with her second daughter and thus now embedded in a longer family narrative, she’s interested in separating its facts from its fantasies.) Ask students if they think there might be some fantasy or fiction in their own family histories. (Accept all responses.) Explain that many of us have family stories which have been somewhat embellished over generations of retellings. Ask students why they think this is. (Accept all answers, but suggest that we all tend to remember and respond best to compelling family narratives—i.e. stories that tell us something about who we are and where we came from—and sometimes the literal truth is sacrificed in the name of a better narrative.) Provide a focus for the next video segment by asking to what Gyllenhaal attributes the professional ambition and accomplishment of her maternal grandmother and aunts. Play the video segment A Long Journey.
- Review the focus question: To what does Gyllenhaal attribute the professional ambition and accomplishment of her maternal grandmother and aunts? (She suspects it came from the example of their hardworking immigrant father Benjamin Silbowitz, but is open to the possibly that it might be genetically inherited.) Based upon what they have just learned, ask students to describe how Gyllenhaal understands her family narrative on her mother’s side. (Gyllenhaal understands her maternal family narrative to begin with her Jewish great-grandfather Benjamin Silbowitz, living under Tsarist Russian oppression; after emigrating from Russia to the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1906, he worked in the garment trade until he was able to move to the Bronx and start a successful small business of his own; his daughter Ruth went on to become an accomplished professional in a time when few women worked; she in turn raised her daughter Naomi, who succeeded in the arts as a screenwriter, and who gave birth to two children who would grow up to be movie stars.) Ask students how they would describe this multi-generational narrative. (Accept all answers, but suggest that it is a compelling example of the classic American “rags to riches” immigrant success story.) Does Gyllenhaal seem proud of it? (She does; she points out that this narrative “is what I’ve heard a lot about.”)
- Point out that so far in this episode, Professor Gates hasn’t revealed anything yet to Gyllenhaal; the family narrative they’ve discussed is already well established in her own sense of personal origin and identity. Tell students that the same is not so true of her family narrative on her father’s side, despite it being considerably better documented. Provide a focus for the next video segment by asking why Gyllenhaal’s paternal family history goes back so much further than that on her maternal side. Play the video segment Noble Blood.
- Pause at 02:04, after Gates explains that noble bloodlines were documented to establish monarchies and determine inheritance. Review the focus question: Why does Gyllenhaal’s paternal family history go back so much further than that on her maternal side? (Jewish records like those which would have recorded Gyllenhaal’s maternal family were often burned in pogroms, or lost in forced migrations, while her father’s family, being of noble lineage, was well documented as a means to determine succession and inheritance.) Provide a focus for the remainder of the segment by asking what the fact and the fiction of the Gyllenhaal name is. Resume playing Noble Blood through to the end.
- Review the focus question: What is the fact and the fiction of the Gyllenhaal name? (The fiction that Maggie Gyllenhaal grew up with was that she had a poor ancestor who had written such a beautiful book about butterflies that the King of Sweden ennobled him and gave him a gyllen haal—literally “golden hall”—in which to live. The fact is that her ancestor had been knighted for bravery in battle in 1652, at which time he followed custom and changed his name, from “Haal” to “Gyllenhaal.”) Ask students if they think that Maggie’s cousin Ed Gyllenhaal identifies more closely with his noble Swedish ancestry than does Maggie. (Yes.) Ask students why they think this might be. (Accept all answers, but suggest that he works at the Glencairn Museum, which suggests a particular interest in history). Log on to the Glencairn Museum website and provide a focus for the first minute of the short video found there—“Embracing the Sacred: The Story of Glencairn Museum”—by asking in what town the Glencairn Museum is located, and who founded it. Play the video on the website.
- Review the focus question: In what town is the Glencairn Museum located, and who founded it? (The Glencairn Museum is located in Bryn Athyn and was founded by members of a Christian denomination called the New Church.) Explain that members of the “New Church” are also known as “Swedenborgians,” after the Swedish scientist and theologian upon whose writings their theology is based, Emanuel Swedenborg. Ask students if Ed and Maggie have ever met. (They have not.) Considering that they are cousins, ask students if they think this is surprising. (Accept all answers.) Ask students if they have cousins they’ve never met. (Answers will vary, but suggest that families often drift apart for a variety of reasons.) Provide a focus question for the next video segment by asking students what the connection once was between Ed’s and Maggie’s families—and why that connection may have become so distant. Play the Faith and Rebellion Video.
- Pause at 03:39, after Gyllenhaal says “My dad really rebelled against it, and so he kind of pushed it out of our life.” Review the focus question: What was once the connection between Ed’s and Maggie’s families, and why has it become so distant? (Ed’s and Maggie’s fathers were both from a Swedenborgian family living in the“intentional community” of Bryn Athyn. While Ed remained in this community and now works as a curator of its museum, Maggie’s father Stephen rebelled against the religious tradition of Swedenborgianism and chose to raise his family outside it.) Ask students if they think this rejection of family tradition and identity is very common today. (Answers will vary, but most students will have at least some experience of breaking with family traditions in some way.) Provide a focus for the remainder of the video segment by asking students when Americans made their biggest cultural breaks with tradition. Play the Faith and Rebellion Video through to the end.
- Review the focus question: When did Americans make their biggest cultural breaks with tradition? (In the 1950s and 60s.) Why was this? (Answers will vary, but suggest to students that the 1950s and 1960s saw the breakdown of many previously monolithic social institutions and cultural traditions into a greater number of smaller, more personal individual identities.) Ask students if they think traditions are always old, oppressive, or irrelevant. (Answers will vary, but point out that many “traditionalists,” like Gyllenhaal’s 3rd great-grandfather, Swain Nelson, have gone to great lengths to establish their traditions in the first place, which indeed were often themselves reactions against oppressive traditions or conventions elsewhere.) Ask students what they think are some general reasons for and against rejecting traditions. (Answers will vary; suggest to students that while rejection of tradition is often individually liberating, it can also mean the breakdown or loss of communities it once held together.) Ask students if they think being American is more about perpetuating existing traditions or creating new ones. (Answers will vary; suggest that breaking with traditions to make a new life is not only the story of most immigrants to America, but also that of many native-born Americans like Stephen Gyllenhaal. On the other hand, many would argue that it is only the tradition of a common American cultural identity that unifies a society composed of such disparate traditions.) Provide a focus for the next video segment by asking what Gyllenhaal’s oldest American roots are. Play the video segment As American as it Gets.
- Review the focus question: what are Gyllenhaal’s oldest American roots? (Gyllenhaal can trace her earliest American roots to her 10th great-grandfather John Lothrop—a Puritan preacher who escaped English oppression with his congregation to help establish the settlement of Barnstable on Cape Cod shortly after the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock.) Who are some of her fellow descendants of Lothrop? (Presidents George W. Bush, George H.W. Bush, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Ulysses S. Grant, and the child actress—and later senator--Shirley Temple Black.) Ask students how they would characterize this particular branch of Gyllenhaal’s family tree. (Answers will vary, but suggest that Gyllenhaal’s family on her father’s side is a classic example of the New England WASP—White Anglo Saxon Protestant—“establishment.”) How does Gyllenhaal react to learning about this branch of her family, and why? (She finds it fascinating, but doesn’t really identify with them at all because she has always seen herself as more in the New York Jewish immigrant intellectual narrative of her mother’s side.) Are these two American narratives of Gyllenhaal’s identities mutually exclusive? (Accept all answers, but suggest that while very different, both narratives are richly and uniquely American: her father’s side is descended from one of the nation’s oldest and most-respected founding families, while her mother’s side represents the equally iconic tradition of poor Ellis Island immigrants who succeeded.)
- Ask students why they think Gyllenhaal identifies with her mother’s family narrative more than her father’s. (Gyllenhaal was raised hearing stories about her mother’s family, and hadn’t known anything about the extent of her father’s WASP lineage—perhaps because her father had himself broken with his own more recent family tradition of Swedenborgianism.) Ask students if there might be an element of simple personal preference in Gyllenhaal’s chosen identification. (Accept all answers, but suggest that personal identity—especially today, in the wake of the great cultural upheavals of the 1960s—is very much a matter of personal choice for many people; while Gyllenhaal seems almost embarrassed by her father’s very prominent WASP ancestors, she seems quite drawn to the romance of the hardscrabble Jewish immigration story on her mother’s side.)
- Ask students if they can think of any means of researching a person’s identity other than sifting through family stories and genealogical records. (Genetic testing.) Provide a focus for the next video segment by asking why it is possible to trace Gyllenhaal’s roots on her mother’s side so much further than on her father’s side. Play the Founding Mothers Video.
- Review the focus question: Why is it possible to trace Gyllenhaal’s roots on her mother’s side so much further than on her father’s side, despite the latter being so much better documented? (Because they have historically married amongst themselves, Eastern European Jews share a genetically isolated gene pool that can be traced back thousands of years, with 40%--including Gyllenhaal’s family—being able to trace their ancestry to one of four anonymous“founding mothers” in Ancient Judea.) How does Gyllenhaal react to this revelation? (She’s not surprised, saying that she “feels” Jewish.) Ask students what they think Gyllenhaal means by this. (Gyllenhaal has already stated her intellectual and emotional kinship with her Jewish heritage, and now even suspects that it may inform her taste in food.) Ask students if they think that Gyllenhaal’s DNA test has served to scientifically “confirm” her sense of cultural identity. (Accept all answers.) Ask students if they think cultural identity is anything that needs confirmation. (Accept all answers, but suggest that while genetic testing, genealogical research, or family stories can tell us something about ourselves, whether or not we choose to incorporate that information into our own personal identities remains our choice.)
Part III: CULMINATING ACTIVITY
- Ask students to recall how many different family narratives Maggie Gyllenhaal explored with Professor Gates over the course of Episode Six of Finding Your Roots. (Five.The immigrant Russian Jewish roots of her mother’s family; Medieval European nobility on her father’s side; her father’s early American Puritan settler heritage; her father’s more recent family history of Swedenborgianism; and her genetic heritage from Ancient Judea.) Had she been aware of all these narratives before meeting with Professor Gates? (No—she hadn’t known about her early American roots or her genetic Jewish ancestry.) Ask students if they think Gyllenhaal has more family narratives yet to be discovered. (Yes.) Ask students how much family narrative they think any given individual can really incorporate into their own sense of identity. (Answers will vary—accept all.)
- As homework, give each student a second copy of the Roots of Identity Student Organizer to have their parent or relative complete. Assign them to then compare their relative’s answers to their own and write brief responses to the following questions:
- How does your parent’s or relative’s sense of identity differ from your own?
- What family traits or community traditions have you chosen to embrace, and which have fallen by the wayside? What have been the reasons either way?
- Do you foresee a time in your lives when your responses to the organizer will more closely resemble those of your parent or relative?
- Have students discuss their conversations and the responses they generated in class the next day. Are there common themes of generational difference and continuity?