Is knowing where we came from so important?

I saw another one of those commercials. You know, the commercials where a person complains she does not know who she is and she does not know where she came from. These people are usually Caucasians of European descent who are complaining of not knowing their heritage. And this organization will help them find this out.

Then there is the commercial of a woman of African descent who discovers where she is from in that huge continent. And she proudly dons a hat that comes from one of the countries or regions the company says her bloodwork says she is from. And her life is complete because she now has an identity.

I do not begrudge the knowledge either of these people have gained. If they gain some satisfaction from it, then they should have the opportunity to learn this information.

For the woman of African descent, I believe it is very important to have an idea of where she is from. It is knowledge too long denied to the descendants of slaves dragged here from Africa.

And the woman of European descent might not have relatives she can ask where she is from. This can be true due to a closed adoption or having few or no relatives of the past generations.

In the all-or-nothing world of television advertisements, there is not time for these kind of subtleties. You either must know your ancestry or you are incomplete. There is not the time to discuss things like slavery or adoption in a 30-second advertisement.

I have to wonder if this is a symptom of another problem. Are we no longer satisfied with being Americans?

Have we become so embarrassed to be identified with membership as a United States citizen we need to identify with the country of our ancestors’ origins?

I know I am fortunate. I know a good deal about my pre-American origins. And that information is important to me. Yet I do not choose to identify as a hyphen American.

I am simply an American. All of my maternal grandmother’s family was born in Germany except her. Most of my family goes back two to three generations before a European came to the United States.

And yet, we have no one who goes back to Revolutionary to pre-Revolutionary days. We are like many families in this country. Many of our ancestors came from Ireland, Britain and Germany for economic reasons rather than due to oppression. They simply thought they could have a better life here.

Would it make a difference if we stopped the hyphen trend? Would we be forced to look at America as our own instead of something we kind of accept after we acknowledge where else we came from in the world? Would we be more proud?

And might this make us work harder to make it a better place? Could we use this new focus to bring more to bear on what we want this country to be? I have to wonder.

This cannot be forced. It has to be something everyone joins in doing voluntarily.

And there can be no judgment toward those who choose not to join this trend. My mother and I did many years of research to find things out about my dad’s family. Her father’s family had a very confused history not even he could explain. As noted above, her mother’s family came here so recently it was easy to find out.

And I recognize this is not an issue of great import. Or is it?

Jim Matthews is a longtime resident of Greenfield. Send comments to