Monday, September 13, 2010

History of Things

My object, a birth certificate, is owned by a woman named Amy. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to meet Amy at the First Person Arts event tonight, so I don’t have much information on her ownership of the certificate. Amy was born in Germany, but her father was an American soldier, so she is a citizen of the United States. Her treasured possession is her German birth certificate, but the history of birth certificates outside the United States is especially elusive. The history of issuing birth certificates to American children born outside the United States is even more so.

Birth certificates were not commonly issued in the United States until the early 1900s. The Census Bureau created the first standardized birth certificate in 1900. This governmental body devised a system by which to annually collect birth (and death) statistics from each state. This was a response to the increased need for information on circumstances in which American citizens lived and comprehensive data on population increases and decreases, as well as other social conditions. The Bureau retained this responsibility until 1946 when the system was overhauled and the duty was reassigned to the United States Public Health Service. Today, the Division of Vital Statistics of the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) collects birth and death data. However, the federal government no longer is the body to issue birth certificates. This duty presently falls to each individual state and U.S. territories. Each state or territorial government is responsible for submitting birth statistics to the NCHS. The NCHS is responsible for making sure each state submits consistent and uniform data which are compatible with those issued by every other state or territory. Through this system, nearly anyone born after 1900 would have been issued a birth certificate.

As mentioned, I can’t speak to Amy’s specific case. However, often parents keep their children’s birth certificates until adulthood, at which time the forms are passed on to those children whose documents they are. The papers are used to prove identity and citizenship. A birth certificate is confirmation one exists; a validation of one’s being. I can’t testify as to how Amy has used her birth certificate specifically, nor can I say I have interacted with Amy’s birth certificate physically. However, the story of the paperwork touches me greatly. Though I was reluctant to learn the story, suppose the tale is relevant here. Amy was born in Germany in 1947 to an American soldier who married her mother, a German woman, while stationed overseas. The couple was of two different races. Amy’s American birth certificate is stamped with the word, “Mulatto.” Her German birth certificate, which is her treasured possession, is not marked by any such hurtful language. I find this to be tremendously poignant: Amy’s birth certificate is significant for what is absent; for what it is not.

For further information and to view my source for the above, please click here.

No comments:

Post a Comment