Saturday, February 09, 2008

blood ties

Illus: Am I Not A Man, And Brother?
1830s Anti-Slavery Banner

I'm just going to spit this out, because it's bugging the hell out of me.

My mother's doing research on our family history and has traced down the fellow who kicked off her father's line in America -- the fellow Goochland, Virginia was named after. And, as you might suppose, having shown up in the 1600s, he became a landowner and a businessman and, goddammit, a slave owner.


Which completely contradicts my sense of my family history. My story, the story that's close to me, is just three or four generations old: huddled masses arriving in America and working the boardinghouses and box factories and copper mines of the American West. Rancher. Construction foreman. Stagecoach station operator and a saloon owner.

I wasn't counting on this.

My first impulse is to practice cognitive dissonance and discredit my mother's research. After all, her previous claims that we're related to Mark Twain, Robert Frost, Walt Whitman AND John Steinbeck were somewhat dubious. But I know I have to dig into it for myself and get to know this ancestor. Hear this part of the story. And then figure out what to do about it.


More on American Slavery on detritus »


narthex said...

Ancestry and history are odd things. One can't pick which side of the line(s) we are really one in our past. The positive thing is knowing where we are now. My grandmother tells me our family has records going back 13 generations and it is time that I get to know the keepers of these chronicles back in Vietnam. It is a little daunting...

mrtn said...

I still hold that you weren't complicit in the crime, you weren't complicit in the crime. That someone who shared part of your genetic structure was a slaveowner only underscores the fact that moral progress is contingent on what society you're in. Things abhorrent to us were perfectly normal back then. It makes you think, it doesn't make you somehow guilty by blood. The only kind of guilt that comes from blood is the kind that comes when you spill it.

Any guilt left over from slavery - and there's plenty to go around - is in our cultures. The US ancestors owned slaves in the confederacy, the Danish ancestors owned and traded slaves in the Danish West Indies. I'm sure someone who shared my genetic structure was involved in slave trade on St. Croix or sailed on slave ships to St. Thomas. My culture should feel something about that, and we should use it to understand how easy it is to do wrong, but we shouldn't move the guilt down to the individual level anymore. We weren't complicit. The worst aspects of our societies were. What that means is an obvious source of dispute, and a whole other debate.

suttonhoo said...

Son, I'm really looking forward to seeing what emerges through your art when you do.

Martin: Agreed. But this is disquieting news for a lot of reasons -- one of which is my reverence for ancestry and history and inheritance.

and yeah: an abhorrence of the will to power being exercised on anyone's head.

much to sort out. I suspect it'll take awhile to get it done. not a bad thing, just unexpected.

thanks for your comment. it was insightful and well-reasoned and kind.

I, Rodius said...

If responsibility were passed through the bloodline, the backs of each new generation would be bent further and further under the burden. That's too many people to be responsible for. I respect inheritance, but for me, it loses focus after a generation or two. I guess that makes me more of a nurture kinda guy than a nature kinda guy.

Anali said...

This is a pretty amazing post. It actuall fits in with a post that I'm getting ready to write. I hope you don't mind if I mention it.

suttonhoo said...

thanks, rodius & anali, for your comments.

and anali, yes, of course: looking forward to your post.

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