Well, today was the day. As a white girl of European descent, with both Mormon and American (particularly Americans from the south) ancestors, I've long dreaded, and expected, to discover a history I am not proud of. But, after 7 years of research and not a single genuine controversy to be found, my idealism began to take over, and I thought that, perhaps, I may just be an exception to the rule.  Perhaps I'd managed to come from a family that had avoided all atrocity, and just let time pass in a civil and quiet way. I had traced an entire line of wealthy folk from Virginia and South Carolina to the 1600s, even, with none of the expected disappointments. But, today, it happened -- not once, but twice. 

I had long neglected a couple of lines in my family. The Stalker, Layton, and Trowbridge lines had taken up a lot of my time, and a few other lines were left unnoticed because of it. Last week, however, I decided to remedy that, and began seeking out info on the Laffoon and Hooker lines. I didn't get far at first, but after sending out a few emails and searching through a pile of census records, I began putting a few puzzle pieces in place. 

And then, I desperately wished I hadn't. 

This morning, I found two census records: one for the Hooker family, one for the Lafffoons -- both with a charming list of the slaves they owned, and one with a will that left money behind so his daughter could "purchase a strong negro man". 

...

I am, in a word, gutted. The rational part of me, of course, realizes that this was nearly three hundred years before I was born -- I was no part of this, I have no personal responsibility in this, I should not feel guilty for this. The only connection I have to these people is a few strands of DNA and a similar complexion. And yet...that's just not a satisfactory response, to me. I do feel guilty. I do feel shitty. I do think I owe someone, somewhere, some sort of...something. 

And that's the problem, isn't it? The people who actually committed these atrocities are long dead. Their victims are long dead. What has been left behind are generations of people of all races, cultures, economic standing, and religions that do not know how to reconcile our pasts with our futures. People that have been left to atone for the sins of their elders, people who were born disenfranchised because of those sins, people who have no idea where to go from here, or even where they actually came from. We have been left to deal with this history, left to build our lives upon the lives of our ancestors, for better or for worse. Whatever your culture, whatever you race, whatever your ethnic or religious background, if you live on the same giant plot of land I live on, you are likely a descendant of either predator or victim, imperialist or slave, majority or minority, immigrant or native. Canada and America, in particular, have very questionable histories, and all but a few of us likely have ancestors that were a party to them, in one way or another. 

The question, then, is what do we do with those histories? What are the generations long after to do with this information, this history, this ancestry, this record of atrocity and victimization? How do we turn our shame into action, our anger into activism, our walls into bridges? How do we reconcile our past with our presents and futures? How do we breed this mess of embarrassment, anger, and tension into apology, reconciliation, and forgiveness? 

I don't know what to do, if anything, with this information. I don't know if I am overrreacting or underreacting. I don't know if I should just roll my eyes in disgust, or actively seek to make some sort of reparation. I don't know if this is just my emotional basketcase side taking over, or if this is a legitimate concern. 

And, to be totally honest, I don't care. Whether valid or not, I have feelings about this, and they are not nice ones. I am deeply ashamed that my family partook in one of the largest and most repulsive atrocities in history. I am embarrassed to have to add these documents to my family tree. I want to just forget I ever saw it. 

But I won't. In some very weird way, I am proud to have such a shameful history. I am proud that, despite (or possibly because of) my questionable, controversial, and sometimes downright repulsive history, because of the innumerable stories, from the horrendous owning of slaves, to the brave protests in support of civil, and fully equal, rights, from the dark tales of the deep south to the proud stories of righteous rebellion, I was born to two people with an overwhelming sense of equality. I was raised in a multi-cultural, multi-lingual town by parents that abhorred bigotry and fought hard for decency and acceptance. I had teachers of every colour, culture, sexuality and religion. I had friends from every corner of the world. And I appreciate that even the most shameful parts of my history led to this. That is, perhaps, the only positive that can be found in all this -- if not for this atrocity, if not for this shame, if not for this horridness, I'd perhaps not be who I am today. I'd perhaps not have the background to back up my abhorrence for such hateful nonsense in this day and age. I'd perhaps not have learned the lessons, felt the sting, that only shame can bring. I can only hope that my feelings are not mine alone, and that we can all carry these thoughts and lessons into the future, together. 

 


Comments

Iain Strachan
08/28/2012 11:43

It's not a good feeling when one encounters such things - however, I wonder if it feels worse because that's about all you know of the person concerned - that they owned slaves, and that is appalling and exploitative. But in the culture of the time, it was seen as normal - the person was just another human being with some flaws, just as we all are flawed.

I think each generation is more enlightened than the last, but that should not stop one from seeing the elders as human beings. My father was in fact quite racist as many of his generation were. He always used to tell the story of how mortified he was that the first person he ever met outside the family who had the surname "Strachan" was a Jamaican worker who was "as black as the ace of spades".

Now from my perspective, that is totally unacceptable - I am mortified that a black man had the name Strachan because it means he was probably descended from a slave owned by someone called Strachan (often slave owners gave the slaves their own name), and who may well be a relatively recent ancestor of both you and me.

But that doesn't stop me loving my father and cherishing his memory; a decent man with some wrong attitudes - and probably the same is true of me, though I'm neither homophobic nor racist, there are probably quite a few other faults that I should be ashamed of! If I am to judge my father for being racist, by saying "Well I'm glad I'm not like that" who is to say that in the future my more enlightened children or grandchildren will not similarly judge me for something? For example, if climate change is true (and I fear it is), then our descendants are going to judge us for burning fossil fuels like there's no tomorrow, or eating beef, which has a colossal carbon footprint compared to a vegetarian diet. And yet when I was a child the thought never crossed my mind that this was not a good thing to do.

I don't think one can atone for the sins of one's ancestors, but as you indicate, we can learn from them and try to live a more enlightened, decent and honest life ourselves.

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