Tuesday, February 6, 2018

I Have Slaveholding Ancestors

My family is full of immigration stories. The ancestors who came here from Italy in the 1890s and the ones who came here as Puritans and Pilgrims from the Mayflower to Great Migration.

My life is full of white privilege. You can't really tell I'm quite Italian. I look Anglo-Saxon as heck. Born with blonde hair, pale skin, and hazel eyes. Oh, my hair has darkened a bit as I've gotten older, but I'm still fair and white...

And, once upon a time, when I discovered I had southern ancestors, I was desperately afraid of learning they'd been slaveholders.

It turned out, they were, something that made me feel awful. When you see papers that state that your ancestors "left" a "negro" to their descendants, you cry. At least, I did.

I Have Slaveholding Ancestors - New England Genealogy
Will of my 5th great-grandfather, Richard Howett of Tyrell County, North Carolina. Visit http://www.ncgenweb.us/tyrrell/HWT1805.HTM for the full text.

Not only that, but my own generalization about only my line of southerner ancestors holding slaves was completely wrong. Why is that? Because, while my ancestors were predominantly settled in New England, we often forget - or perhaps don't know - that slavery was legal in those states for quite some time. The most glaring reminder of that is in Rhode Island, where I saw in the census for myself that one of my ancestral families there owned slaves.

These discoveries made me feel absolutely wretched and I've struggled through the years with what to do about them, how to do something about them, and whether or not it matters at this time that I even acknowledge it. Isn't it enough to realize it happened, be angry that it did, and hope that we can continue to learn from this awful history?

Do I need to apologize for my ancestors? Some people think it's ridiculous to apologize and/or take responsibility for something that happened 150+ years ago, while others think this is vital to us moving forward. So how do I feel?

I feel like it sucks. I feel horrible that, at some point, the people who were responsible for my existence today, owned other human beings. I'm so sorry that it ever happened at all to anyone. While I was reared in a very different time, we aren't actually all that far removed from the fall-out of slavery.

My parents grew up in a time full of unrest because of the Civil Rights movement, in a time when plenty of people still looked at our African-American citizens as subhuman, no better than dirt or livestock. And what angers me is that there are still people who look at anyone non-white in that way.

Why am I bothered about what my ancestors did 150+ years ago? Why does it anger me that people are still racist today? I'm white. It's not my fight, right?

Wrong. As far as I'm concerned, I'm human, not identified by my skin color or nationality, but by my heart. But because of my skin color and nationality, I've had certain privileges bestowed upon me. Are they fair? Nope. No one has ever doubted my ability to achieve anything because of my skin color. Or generalized about me because of it.

Then again, maybe someone has. Maybe an African-American or Latino or Native American person has looked at me with fear or trepidation, or some other negative emotion, because of what white people have done to them.

I don't want to be looked at that way, but I sure as heck don't blame anyone of color for it. They have every right to see me as a threat to their health and happiness, even to their life. Because, horrifying as it is, plenty of people still exist who want to eliminate people of color, or people with other "undesirable" traits, from our world.

So I write this today to say I'M SORRY for what my ancestors put the ancestors of African-Americans, Native Americans, and anyone else they harmed through. I'm sorry for what your ancestors suffered at the hands of my ancestors. And I'm sorry that you still have to fight TO THIS DAY to be recognized as a human being.

I want you to know that I am not a pink pussy-hat-wearing feminist Becky. Not by a long shot. I WANT TO HEAR YOU.

Whether you want to talk about the past or the present, I am here for you. Yell at me, take out your frustrations on me, cry on my shoulder, hold my hand as we #resist together.

Here is what I am doing:

1. I am rearing my children not to be "color-blind," insofar as many groups of people have suffered because of the color of their skin and we need to understand and acknowledge that, and validate those experiences.

2. I am telling my children that there are people in this world who are unfair, unfeeling, misguided, hateful - whatever they may be - and that these people will treat others who are "different" in horrible ways. I am teaching my children that not only is this wrong, but that they have a responsibility to step up for their fellow humans.

3. I am teaching my children that "race" is a social construct, nothing more. And if they can reach across those lines created and perpetuated by others, we have a better chance of helping humanity move forward. Recognize that people of different cultures do have their own identity and respect it, validate their experiences, and don't be that person who talks about your "black friend." This person is simply your friend.

Right: Me, my sister, brother-in-law, nieces and nephews.
Not my "black brother-in-law." My brother-in-law.

4. I am talking to other people, one at a time, about the importance of intersectionality in feminism, genealogy, and all facets of our lives. And I am open to listening, too. I need the voices of our genealogists of color, our women of color, all our people of color.

5. I am not hiding the fact that the U.S. has an ugly past and present. Nor am I shying away from telling my children - and now, all of you - that my family was a part of that.

Now, I want to know what else I can do for you - for us - so please know I am a person you can talk to and I will listen.

Copyright (c) 2018 Wendy L. Callahan

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