Tangents and Detours

I’ve not kept up with this blog as I had expected to, but have by no means abandoned it. A combination of new responsibilities at work and the general mental fatigue everyone seems to be facing have limited the amount of time I’ve spent here. 

What I have spent time on is gathering genealogical material from others in my family and organizing it into my own ancestry account. This seemed the most logical place to keep track while building my family tree, at least for the time being. While doing so, I found myself going down rabbit holes I hadn’t intended to find.

In most cases, building my family tree on the site was relatively easy. Members of my family have been interested in genealogy over the past three or four generations, so we have a lot of material already researched. My mother, by connecting with other archivists several years ago, was able to trace one line back to the 1400’s.

I’ll let that sink in for a moment. And by sink in, I mean I want you to stop and consider the amount of white privilege it entails to be able to easily trace ancestors back that far. 

Photo by Daniel Watson on Pexels.com

Speaking of being white, have you ever done those DNA tests? Ancestry and 23andMe are two common ones.  According to the DNA ethnicity results, my genetic background does not contain any Native American markers. Yup, I’m white.

I bring this up in conjunction with my next question. Do you know that story that goes around some white families – the one about there probably being some ‘Native’ relative? It’s usually a woman and she was probably important, unique, or special in some manner. My family had this story, only it was vague (unlike other ancestors stories, which were specific) and came with the caveat that we were never able to prove it. Which is weird, right? In hindsight. To put it right there in the tale that it you couldn’t prove it? 

The story even went so far to imply the reason it couldn’t be proven is she had “Christianized” her name to obscure her heritage because of the bigotry prevalent at the time.  Of what time? I have no idea. Centuries ago, apparently.

Anyway, I admit that as a child I liked the idea of being related to this woman and felt it made me ‘special’ in some way, too. Now see how truly harmful these sorts of narratives are, how they are laced with a combination of both white guilt and white supremacy. I’m thankful these things only remained stories – and that no one in my family claimed this identity (as far as I’m aware) in any official sort of way. 

What else do my family tales have wrong?

Another thought that crossed my mind as I was digging into some of this material was a conversation I’d had with my grandmother when I was in college during the early 1990’s. My roommate at the time was from an upper-middle class family in Connecticut. Their home was a large, old farmhouse. It had been remodeled and gentrified before that was all the rage.

When I visited, she showed me where there was a secret staircase that led to a small room in the attic. The claim was that it had been used as a stop on the Underground Railroad, helping hide runaways while on their way further north to Canada. I told my grandmother this story and asked her if any of the abolitionist members of our family had any similar tales. Her reply was vague and dealt more with the political support and church’s stance of the time. She also made an off-hand comment about being careful who I spoke with in the family because not everyone would want to talk about it.

Over the years I’d dismissed this conversation as unimportant, not understanding the possible significance. It wasn’t uncommon for my grandmother to be vague or unwilling to discuss certain subjects. In fact, I’d nearly forgotten the conversation entirely until recently. Recently I’d been thinking of what she said as it related to the social media habits of a branch off that side of the family tree.

According to an NPR article, the U.S. removed nearly 100 Confederate monuments in 2020. A relative took to social media decrying the trend – claiming that “our heritage is being destroyed”. Why they wanted to maintain statues of those who fought and lost the Civil War, I can only hazard a guess (…it’s racism…). I no longer have any idea what this person is saying on social media, but can imagine that their opinions regarding the any educational idea that included racial equality would be along the same vein. 

This made me curious about what else could be lurking underneath that particular branch of the family tree. If the mere thought of providing education on the true history of our country makes someone uncomfortable – what other truths might there be? Is it generic white fragility gone wild or could there be some unsightly blemishes on our family name? Why was my grandmother so vague?

A few months after having this thought and I have yet to find a slave owner in my family tree. That’s not to say one won’t turn up. My family has been here since the Mayflower arrived. As some of the original colonizers, the very act of our being here so long has contributed to the society we have today – including its structure of racism and white supremacy.  

Our histories, both in the textbooks and at the dinner table, have been written in a way that absolves us as white people from any wrong-doing. It forgives harmful actions in the name of some sort of ideology, turns the victim to the aggressor, or glosses over the facts entirely. Acting like the truth is too harmful for children to learn is simply a projection of one’s own fear and discomfort. 

When I look at my family tree I see names of people I’ve loved and of people I’ve heard about my entire life who died before I was born. Any historical truth I might uncover wouldn’t change that. History sheds light on the stories we’ve been told, places them in time and offers context.  As a society we can’t understand where we are unless we understand how we got here.  And if we don’t, how can we ever move forward?

Anyway, that’s what got me a little off track recently. I’m still working on this project, I’m just finding interesting and distracting detours along the way.