I vaguely remember the brouhaha when the emails surfaced but I quickly moved on as celebrity gossip barely interests me, but something about this article from The Week really bothered me.
Kudos (I guess) to PBS for owning up to letting some spoiled celebrity exert undue influence on them, but seriously Ben Affleck? What kind of asshat isn’t man enough to step up and say, “these are my people and they made choices I completely disagree with but thank God we’ve learned the lessons of history”. Or something.
I guess it bothers me too because I was in the same boat. You see I’m adopted, so my first genealogy is that of my adoptive parents. The family who raised me, whose culture has become mine, whose celebrated ancestors and pioneer spirit I appreciate and wear with pride. My pioneer ancestors left England to settle the American West, they packed all of their possessions into a hand cart and with their 4 children (all under 6 years old) walked from Iowa to Utah. Of the 576 that started the trek in their company, 145 didn’t make it. We are incredibly proud of our pioneer heritage and the strength it took not only to go west but to settle and try to make a life… and yet.
And yet, the land they settled wasn’t abandoned, there were tribes already living there. My ancestors and their fellow settlers participated in a war against the indigenous people. There is also a shame I feel at what my ancestors did to our the name of ‘progress’. Genocide is ugly. So is slavery.
Several months ago as I started to do my biological family’s genealogy I realized early on that my biological father may have served his country proudly as did his father and grandfather, but his ‘people’ were from the south… Alabama to be exact. I felt it in the back of mind, this unsettling thought, that if they’d lived there for a few more generations that there was no doubt which side of the Civil War they would have been on. And then I found it… a census listing the number of persons in my great, great, great…. grandfather’s household. 7 slaves.
Growing up in Utah we always knew that if you trace your ancestry back far enough you’d find polygamists. Hopefully it wasn’t something really icky (like super young wives and really old husbands) but it’s there, and we both laughed and cringed at our history, but we owned it. Mormon’s didn’t own slaves (at least I’ve never heard of them owning slaves). So looking at that census data punched me in the gut. These are my biological people. My. Blood. Relatives. Owned. Slaves. as painful as it was to realize it for myself, I realized that I couldn’t deny it. There may be nothing I can do to change the past or apologize or try to set right (although I am open to reasonable suggestions), The very VERY least I could do was to acknowledge it. Accept that my ancestors were racists who thought it was acceptable to OWN another human being. Slavery is an awful blight in our country’s history and our collective soul; and Ben Affleck, you are a total pussy for not being man enough to own your history (right and wrong) and then brow-beat producers with your celebrity to rewrite history. Shame on you.
5 thoughts on “Rewriting History”
Though I am from India and do not have much idea about American history, but I got the point of your post. Powerful post! 🙂
While not everyone in the south owned slaves – the percentage was actually lower than people are led to believe and is made up of those who probably had some amount of wealth – tracing genealogy uncovers not only things in your immediate family, but in the families of all of those that “married in” to yours. So it isn’t surprising to find things we don’t like. My maiden name is rare around here – my college yearbook shows only two people with that last name – me and one other young woman – our pictures looked like negatives of each other. So, while I haven’t found records like you have, and there could have been marriages that produced the result in the yearbook – I have to acknowledge that possibility. I also know for a fact that some on the other side – taught against slavery from a pulpit or two. Living in the south makes for some crazy history.
We all have some portion of our family history that we are not proud of. The question is what to do with that knowledge when you acquire it. The fact that you were able to discover your family history is amazing. You can pinpoint a place where you know your people stood. You have a connection. Slavery being a part of that history is a rather ugly stain but you cannot hold guilt for something you had nothing to do with. However, you can take what you have learned and maybe continue your search into those slave family and make a connection for someone else’s family. You can make an conscious effort to bridge the gap in the racial divide that exists in this country. The seed has been planted now make that garden grow.
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