The Hard Discussion About Your Familial Past

Hello! So sorry to be gone for so long. Been a busy Spring and Summer. Now I can concentrate again on my family history and the blog.

That being said, I am going to go WAY off topic today to discuss something that has been weighing on my heart. Two things have happened this summer that have me in deep contemplation: a church shooting and a denial of family history.

The first event was the tragic shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. This occurrence hurt my soul. However, my heart has been inspired by the true Grace the congregation has shown during this difficult time. Mankind’s violence against each other has been a constant throughout history. We cannot change history, but we can know it and use our knowledge to improve the future.

I grew up with the “American Melting Pot” ideology. I feel my personal beliefs in racial equality are grounded. My racial heritage is varied. My husbands’ heritage is too. My son is stereotypical Heinz 57. Our little family discusses equality often, but I forget that I live in a self-made bubble of protectiveness.

One morning in June, I finally got up early enough to watch the news only to see the church tragedy unfurl. I cried. The day moved on and I started to ask myself “How do violent acts like South Carolina happen? What causes a young man to want to hurt a group of people in 2015?” The blame game started whirring in my mind; “Didn’t anyone notice? Did he always have these tendencies?” Soon those thoughts took a turn.

I actively work to be cognizant of my behavior, but what about other people who are careless with the words or attitudes they convey? I can easily see, in my own family and friend circles, those comments and quips that promote racial/socio-economic…what is it? Differentiation? Need to be better than others?

Over the last 30 years of my research, I have heard friends and family say the following things:

    • Our aunt told us we were getting too dark in the sun. Being dark was not a good thing.
    • Well, she might call herself Mexican-American, but I’m not.
    • I’m pretty sure we are more Spanish than Indian.
    • It’s weird, he’s half Portuguese, half-Mexican, but he hates his Mexican side.
    • We don’t want him to marry into that Cherokee family. (Aren’t you part Cherokee?) Well, yes, but that was a long time ago.
    • I’m Hispanic, but I’m not like “those” kind of Hispanic people.
    • No one is going to make me say politically correct things. I’ll say what I want to say. Screw them.
    • She got teased for being a blonde Mexican.
    • You can’t speak Spanish? Seriously?
    • When I asked if we were part Jewish, he just winked at me but would NEVER admit it.
    • We are part of the struggling. We are the oppressed. It’s the wealthy whites who are holding us back.
    • You are not Mexican. You are white-washed.

Most of my family would think that they are on the tolerant side of this issue. But even the most liberal of freedom fighters make quips that, if examined carefully, smell vaguely of judgement when it comes to the wealthy in our country. And it is these passing phrases, comments on social media, discussions over coffee, that have made me wonder if we unknowingly create these issues in our country?

What if the above phrases came up in casual conversations, dropping into the minds of others in the room? A simple seed planted. And what if one of those seeds sprouts? Takes root? Occasionally, humans are known to feed the wrong thing. Add a little Self-Righteous Indignation, some Perceived Wrong-Doing against us by some group, then with either a loud boom, or a quiet click, violence can spark. Maybe pent-up feelings emerge, taking those who don’t know what to do with their angry emotions into dark places their family never thought they would go.

The second story in the news was Ben Affleck not wanting the PBS show “Finding Your Roots” to share that he had slave owners in his family. This isn’t related to the shootings in South Carolina, but stick with me here. Mr. Affleck’s lobby to get his familial results tweaked so as not to show the darker, yet historical, side of his family in America saddens me too.

Besides my maternal family tree, I tend my Mother-in-Law’s tree as well. Her family is fun to research because: Americans were great at documenting, I can read every page as the documents are in English (my shame of not speaking/reading Spanish,) and her tree has been in the U.S. pretty much from the beginning. Her Revolutionary War veteran great-grandfather was a New Jersey slave-owner.  She has a great-grandmother who was a cousin to Abraham Lincoln.

Do I hold the now considered “sordid slave owner” information back from my son? Do I just talk up President Lincoln because he signed the Emancipation Proclamation? This is where I make a decision to talk with my son about those who came before him, their life choices and what my hopes are for his walk in this world. I can help him feed positive seeds.  I think Mr. Affleck could have said something to the effect of: “I’m not necessarily proud of what they did. It was the time they lived in. My family didn’t stay slave owners. They changed. They grew. And their experiences influenced who I am today.” My MIL’s great-grandfather did free his slaves, by the way.

I am from a very patriotic family. My dad fought in the Korean conflict. We love the United States. But make no mistake, I was made fun of in school when kids asked me “What are you?” and I answered “I’m American.” As most American families emigrated from somewhere else, this was never a good enough answer. Humans are notorious for categorizing each other. For putting each other in boxes. After working this hobby for sometime, I can now answer with more definitive clarity where my people came from.

I have found peace with the journey of being an American who values the trials and tribulations of those who came before me. There are very few of us who will be related to kings and queens. A relative might have been rich, poor, black, white, super smart, not too bright, and even of different faiths. When a person investigates their genealogy, they might find an invader of a country married an indigenous person. And even that love could have even been reciprocated between the two. Gasp! Colonization isn’t always “rape and pillage.” Their decisions in regards to family came from their time and culture. We need to learn to accept our familial “good, bad and ugly.” Those who made me who I am today get my respect for being who they were. As our ever-morphing values and culture changes, I am certain one day I will want that same courtesy.

 

 

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