On this Día de los Muertos, I celebrate my ancestors. For the first time in my life, I’m learning who they were.
James Reame and Sophronia Casson are the oldest ancestors of mine I can trace on Ancestry.com. They were born about 50 years before Shakespeare in Bardsey, Yorkshire, England. Their great-great-granddaughter Grace and her husband were the first in my family to immigrate to America somewhere between 1640 and 1647. Their daughter Alice was my first ancestor to be born on this continent. Her great-great-great grandson Thomas travelled across the continent by wagon from Missouri to California. His grandson, John, was my maternal grandfather.
I didn’t know any of this until 2 weeks ago. I’ve never been particularly interested in my family history. I knew my dad’s side of the family is German and my mom’s is mostly English, but I never thought to ask about specifics. It just didn’t seem relevant.
Currently though, I’m taking a course called “Roots Deeper Than Whiteness” that looks at the racial construct of whiteness and the its history in the States. It asks us to reflect on our ancestry and where it situates us in the bigger picture. This was not the first time I’d been asked to ponder my lineage and was able to come up with very little, so I thought, maybe I should look into this.
I dug out a folder containing some information about my mom’s family, then went to Ancestry.com to see how far back I could trace those lines. Within a few hours, I’d gone back to the 1600s. Not much is verifiable as fact (at least not by me), but the point is less about specifics than the idea that I am part of history, which includes the history of American whiteness.
The first time I was asked to consider my family history in the context of race and racism was during an amazing talk by Leah Penniman on her book Farming While Black. In her talk, Leah recounted how her four-times great-grandmother braided seeds of okra, millet, rice, molokhia and sorghum into her hair before being forcibly transported to America as a slave. She laid out some of the history of African-American agriculture and land access, and asked us to contemplate where our own families fell into this historical picture.
Afterward, I confessed to my friend Kerry that I didn’t know much about my family history. Kerry, who has been learning about race and discrimination for much longer than I have, asked me what ethnicity I identified with. I was flustered by the question and replied, “White, I guess.” She pointed out that “white” is not an ethnicity. I was immediately irked, subliminally sensing that there was something I wasn’t getting — and I wasn’t happy about it. I don’t remember what I said next, but I got a little shitty with her and felt uncomfortable and icky, like something ugly was festering and I didn’t want to pull off the lid. I quickly apologized, but the fact that I’d had a kneejerk reaction stuck with me. What was it about the conflation of race and ethnicity that had me triggered? Why did I feel this underlying sense of shame, immediately supplanted by defensive indignation? Why did not knowing my family’s background suddenly feel like a black mark when it was never an issue before?
Kerry’s question, my answer and the ensuing emotional backdraft are exactly the point of “Roots Deeper than Whiteness”. The course provides clarity and historical context around “whiteness”, the often invisible, silent counterpart to “color”. What is it to be white? Where can people who identify as white place themselves in the antiracism movement?
“Roots” introduces a historical perspective that highlights “white-on-white” colonialism, for lack of a better term. Their resources show that a good part of the European diaspora to America was a result of this intra-national colonialism in the form of extraction and exploitation. For example, the enclosure movement that peaked in Britain in the 1600s and 1700s privatized agricultural common lands and displaced many who lived directly off the land, conscripting them into a commercial workforce or reducing them to beggar status. Homelessness became hyper-criminalized, and at one point the English government conspired with the Virginia Company to simply round up people off the streets and put them on ships to the Americas — a win-win, ridding England of undesirables and turning them into part of the colonial cash cow.
Similar practices of colonization occurred in Scotland, Ireland, Basque country and Catalonia, severing many people from their lands, livelihoods and community bonds and making them prey to exploitative wage jobs. The rise of Protestantism crystallized a self-sacrificing work ethic and minimalist lifestyle that conveniently venerated the working class condition: work yourself to the bone and shun all earthly comforts, and you too can earn your way to heaven! Yay for you!
Meanwhile, the subjugation of women and hardening division of gender roles placed domestic responsibilities squarely on women’s shoulders, freeing up the menfolk to become exploitable labor outside the home. The wave of misogyny that coalesced into the witch hunts brutally snuffed out outliers and dissenters.
In this historical light, when I think of my ancestors James and Sophronia emigrating from Yorkshire in the late 1600s, I don’t necessarily see intrepid pioneers or righteous pilgrims. I wonder instead if they were indentured servants, or desperate workers escaping starvation or a prison cell. I wonder about the circumstances of my German relatives, who were part of a large immigration wave in the late 1800s fueled by civil unrest and a shift toward “modernization” that displaced many traditional livelihoods.
Of course, these are some of the “push” factors that might have driven my forebears from their native lands. For the Germans at least, there was also a big fat carrot of American land and opportunities — both of which came at the expense of people of color. Questioning whether my ancestors were negatively impacted by colonial practices at home does not place their experiences side-by-side with the massacres, torture and brutality endured by American Indians, Africans and so many people of color. I know that ultimately, my family benefitted from the land and labor viciously extracted from others. I have little doubt that many of them embraced racist practices and espoused racist views to one extent or another.
What strikes me in this learning journey is that yes, my European ancestors inarguably fared better than most people of color, but under a capitalist model of extraction and hierarchy, everyone loses. White people are not exempt. Much of our diverse ethnic identity and heritage have been deliberately wiped out in service of creating a compliant “melting pot” of Americans, i.e. patriotic willing workers.* In the erasure of traditional ties to place and people, the legacies of resistance and solidarity movements also fade. And these legacies do exist, so much so that American elites have gone to great lengths to divide the working class along racial lines to preclude threats to their dominance. In this they have largely succeeded, and their success continues to echo loudly across the land today.
My takeaways in this process of familial discovery are as follows:
· The loss of family history (and the lack of interest in such) is not merely a matter of things becoming lost over time, but part of a deliberate suppression of diverse ethnic identities (even among white people) and molding of a compliant labor force.
· Embracing our familial heritage is in itself an act of resistance — even if you have ancestors that were on the slave-owning/conquistador/colonizer end of things. To paraphrase Brené Brown, only when you own your story do you get to write the ending. If you have ancestors whose choices make you less than proud, this is your opportunity to claim your full authorship and say, “Yes, this is part of my story, and I’m still writing my chapters. This is how I will do things differently than they did.” Look into our rich history of resistance and social justice movements. Participate in the next round of “Roots Deeper Than Whiteness”. Stay tuned for my new coaching program that explores how we internalize dominant culture and how to replace it with new and improved thinking and behavior.
The moral of the story is this: if we are all the poorer for living under this system, we all have something to gain from replacing it with something better. It makes more sense to work together out of solidarity and common interest than it does to remain in factions. In this process, there is potential to achieve more than equality and material abundance. There is the possibility of reclaiming ourselves and our full humanity.
The Akan people of Ghana have a concept called sankofa, which I first heard about in a lecture-conversation with EbonyJanice Moore and Thea Monyeé called Sustaining Joy in Antiracism Work. Sankofa celebrates the wisdom of learning from the past to create a better future. I think there is something of sankofa in getting reacquainting with my ancestors, and with seeing myself as part of an ongoing story. And I love that this process also subverts the backwards sociopolitical economic system currently in place. Learn about your ancestry and give capitalist-racist-patriarchy the finger!
*For example, after the biggest wave of German migration in the late 1800s, the onset of World War I spawned widespread suspicion of Germans, putting pressure on them to stop speaking their language and abandon many customs in the effort to fall into lockstep with American patriotism.