Discomfort with Ancestors

Years ago, my mother – who is really into genealogy – told me that one of my (white) ancestors had been lynched in the south because he’d been helping African Americans through the underground railroad.

I was so proud.

That’s the kind of person I wanted to be related to.

I, of course, don’t remember the details of what happened or how this person was related to me, but I remember – I’m descended from people who worked on the underground railroad. Folks who were on the right side of history. Who died for what they knew was just.

Several years after that, my mother was sharing another genealogical finding. It’s possible that I was not as attentive as a good daughter ought to be, until she said something that caught my ear. Something about an ancestor owning slaves.

No, no, I piped in. You told me that our family worked on the underground railroad!

My mother looked at me blankly as if I’d made the most nonsensical declaration she’d ever heard. Then she patiently explained to me that I was white – a fact she seemed to think had somehow eluded me.

Yes, yes, we have relatives who worked the underground railroad, she told me, but any white person whose family’s been in this country awhile is related to slave owners.

She hadn’t mentioned it before just as she hadn’t mentioned the sky was blue – it was obvious.

And yet there I was – a woman in my early 20s, just putting those pieces together.

There was a bit of a to-do last week about a certain actor who expunged his family’s slave-owning history from a genealogical documentary.

I can appreciate what he might have been thinking at the time – no, no, I’m not related to the bad guys.

Who would want to admit that?

The truth is, though, there is privilege even in that denial.

How many African Americans, do you suppose, who know their family has lived in this country for generations, tell themselves – no, no, my ancestors weren’t brought to this country as slaves.

Between 1525 and 1866, 12.5 million Africans were shipped to the New World with an estimated 450,000 Africans arriving in the United States over the course of the slave trade.

I’m not sure that’s a piece of their past they have the luxury of denying.

Not as easily as I can casually claim ignorance of my own family’s slave-owning past, at least.

It’s important to recognize this history. To accept it.

The truth is – I didn’t work on the underground railroad and I didn’t own slaves. Those people are in my history, but they are not me.

I can’t claim divinity from one relative’s actions while claiming absolution from another’s. I have to make my own path, make my own choices. Informed by my history but not bound by it.

Indeed, we are all shaped by our past – but we are not doomed to repeat it.


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