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June 24, 2015

“You’re asking me to agree that my great-grandparent and great-great-grandparents were monsters.”
Posted by Patrick at 05:42 AM * 156 comments

From the New York Times, 24 June 2015:

COLUMBIA, S.C. — It has been quite a few years since the lost cause has appeared quite as lost as it did Tuesday. As the afternoon drew on and their retreat turned into a rout, the lingering upholders of the Confederacy watched as license plates, statues and prominently placed Confederate battle flags slipped from their reach. […]

“You’re asking me to agree that my great-grandparent and great-great-grandparents were monsters,” said Greg Stewart, a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the executive director of Beauvoir, the last home of Jefferson Davis.

From the Owensboro, Kentucky Messenger, 5 Nov 1908:


James S. Hayden Dies at His Home at West Louisville—Born in Nelson County.

James S. Hayden, one of the best known and most highly respected citizens of Daviess county, died suddenly of heart trouble Wednesday afternoon at his home in the West Louisville neighborhood. His death was entirely unexpected, as he was apparently in good health.

Mr. Hayden, for many years, was a resident of Daviess county and a valuable citizen. He was [born] in Nelson county, Ky., August 23, 1836, and was a son of Joseph Hayden, deceased, a native of Washington county. He came to this county in 1852. He enlisted in Company K, Fourth Kentucky Infantry, Confederate army. He was in many battles and never lost a day’s service while in the army. He was married to Miss Mary D. Hayden, on January 28, 1868, his first wife, and eight children were born to them. He is survived by his second wife and five children, four sons and one daughter. Mr. Hayden was a member of the Catholic church and was a Christian gentleman.

The funeral will take place at 2 o’clock this afternoon from St. Alphonsus chuch, and the interment will take place at the church cemetery.

I don’t think my great-great-grandfather was a monster. I think he was probably no more monstrous than most people, though the cause he fought for turned out to be a bad one. Who knows what our own descendants will judge us for? We should all hope that they remember, as we should, that history is a bitch.

From the New York Times, 24 June 2015:

In Austin, Tex., a tall bearded man went into the tattoo parlor where Kelly Barr works with a request: the removal a 10-year-old tattoo of the Confederate flag.

He told Mr. Barr that he had decided to get the flag removed when he saw the pained look on a middle-age black woman at his gym on Monday.

“‘If South Carolina can take theirs down,’” Mr. Barr recalled him saying, “‘I can take mine down.’” I told him, ‘Right on.’”

In 1862, Henry Isaac Newton, of Owensboro, Kentucky, father of two, joined in the Union Army of the Cumberland, 12th Kentucky Cavalry. He was captured in Sweetwater, Tennessee during Burnside’s abortive campaign to push south, and spent nearly a year in a Confederate prison. After his return, he and his wife had eight more children.

On 31 Jan 1899, the second-to-last of those, Sarah Frances “Fannie” Newton, married Clarence Eugene Hayden, the second son of Confederate veteran James S. Hayden. Fannie lived to 1970. I met her more than once.

We’re not monsters because we say or do the wrong thing. We’re monsters when, later, we refuse to learn.

Comments on "You're asking me to agree that my great-grandparent and great-great-grandparents were monsters.":
#1 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2015, 06:38 AM:

My Grandfather was in the trenches in WW1.

In WW2 he and my father were farmers, and German PoWs worked on the farm.

Their stories of that time were often of how good the Germans were. They knew what they were doing and worked hard. They were people much like them.

It's easy to see why some people would have different opinions, but I suspect that experience affected how I was brought up.

My grandfather did once say he preferred Bavarians over Prussians.

#2 ::: JBWoodford ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2015, 09:37 AM:

Ta-Nehisi Coates has been burning up Twitter with great commentary on this very thing. And I think it touches on a human tendency to judge people and not acts--to say that because, e.g., the Confederacy fought to maintain slavery, all Confederates must have been moral monsters (or conversely, that because my ancestors can't have been moral monsters, the Confederacy must have fought in a noble cause). The fact is, the Confederacy was an evil *system* in that it facilitated evil acts by people who did not think of themselves as evil, and if we lose sight of that we make it easier for similar systems to flourish in our time. Examples are left as an exercise for the reader.

#3 ::: Stanoje ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2015, 09:51 AM:

The way Germany was purged & restructured at gunpoint after World War 2 probably prevented a lot of the problems the United States are still suffering from all that time after their war.

Even without that, the way schools are aggressively open about Germany's Nazi past and don't hold back about the horrors committed during that period make it pretty much impossible for anyone outside of extreme hardcore racists to glorify that time.

#4 ::: Brother Guy ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2015, 09:55 AM:

Love the sinner, hate the sin. This same lesson applies to our own little disputes here in fandom, of course. (Not that any of us are ever sinners, mind you...)

#5 ::: Victoria ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2015, 10:00 AM:

My father (a Korean War era vet) was as racist as the day was long. He truly believed he wasn't because, "I'm not afraid of a black man." I think I was in middle school at the time of that particular conversation. He'd been reminiscing about his time in the Army. Those two years were the first and only time he'd been anywhere he wasn't surrounded by people just like him. At the time, I took his statement as fact.

Nor was Dad as overt a racist as the out-loud-and-proud about their racism racists. I know he scorned the actively racist and actively racist activity. Mostly, I think, because he saw overt racism as a kind of fear. Added to that, he thought of any destruction of public or private property as hooliganism. He was also very law-abiding, so things like that and assault/murder were also looked down on. Everyone was entitled to equal representation under the law.

Looking back at him and remembering how I was in college... not being afraid is one thing. Actively finding the things in common so that a not-like-me person is no longer a stranger, no more that Fearsome Other, that's harder.

During my college years, I was training myself out of being shy and learning to fake extroversion. (Mostly by asking people questions, and getting them to talk about themselves -- it kept the focus off me.) Interacting with anyone was so stressful that I actually preferred getting to know the not-like-me people best. I was probably one of the few people who didn't come at them with assumptions. Their joy at sharing was obvious.

#6 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2015, 10:01 AM:

I wonder whether "I was only following orders" and "I was just making a living" should be taken more seriously as justifications, especially for low status people.

#7 ::: Victoria ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2015, 10:08 AM:

Also, monsters come in many varieties. My Civil War era grandfather sold all of his siblings into indentured servitude. Which at the time was short term and contractual slavery.

There's more to the story. More context, more situational awareness, more information that makes my great-great-grand less of a monster. The thing to remember is that we are a product of our times. His time was different and in a lot of ways harder. I don't have to be like him. I can be like me and live in my times.

#8 ::: Victoria ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2015, 10:13 AM:

Nancy Lebovitz @ 6

It should be taken seriously. However, it shouldn't be an easy out. Understanding the context is key.

#9 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2015, 10:16 AM:

One of the biggest lies we, as a society, believe is that monstrous things are only done by monsters.

Like the beliefs that the police only arrest guilty people, that poor people are feckless and lazy, and that if you're careful enough you won't get raped, it's a way of keeping the terrible, painful uncertainties of life at bay.

In reality, anyone can come under the unblinking eye of the uncaring law, lose their jobs, get raped, participate in a system that does and supports monstrous behavior. I started thinking about this when I realized what, exactly, was the source of the wealth of the Bertrams in Mansfield Park. No one in that book, neither the virtuous Fanny and Edmund nor the unprincipled Mary and Henry, is conscious of how their entire society is built on suffering.

But that's true of us all, wearing our clothes made in the sweatshops of the Third World, typing on technology whose metals are mined in ecologically ruinous fashions, driving and flying while the world warms until the poorest among us cannot feed themselves.

I think that's both the strength and the weakness of the Pope's recent encyclical, which I have read but have as yet no bloggable reaction to. On the one hand, one point of Laudato Si' is that our pervasive problems are not the fault of a few villains, but of us all, and we have to solve them. On the other, his solutions require us to become better: simpler, less in thrall to the shiny, more content. And I am not sure we have time or will to do that. I fear that if that's what is required to save the world, then we are doomed.

Which gives me very deep sympathy for all of our great-grandparents.

#10 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2015, 10:38 AM:

I am participating in another online community that I think has great seeds of not-sucking, but the people who run it and have all the power think that "If you tell us who the bad people are, we will ban them, and that will solve the problem" is not only a good, but THE ONLY POSSIBLE strategy for combating horrific microaggressive trollish behavior from (usually) white powerful libertarian males towards everyone who is not white/male/cis/het/same-religion-as-them*/neurotypical/skinny/etc.

"We're making progress," they say, citing thousands of users banned per month. "Tell us who the bad actors are as quickly as you spot them, so we can ban them," they say earnestly, with that Good White Person gleam in their eye.


*The atheists do it towards theists as hard as Christians do it towards atheists, on this particular site, and all of them are disgustingly bigoted about it

#11 ::: Carrie V. ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2015, 10:46 AM:

My Alabama grandfather was a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans (the veteran being _his_ grandfather, Sgt. Henry Vaughn).

The thing about my grandfather was, he never got the memo about switching parties during the Civil Rights Movement. He remained a lifelong Democrat. Which meant his Sons of Confederate Veterans certificate hung on his wall next to a photo of Bill Clinton, because he was also the kind of guy who kept photos of his favorite Presidents on the wall. Jimmy Carter was in the bedroom.

I don't think he ever saw a contradiction there.

#12 ::: Michael Croft ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2015, 10:53 AM:

My ancestors in Texas were no better at choosing leaders and causes than we are now. Given the clowns and scalawags we have now, why should we expect our ancestors to have done better than we do?

My ancestors weren’t monsters, they did something that I think was wrong.

#13 ::: cyllan ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2015, 11:27 AM:

I think there's something worth unpacking in the sentiment that removing the battle flag is the same as agreeing that one's Southern ancestors were monsters. It's an argument that eats its own tail as it tries to reconcile two impossible positions: my ancestors were not monsters; repressive slave regimes are monstrous. The solution to this problem is thus to deny the link between one's ancestors and the time in which they lived by creating a sort of mythological pearl consisting of sweet tea, front porches and pretty but slave-free plantation houses around the grit of slavery and oppression. In some ways, I take heart from this. The tide of culture and opinion has shifted such that we're aware that the grit is poison.

Speaking as someone whose not-terribly-distant relatives live and work on the 2+century family plantation in the Mississippi Delta, I'm pretty confident when I say that my ancestors owned slaves. On the other side, my aunt had a framed Deed of Sale hanging up in her living room to remind her of her past. (She also at some point between my early childhood and her death purged her home of a remarkable collection of horribly offensive figurines, so somewhere in there, I suspect somebody got through to her.) We are a Southern family. In the course of being that Southern family, we have hurt people. I don't think that makes us monsters, necessarily. We only become monsters when we stop striving to do better.

Which, in many ways, ties in with abi's point @ 9. We are all, right now, living in a slavery-based world. Shrimp, clothing, electronics, toys – none of these would make it to our homes without the exploitation of resources, countries and people. It is a monstrous system, but in my less depressive moments, I don't see it as being a system of monsters. Are we, within the bounds of our ability to create change, fighting to make it better? Are we trying to become less blind to the suffering around us? Do we realize that we want to live in a different world even if we have no way of figuring out how to get us there? Then, even when we fail to be perfect, at least we are contributing to the slow upward progression of the world.

#14 ::: Laertes ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2015, 11:28 AM:

Bunch of people up my family tree fought for the confederacy. It's no skin off my nose to say that they fought for an evil cause. If I were to say something like "You’re asking me to agree that my great-grandparent and great-great-grandparents were monsters," you'd be justified to think that I'm not really talking about them--I'm talking about myself, and using my ancestors as human shields.

#15 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2015, 11:39 AM:

We contain our own history, and it can be complicated.
My older nephew-in-law has, on his family tree, a soldier who died at Camp Douglas, in Chicago, while waiting to be exchanged. They didn't teach us about that place in my history classes, but a lot of men died there. (My younger nephew-in-law? He's from Ethiopia.)

#16 ::: Kudzu Bob ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2015, 12:38 PM:

No one should be required to spit on the grave of his ancestors.

#17 ::: Kevin Standlee ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2015, 12:41 PM:

With a large portion of my family ancestry being from Northern Arkansas with roots back to the early 1800s, I not surprisingly have ancestors who found on both sides of the American Civil War. (If there are any actual slaveholders, it's not mentioned in the ancestry research I've seen.) This doesn't make any of them monsters. It also doesn't make those who supported an evil cause heroes.

Personally, I'm a Californian, as is my mother, since my maternal grandparents and and my mother's father's parents lived The Grapes of Wrath when the Great Depression hit and they rolled out to California to look for work and keep from starving. I do not glorify The Lost Cause, nor did anyone in my family, although they acknowledged our conflicted family history.

#18 ::: Diatryma ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2015, 12:42 PM:

If only monsters and supervillains do evil, then as long as we're not sprouting fangs or dressing like Loki, we're okay, right? And we can wait for the good people, the superheroes, to do good. We're just bystanders. It ties in to the conversation on the open thread about Rosa Parks and the narrative we* learn about her.

But a group of people who are good and well-intentioned can commit atrocities. By blindness, by blitheness, by resting on our laurels, by not trying, by any means. I eat chocolate. I might not buy a lot of slave-made clothing, but I certainly don't buy a lot of non-slave-made clothing either, and I usually opt for the former. I drive a big car, sometimes walkable distances. I take long showers. And every choice there has a reason.

Also, when I talk about my ancestor Conrad Weiser (apparently none of the ones between him and now are interesting enough for family lore), I usually mention that I don't think he screwed over the Mohawk too much when making treaties. I mean, there's a certain amount of screwing-over that's background radiation of the time and there's a lot of space between that radiation and Andrew Jackson, but I think Conrad Weiser was closer to the former than the latter, or at least I hope that.

*meaning I, meaning white people in the Midwest.

#19 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2015, 12:42 PM:

Kudzu Bob @16:

Please tell me who is requiring anyone to spit on the graves of his (or her) ancestors?

We are, however, allowed to decide that our ancestors were wrong about things, and do better ourselves.

#20 ::: Kudzu Bob ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2015, 12:48 PM:


I leave that as an exercise for the reader.

#21 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2015, 12:49 PM:

Kudzu Bob @20:

I'm sure the readers will draw their own conclusions from this exchange, as indeed they do always.

#22 ::: OtterB ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2015, 12:50 PM:

Kudzu Bob @16 No one should be required to spit on the grave of his ancestors.

That's ... kind of the point of the original post. That saying "my ancestors were wrong about this" is not spitting on their graves. It's saying "I don't want to continue doing this thing they did." You may well want to continue doing other things they did - living in a particular area, or sharing stories of family heritage. It's not a dichotomy between "they were flawless" and "they were monstrous and I repudiate them utterly."

#23 ::: Kudzu Bob ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2015, 01:03 PM:


Since you are confident that the readers will draw their own conclusions (as am I), I fail to understand the purpose of the question that you posed.

#24 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2015, 01:07 PM:

Kudzu Bob @23:

I was hoping that you would expand on your initial comment lest those conclusions might not be the ones you intended. I do think the tone and nature of your comments have clarified things somewhat, though of course I could very well be entirely wrong.

(If I am, I'm fine with that.)

#25 ::: Diatryma ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2015, 01:11 PM:

We understand the middle ground with ancestors who are still here. My dad's a great dad and used to be a great teacher, I think, but he's tired of fourteen-year-old creationists and kids who don't want to work, and he thinks all the latter are black, and he thought Fury Road was plotless, and if I needed him he would be here in two hours and it's a two and a half hour drive from his house to mine. When he is a great-great-grandfather, he will still be the person who never flinched from visiting his poorer students in Honduras and the person who kind of wishes all the black people would go back to Chicago and take their problems and their attitude with them.

He's a complex, flawed, wonderful person now. He will have been a complex, flawed, wonderful person when he is a story I tell my grandchildren. Acknowledging it, now or then, is not a wrong or disrespectful thing to do. When my grandchildren remember me, I hope they see the same complex, flawed, wonderful wholeness.

#26 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2015, 01:25 PM:

Kudzu Bob @23: this reader is coming to the conclusion that you are here to troll/derail rather than participating honestly in the debate.

(Disclaimer: as someone with no Americans in his family free, I'm pretty sure none of my ancestors within recorded history[*] owned slaves. On the other hand, it's not an abstract question: Germans have exactly the same problem today, and deal with it quite differently.)

[*] Which doesn't go back more than about 2-3 centuries; when your ancestors moved countries in Europe often enough, trails go muddy very fast.

#27 ::: Lori Coulson ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2015, 01:26 PM:

Because Kudzu Bob, your "view by all" shows that this is the first time you've posted here, and you've chosen to post in a thread which has the potential to be contentious.

For the record, IF I wanted to I could join both the Daughters of the Confederacy AND the Daughters of the Revolution. And I know damn well that the Confederate Battle Flag has been a signal of sympathy with the KKK since the early 1960s.

It's time it was taken off state flags and down from the flagpoles above state capitols.

#28 ::: Lori Coulson ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2015, 01:32 PM:

Argh: That should be "Daughters of the AMERICAN Revolution."

Not enough sleep or coffee...should not stay up at night playing Bejeweled...

#29 ::: Kudzu Bob ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2015, 01:32 PM:

Charlie Stross@26

What is being debated?

#30 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2015, 01:38 PM:

Kudzu Bob:

You know, three comments is about my limit for cute disingenuousness from first-time commenters. It makes for boring, tiresome conversation.

Either state your views straight out, in clear, plain text, and stand by them honestly, or leave.

#31 ::: cyllan ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2015, 01:44 PM:

I also don't understand what's so important about having flawless ancestors. Maybe it's because mine are so astoundingly terrible (really; my grandparents? Not someone you would want to rely on under any circumstances to be a decent human being), but isn't it more interesting to have flawed stories than perfect paragons?

I think this -- and Diatryma's comment -- tie into what seems to be a current theme in my life: no one wants to think of themselves as evil; we all want to think that we're good. The problem with that mindset is that it means we are likely to go through an astounding set of mental gymnastics in order to justify our Goodness and often wind up making things even worse. To combat that, we have to realize that people do terrible things and that we are people -- who sometimes do terrible things.

#32 ::: Laertes ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2015, 01:45 PM:

It's not about grave-spitting. People are complicated. Some time back, people in my family fought for the confederacy. That doesn't necessarily mean they were monsters. It just means that when the war came, they were men of fighting age living in slave states, and they lacked the uncommon vision and courage that would have been required for people in that condition to find their way to the right side.

I don't know much about them beyond that. Little has come down to the present day besides their names and the fact that they served as enlisted men in various Tennessee units during the war to preserve American slavery. They may have been good people in many ways--kind to their white neighbors, good providers for their white families and attentive to their duties to their white fellow citizens. But by the fact of their service, we know that on the great question of the day--"should I take up arms against the union in defense of slavery?"--they got it wrong.

Other ancestors have gotten other things wrong. I hope that later generations will see things that I've gotten wrong that I lack the vision to see or the courage to act upon. To think otherwise would be to think that my generation represents the high-water mark of civilization. It'd hard to say if such a belief would be more silly or more prideful, but it's plenty of both.

But this "spitting on graves" thing isn't a serious engagement with the issue. It's just a pose. At a glance, it can be mistaken for a sort of piety, and that's the point, isn't it? You can't come out and say "we mustn't learn from the mistakes of history," not without being laughed at. So instead we pretend that defending today's injustices is really about defending yesterday's injustices, and hope that nobody will see through this thin veneer of selflessness.

#33 ::: Joris M ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2015, 01:52 PM:

One of my ancestors owned slaves in the Dutch colony that is now Suriname. That was around the time of the US civil war, and emancipation in the Dutch colonies. And he got well compensated when emancipation finally happened.
It is something my family tends to look at with some embarrassment, yes it was 'normal' back then but such an obviously corrupt concept right now looking back.

#34 ::: Steve Wright ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2015, 01:56 PM:

There would seem, to my untutored eye, to be a fairly large gap between "spitting on the graves of one's ancestors" and "holding one's ancestors flags up as worthy of official veneration".

I'm sure some of my ancestors have done some despicable things - I can't trace my ancestry back beyond about four generations, but, well, they included a pretty high proportion of human beings, and human beings will, on occasion, do despicable things. It sort of goes with the territory.

Pride in one's heritage is a natural thing, and not necessarily a bad thing - but it needs, like most things, to be tempered with judgment. Know your ancestors; know how they lived, what they believed, what they did; then, try to emulate the good, and to learn from the bad.

#35 ::: Kudzu Bob ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2015, 01:59 PM:


To say that slavery--"the great question of the day"--has been settled, whether through force of arms or by the power of moral uplift, ignores the likelihood that your smartphone was manufactured by Chinese slave labor.

#36 ::: Laertes ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2015, 02:04 PM:

Shorter Kudzu Bob: "The South didn't really lose the war to preserve American slavery because slavery still exists to this day. So long as any human, anywhere, toils in chains, the spirit of the South lives on."

#37 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2015, 02:06 PM:

One of the family members of my older nephew-in-law was a CSA general, and signed the secession resolution for his state. I don't approve of his views, but some of my own ancestors had views that are very problematic today (I know at least one owned a slave).

(More genealogical amusement: one of my mother's cousins married a Mozingo. The name is from the Kingdom of Kongo ... but most of the people who wear it are white.)

#38 ::: Doug ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2015, 02:08 PM:

“You’re asking me to agree that my great-grandparent and great-great-grandparents were monsters,” said Greg Stewart, a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the executive director of Beauvoir, the last home of Jefferson Davis.

Emphasis added.

"'You're asking me to agree that I've spent my professional life getting to a job that glorifies a traitor to his country, who led hundreds of thousands to death and destruction for the purpose of preserving and extending black chattel slavery and white supremacy,' said Greg Stewart, a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the executive director of Beauvoir, the last home of Jefferson Davis."

Fixed that for him.

Yes, that is what the reporter, standing in for the audience, is asking. Yes, that is a hard question. It is, perhaps, overdue.

#39 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2015, 02:08 PM:

Therefore: we still must honor the South and its bad attitudes?

Your logic needs some work.

#40 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2015, 02:08 PM:

Laertes @36:

Actually, I think it's just a reflexive accusation of hypocrisy from someone who won't declare his own views.

Kudzu Bob, start adding to the conversation rather than sniping from the shadows or leave. Second warning. There will be no third.

#41 ::: rea ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2015, 02:11 PM:

For some reason, people often conflate the causes of the war and the motives of individuals who fought. The war was started by Southern slave-owners to defend the institution of slavery--one of the most monstrous causes for which humans ever fought. That tells us very little about the reasons individual soldiers (many of whom were conscripts) fought in the war.

#42 ::: Kudzu Bob ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2015, 02:12 PM:


Even shorter Kudzu Bob: Should those who buy their meat from a grocery store feel that they have progressed morally beyond those who hunt?

#43 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2015, 02:16 PM:

Kudzu Bob @42:

An interesting point.

How does this relate to what constitutes spitting on the graves of your ancestors, your own perspectives, or why you should remain in this conversation?

#44 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2015, 02:20 PM:

Here in South Carolina, members of the state division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans were not as fervent in opposition to their political representatives, but they did maintain that now was not the time to discuss moving the flag.

To which I ask, so when IS the time? I am SO sick of that "now is not the right time" bullshit, because all it ever represents is a stalling mechanism, waiting for things to die down again. It's like the lazy guy with the leaky roof; when it's raining he can't fix it, and when it's sunny he doesn't need to, so it never gets fixed. Enough laziness -- let's FIX this.

Was my grandfather a monster? Very likely. My maternal grandfather was the sheriff of Pulaski, TN -- the home of the Ku Klux Klan -- in the early 1900s. Which is to say, he wasn't just a foot-soldier; he was a well-to-do, socially-prominent citizen and the representative of the law in a time and place where the law was unbelievably corrupt and monstrous. While I don't blame him for being a man of his own time, I have no respect whatsoever for the ideals of that time, and I am under no obligation to consider him a good man for supporting them. The same applies to anyone who fought for the Confederacy; they were not necessarily monsters, but neither should they be venerated.

cyllan, #13: We only become monsters when we stop striving to do better.

That's key, I think. We are not asking Mr. Stewart to agree that his ancestors were monsters; we are asking him, here and now, to stop enshrining a system that was monstrous. We are asking him to strive to do better, here in the present where it matters most.

Kudzu Bob, #20: Which is to say, you either don't have any concrete examples to offer, or you don't have the courage to back up your words. Neither of those options does anything for your credibility. Neither does trying to frame "taking down the Confederate Flag from the State Capitol" as being equivalent to "spitting on the grave of your ancestors". I call shenanigans.

#45 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2015, 02:25 PM:

I see no particular reason to reply to anything said by a Tom, Dick, or Bob who pops up to make quick "gotchas" that don't evince they've been reading the thread.

I'd rather talk to all the rest of you and leave people like that standing in a corner of the party yawping at themselves.

#46 ::: Kudzu Bob ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2015, 02:30 PM:


Is participation in a system of overseas slavery by buying an iPhone 6 a) less immoral b) just as immoral or c) more immoral than is participation in a system of domestic slavery in order to obtain cotton fabric for clothing?

#47 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2015, 02:31 PM:

Goodbye, Bob, and thank you for all the gotchas.

#48 ::: cajunfj40 ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2015, 02:32 PM:

I grew up in the South. I wanted a Dodge Charger painted up like the General Lee. I fed pigeons around a statue of Andrew Jackson, and often took the streetcar around the statue of General Lee. I was taught the State's Rights version of history about The War of Northern Aggression. I've walked around the graveyard and read the names of ancestors off the Confederate Flag decorated tombstones. My Grandma, kind wonderful lady that she was, was mad when "them Blacks" would cut through her property to go down her driveway. My parents warned me to not bike through certain neighborhoods - like the one where our black maid Ralo lived.

At some point, in my very early teens, I wanted to have my Birthday party at the country club my parents were members of. They told me that the club probably would not let one of my friends in, because he was black. Evidently, it was OK for them to work there, but not to use the facilities as a member or guest.

That marked the point where I began to see the racism.

It took a while longer to see the privilege.

Been a long strange trip since then. I try to speak up and call out when people are saying bigoted, or misogynist, or priveledged things, but that takes spoons I don't always have. Or I don't want to make everyone uncomfortable, or I don't have the reasonable arguments to hand. I ain't perfect, nor do I expect a cookie for the little I am doing.

My ancestors who fought for the Confederacy were not inhumane monsters who's graves I should spit upon. No. The lesson is *harder* than that. They were likely fine, upstanding citizens and good, kind, neighborly people who grew up in a culture that steeped them from birth in the idea that the color of skin - an easy thing to see - was an acceptable way to tell who was a person deserving of the protection of law, and what was property. We can't unsee the racism now, but they didn't even have a word for it. It was normal. It was everyday. We all have our blind spots, things we can't see because they are the unmarked and thus unremarked state. It is easy, terrifyingly easy, to see how reasonable people can do or condone monstrous things because they and those around them don't have the concepts to understand that what they are doing or condoning is wrong.

That's the hard lesson. They were not monsters, they were human. We are human, too. Giving up that "but the people who did that were monsters" shield is scary, because now, they are more like us than not. But now we know. And now we can work to try and mitigate against the tendency to other, to try and retrain our biases, or at least try to learn to recognize them. It ain't easy, not by a long shot, but it gets easier with practice, just like any other large new thing we try to learn to do.

We can do it.

Sorry for the somewhat non-sequitur and stream of consciousness -ness to this. Ain't easy. Worth writing. Hope it is worth reading.

#49 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2015, 02:38 PM:

cajunfj40 @48: Heard and Witnessed. Thank you.

#50 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2015, 02:38 PM:

cajunfj40 @48:

Thank you for that. A thoughtful read.

And it holds in its hands the answer to Kudzu Bob's gotcha...just because we're not perfect now does not mean that we cannot judge the past and find it wanting. It simply means that we have more to do, and that our children may judge us and find us wanting too.

Anything else is an abandonment of the quest for goodness, and that is a counsel of despair and savagery.

#51 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2015, 02:41 PM:

This. So much this: that we don't have to repeat the past; we can say 'we won't do this any more', not do it any more, and make the world a little better for the future.

#52 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2015, 02:51 PM:

Poking angrily from the shadows trying to make people hopeless is easy.

Consciously living in the discomfort of knowing you are complicit is very hard.

#53 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2015, 02:53 PM:

Hannah Arendt, more than half a century ago, made the point that great evils are committed by ordinary people who don't raise their heads and think of themselves as just doing their job. She called it 'the banality of evil'.

Greg Stewart, who doesn't want to think of his great-grandfather as a monster, is doubling down on that because he is holding his head down and refusing to look at the past. All he can see is his personal connection to the Civil War, his 'heritage' if you will. He wants to hold on to that, and he does not want it stained. But any reconciliation begins by recognition of what the past was and that requires confrontation with the truth, that ordinary people can do horrible things without necessarily being particularly horrible in the rest of their lives. That evil acts are carried out by perfectly boring people. We have seen it again, and again, and again. Even Dylann Roof is not some huge moral monster, merely a young man who had lost his way and sought the wrong solution to his problems -- a fool, not a knave. That, by the way, is not my extending him a hand of forgiveness, I want him under the prison.

The reality, as I see it, is that defenders of the 'heritage, not hate' slogan (it isn't an argument, it's a blasted evasion) are engaged in a huge act of intellectual and moral cowardice. They are shielding themselves from having to confront a simple truth by saying 'I'm not a bad person, my ancestors were not bad people, therefore they could not have fought for a bad cause.' They need to stop lying once and for all.

#54 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2015, 03:01 PM:

Too late to catch Kudzu Bob:

In 1850, on the subject of slavery, John Stuart Mill pointed out that it was because we had got rid of so much pain in the world that the pain that was left distressed us so much. He was referring, very directly to slavery having already been abolished in Britain's colonies.

#55 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2015, 03:18 PM:

abi, #50: Kudzu Bob's gotcha was an example of "the perfect is the enemy of the good" fallacy as well; he was trying to imply that unless our own lives are perfect right now, we have no right to call out the imperfections of the past. Put like that, the ludicrousness of the argument becomes obvious.

Fragano, #54: Also, on the topic of sweatshops in China, it's worth pointing out that in addition to clothing and electronics, they also produce most of the Confederate-flag merchandise found in stores, online, etc.

I have been considering having a Confederate-flag-burning party on July 4 (it seems like the appropriate date), and I know exactly where to go down on Harwin (the import/wholesale district) to get cheap Confederate flags. Every one of them is marked "Made In China".

#57 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2015, 04:11 PM:

Most of those 'Support the Troops' magnets are also made in China. Bob might want to take those off his vehicle.

#58 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2015, 04:17 PM:

Let's move on from Bob, shall we? Just as we are glad that he has moved on from us.

Smarter, wiser, more joyful. Go.

#59 ::: kate ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2015, 04:29 PM:

Patrick -- Very nice post. Thank you.

Just for the record, I don't think that asking someone to remove a flag is the same as spitting on their grave

(I imagine some of the rhetoric in the past week might be getting a mite heated, but I'm not referencing that in the general statement.)

I have ancestors who were part of the English Colonial government. We don't fly their flag anymore, either.

I also have ancestors who were involved in mills in the South, post-slavery era, in which conditions were not what one would call humane. I don't spit on their memories when I say this was a problem.

And I see Cajunfj40@48 said it better (well said, Cajun), but a little reinforcement never hurt.

#60 ::: kate ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2015, 04:30 PM:

Er. Sorry, abi, didn't see your comment while I was making mine.

*zips lip*

#61 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2015, 04:34 PM:

But kate, I was just thinking that it was so kind of you to take up my suggestion!

Seriously. There's a significant difference between focusing on Bob and using his comments to spur your own reflections. I'm just asking us to move on from the former; the latter are always welcome.

#62 ::: kate ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2015, 04:46 PM:

Abi -- Hee. OK. Thank you, and I shall refrain from zipping myself further.

#63 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2015, 04:55 PM:

Some of my ancestors owned slaves. That was part of the reason for their prosperity; part of the reason all 4 of my grandparents went to college; part of the reason I own a set of antique silver flatware.

My ancestors believed that dark-skinned humans were not human; that they were property.

They were wrong.

Today I live side-by-side with people whose ancestors were owned by my ancestors; whose labor enriched my family so that even now I have many advantages denied to them. Am I to take pride in that fact?

What about my heritage makes it more important than THEIR heritage?

#64 ::: OtterB ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2015, 04:55 PM:

I'm thinking of actions, small or large but mostly small.

Attitudes don't usually shift by an Indiana Jones-sized boulder rolling down the passageway. A pebble drops on a slope, then another. Maybe the slope is prepared by wind and rain and the surface is more rotten than it looks. One rock launches others, and then there's an avalanche.

It's easy to say that a single pebble doesn't matter much, but you can't have the mass shift without the weight of many individuals.

Each flag that comes down, each polite interaction, each recognition of the other as human matters.

What's the opposite of a microaggression? A microcivility? I vote we strive for those.

#65 ::: Jimbeaux D ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2015, 05:34 PM:

Thank you for a reasoned discussion of this topic. It is so complicated. Clearly my family comes from the old south, and 350 years of southern gothic is bound to have some tales. While my direct ancestors seemed to have been the ne'er do wells, other branches of the tree clearly owned plantations and banks. Recently I have just become aware that there is a black side to the family history. Several scenarios are possible. The most likely scenario is that former slaves adopted the family name. Though what is weird is that there seems to be a point of common ancestry. Perhaps someone of mixed race who could pass, crossed over into white culture at some point. I need to have the freedom of time to go figure this out, though that seems impossible now.
My grandmother's family actually married into the Powhatan family in colonial Virginia so I can claim a clichéd racist trope and say I am descended from Pocahontas.
Of course there are Confederate veterans in the story. That seems to be less important than understanding my genetic background. I have no use for the flag, the cause, the generals or any romanticization of that time. I do like the monuments because there are veterans who never came home. They died on the battlefield, in POW camps, so the monuments seem to me to be a tribute to the unknown soldier.
Thomas Wolfe wrote about confederate veterans and after he did, he couldn't go home again.

#66 ::: duckbunny ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2015, 05:37 PM:

I like "microcivility" a lot. Microcivilities are exactly what we need.

And just as a microaggression need not be "being mean", a microcivility need not be "being nice". It is easy to be nice. Nice does not always build up.

#67 ::: Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2015, 05:46 PM:

cajunfj40 @48: I grew up in the South. I wanted a Dodge Charger painted up like the General Lee. I fed pigeons around a statue of Andrew Jackson, and often took the streetcar around the statue of General Lee. I was taught the State's Rights version of history about The War of Northern Aggression. I've walked around the graveyard and read the names of ancestors off the Confederate Flag decorated tombstones. My Grandma, kind wonderful lady that she was, was mad when "them Blacks" would cut through her property to go down her driveway. My parents warned me to not bike through certain neighborhoods - like the one where our black maid Ralo lived.

I also grew up in New Orleans - well, Metairie - and, until I was in my late teens, didn't think too hard about Lee Circle or Jackson Square as being other than arbitrary place names.

On the subject of "certain neighborhoods", I remember going uptown to a high school classmate's house to study for exams. At the end of the night, a classmate leaving to walk home politely refused all offers to walk with her, telling us quite matter-of-factly that "It's not safe for white people." Between our host's house and hers were maybe three blocks at most--and one of those stark boundaries between "good" neighborhoods and "bad" ones.

The interaction left me feeling deeply sad and helpless. I'd begun recognizing latent racism in my mom's pronouncements about "bad neighborhoods" (among other thngs). I didn't know what to do with having her opinions corroborated by a black friend who actually lived in one of those neighborhoods.

Things are complex and sometimes depressing. And General Lee is still up on his horse in the middle of his Circle.

#68 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2015, 06:01 PM:

OtterB #64: What's the opposite of a microaggression? A microcivility? I vote we strive for those.

How about "microcourtesy"? "Practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty"...

#69 ::: Jimbeaux D ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2015, 06:34 PM:

#67 Nicole, #48 Cajun
Lee circle is easy to overlook because you really have to crane your neck to see Bobby. The really offensive monument is the monument to white supremacy, which was erected to commemorate the counter revolution of 1876, when reconstruction was overthrown. In the early 80's, this phallic monument could be found at the foot of Canal Street, surrounded by a "privacy hedge". African nationalists kept trying to blow it up, so maybe the version I saw was a replacement. Weirdly, former confederate general Longstreet commanded black Union troops who occupied N.O. He lost a pitched street battle to the white citizens council, and that was the end of reconstruction.
Sometimes us tourists have the scales torn off our eyes. It happened to me when I went to see the Nevilles welcome Jimmy Carter to Jackson Square during the '80 election. He was drowned out by the Metaire Reagonauts, but at least I got to hear the Nevilles preach Down by the Riverside to an American president. Likewise, Steinbeck saw through the illusion at the end of Travels with Charlie where he saw the anti integration protests in N.O.
Hopefully I will get to see Susan Cowsill at the circle bar again.

#70 ::: fidelio ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2015, 06:40 PM:

Like several of the other commenters here, I have not only southern roots but dead confederates in my family tree. As they were all dead well before I was born, I can't answer as to whether they were nice people--the kind you'd like to know, the kind you'd like to have as neighbors--or not. Besides slavery and secession, I'm sure they had plenty of other opinions I not only don't share but would be appalled by.

But they're dead, and they don't get a vote on my opinions and actions. That's what happens when you're dead--the living go on without you, and make up their minds about things on their own, if they're wise, because there's no way a dead person can give good advice on circumstances foreign to their living existence. They do not have to face the consequences the living must, and I do not believe that their feelings will be wounded if we choose differently; they're dead, after all.

I had a conversation at work today with a woman who had, prompted by online discussions, sat down last night and read some of the various secession documents. She was shocked to discover that, contrary to the apologists' insistence that the war was all about states' rights, the only states' right these people were seriously concerned about was the right to continue on with the system of chattel slavery. Her verdict? "I guess when they started trying to justify things later, they were too embarrassed to be honest with anyone, including themselves. Or maybe their spin doctors told them it made them look bad."

I don't have to spit on my ancestors' graves (which would be a neat trick in one case, as he went into a mass grave in Vicksburg) to acknowledge that slavery was a great wrong, and that the racist systems which persist in place 150 years after the war ended need to be broken down and all brought into line with our proclaimed ideals. I don't have to pretend to myself or anyone else that we are now living without the stain of corruption and exploitation to admit that people, some of them my progenitors, were gravely wrong about something, and that better is possible and desirable.

Family ties are a powerful thing in the southern states, as they are in many other parts of the world. I suppose that for some, admitting that family members, dead or alive, were wrong about something means a loss of face, even if only in their own eyes. I realize it's complicated, and that white southerners have been taught since childhood that to disagree with, to criticize, to regret, to condemn those ancestral choices is a betrayal on a personal level. My father did not have fireworks on the Fourth of July growing up in Mississippi--that was the day Vickburg was surrendered to Grant, after all.

But again, I see no reason to let the Confederate dead, or their post-war apologists spin doctors rule my choices. If freedom is about anything, it is about the right to choose according to your own lights, even if you choose something different from those who have gone before you.

#71 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2015, 06:58 PM:

There were a lot of soldiers in the Union Army who didn't want to have to attack Vicksburg.

#72 ::: Mary Frances ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2015, 07:24 PM:

Fidelio @ 70: Apropos of your co-workers story--my first experience of hearing "The Bonnie Blue Flag" made me gasp, quite literally. I no longer remember how old I was (adult), but still. For those of you who don't know the song, it starts like this:

We are a band of brothers and native to the soil

Fighting for the property we gained by honest toil

And when our rights were threatened, the cry rose near and far

Hurrah for the Bonnie Blue Flag that bears a single star!


Hurrah! Hurrah!

For Southern rights, hurrah!

Hurrah for the Bonnie Blue Flag that bears a single star.

The song dates from 1861. It gave me chills, when I realized what the "property gained by honest toil" actually meant. I think it was one of the first times in my life when I realized that acknowledging the power of the past does not require either romanticizing or sanitizing it . . . and that to do either is to distort both past and present. For those of you sharing stories about your own ancestors, thank you.

#73 ::: cyllan ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2015, 08:01 PM:

Two things: my daughter, who is in the same state and nearly the same county as I was at her age, is getting a very different history education than I got. The War of Northern Aggression is vanishing. Hopefully she won't have the same reaction that fidelio's coworker and I both had upon reading some primary sources.

Secondly, hearing the line "land where my fathers died" sung by a mostly African American elementary school is downright chilling as well as heartbreaking. We move forward inch by inch with these shared experience, and maybe we get better in the process.

#74 ::: Fade Manley ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2015, 08:07 PM:

My ancestors are largely from Ohio on one side and Californian on the other, at least among those I'm aware of, so it's possible I don't have any ancestors who fought for slave-holding rights in the South. It's also possible I do; I don't have huge amounts of information on this so much as anecdotes. So it's fairly easy for me to deplore the right sorts of things.

But I do have a set of ancestors who were in the wrong side of a civil war. Specifically, the Ohio branch runs back through France to the family of Bernard-René de Launay, who was governor of the Bastille at a very unfortunate time for him. (He ended up with his head on a pike, apparently.) So there's my ancestral tie to someone who benefited quite thoroughly from the oppression and disenfranchisement of those weaker than him, and did so through family ties.

And yet--I have no particular urge to defend aristocracy or monarchy from modern democracy. This, despite knowing full well that the French Revolution wasn't tidy or fair or made entirely of good people fighting the bad. And I'm not making a particular judgment on whether, in his own historical context, that marquis was a Good Person. They say that he treated the prisoners more humanely than usual, and that he threatened to blow up the whole place rather than surrender to those laying siege.

I can condemn his participation in an exploitative system without doing anything to his grave. The man is dead: his good is buried with him, and his bad, and what's left is what the historians can (and care to) piece together and the judgment of people who are not in his context. I betray no one and shame no one by rejecting the system he was part of; and I can do that despite being quite imperfect, and thoroughly entangled in this modern system of exploitation, which I expect people in the future to judge me for.

Really, I hope they do judge me for it. I dearly hope that they do better and go further than we have, and find themselves so far ahead that they can stare in baffled horror at all the moral compromises I make every day in what I buy and wear and eat and do. I would much rather be judged by my descendants than have descendants who are stuck in a system just as bad as this one.

#75 ::: Megpie71 ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2015, 08:32 PM:

Okay, I'm Australian with British ancestry - as far as the US Civil War goes, I really don't have a dog in the fight.

But in context of "my ancestors did things which profited from the exploitation of other people", well... I'm an Australian with British ancestry. My existence on this continent relies on the systematic and ongoing exploitation of the Indigenous people of this country. I live in a unit in a complex of units on a housing development built on land which was the traditional domain of the Beeliar group of the Whadjuk Nyungar people. The Whadjuk Nyungar peoples were dispossessed at gunpoint, driven from their traditional lands, and were not compensated for this theft in any way.

I'm benefiting from that ongoing atrocity today. There isn't much I can do about it in a useful or helpful fashion, either.

Do I wish my ancestors hadn't come out to Australia? In some ways, yes - because then my rather prickly conscience wouldn't be upsetting me about benefiting from an atrocity. In a lot of other ways, no. For one thing, I'm far happier with Australian winters than I ever would have been with Northern English ones, and for the second, well, even with the rather frighteningly radical government we have in office at present (and their equally neo-liberal opposition) things are still better here in Australia on a low income than they would be in the UK.

So what can I do about it? Well, I can join the voices advocating for a treaty with the various Indigenous peoples here in Australia. I can join the voices advocating for compensation for those peoples - for redress of past wrongs. I can acknowledge that at the time, my ancestors thought they were doing the right thing for them, and that they were ignorant of a lot of the larger issues of dispossession and appropriation which apply. I can acknowledge that until very recently, the notion of the natural superiority of the White Race (and that therefore, the "whiter" you were, the more "naturally superior" you were) was considered a truth akin to the workings of gravity in its inevitability, and that this notion is still polluting a lot of our discourse on race, culture, and nationality. I can acknowledge that I have internalised these notions too, and I have to work in order to see past them (and that simply attempting to believe the opposite of this particular error is merely the opposite error, not some kind of magical solution to the problem).

People are people, which means they're complex. People always were people, which means they were always complex.

#76 ::: Anne Sheller ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2015, 01:41 AM:

Fade Manley @74 - If you don't mind my asking, whereabouts in Ohio did your French ancestors settle? Just curious about whether you might have ties to the Ohio Valley. I live in Portsmouth, in Scioto County. There was an unincorporated village named French around the intersection of Route 73 and Pond Creek Road, named for the concentration of French settlers in that area. Family names still found here include Duplein, Montavon, Augustin, and Simon. I've also been several times to Gallipolis, also named for French settlers; will be going by there next week as it happens on my way to/from the Mountain State Arts and Crafts Fair.

#77 ::: Russell Letson ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2015, 01:46 AM:

We all have lots of ancestors--powers of 2 stuff, right? So it doesn't take too many generations backward before there are enough of them to just about guarantee there's an SOB or three in the mix. I forget where I stole the joke from, but somebody pointed out that you never know what your ancestors will get up to. In any case, they ain't me. And as several posters have already pointed out (not the Viney One, other posters), you don't have to look too far to recognize various kinds of systemic awful stuff we're all, willy-nilly, implicated in right now, just by virtue of not being dead or on the very bottom of the pile. There's enough to feel guilty about without dragging my ancestors into it.

#78 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2015, 02:14 AM:

It's so much more fun having ancestors you'd prefer not meeting in a dark alley, or some you'd really prefer to nuke from orbit!

#79 ::: Zora ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2015, 04:34 AM:

I recently discovered that even though I look white (Swedish and Finnish) I'm 1/64th West African. Courtesy of ancestors from the state of Georgia, I believe. So I probably have both slaveowners and slaves in my past.

#80 ::: rea ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2015, 06:15 AM:

Speaking of monuments to Andrew Jackson . . .

Andrew Jackson, of course, was a slaveowner and a horrible person in many ways, but his record during the Nullification Crisis of 1832 makes it clear that he would have in no way supported the Confederacy had he lived until 1861.

#81 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2015, 07:49 AM:

As my great-grandfather used to say, "Every pot's got to sit on its own bottom." (In regard to not taking credit for your ancestors' achievements--also works the other way.) My mother used to quote that when people got all up on their D.A.R. high horses; she qualified, but refused to join because of the way they treated Marian Anderson.

#82 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2015, 08:58 AM:

as someone with no Americans in his family free, I'm pretty sure none of my ancestors within recorded history[*] owned slaves.

This probably says more about the defects of historical records than it does about your family. Pre-1000 or so, the slave trade in Europe was flourishing and diversified.

#83 ::: Mary Frances ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2015, 09:25 AM:

ajay @ 82: Charlie does specify that he's using "recorded history" to refer to the last two or three centuries.

Actually, I've been thinking about this whole "ancestral guilt" thing from a different perspective. There are certain crimes in our family histories that--after a sufficient amount of time--become, oh, I don't know . . . legends? Something almost to brag about? Like having a horse thief or a pirate in the family tree. (I've also often wondered how much time has to pass before what would surely have been an embarrassment becomes "something else," but that's a different issue.) Some crimes, however, we want to disown, no matter how long ago they occurred--at least, I've never heard anyone say proudly that his grandpappy was a convicted rapist. Or a slaveowner, for that matter, though I suspect there have been people who were openly proud of that--though I bet they added that "grandpappy always treated his slaves well, and they all loved him." Still. It's kind of an intriguing question: what makes one sort of behavior something to brag about, and another something to deny? Or insistently and contrary to evidence redefine as "not all that bad," perhaps?

#84 ::: Carrie S. ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2015, 09:38 AM:

It's kind of an intriguing question: what makes one sort of behavior something to brag about, and another something to deny?

The more like Robin Hood it is, the more likely to be bragged of.

Robin Hood was a criminal, but he was also a "good guy", robbing from the rich to give to the poor and so on. If you can convince yourself that your ancestor's crime was only hurting The Man, you can brag about it.

#85 ::: Pfusand ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2015, 09:55 AM:

Long years ago, my father warned me that one of my ancestors was rumored to own a slave. So when I "researched" our family tree (I would like to thank Wayne G. Tillinghast for writing The Tillinghasts in America: The First Four Generations, Rose C. Tillinghast for her work, and Charles Tillinghast Straight for his later work.) I was not too surprised to find that "Deacon" Pardon Tillinghast, Esq. owned two slaves, "Negro man Jack" and "Negro man Caesar", instructed to be manumitted 6 years after his death, and that John Tillinghast sold a Negro slave, Primas.

I was depressed to learn that, separate from the family cemetary in East Greenwich, there was a cemetary for the family slaves.


#86 ::: Ginger ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2015, 10:10 AM:

On the one side, Irish, from the Midlands where the English landlords held power over the Irish sharecroppers. My own grandmother ran a safe house for patriots and stored supplies in their barn. Some of her relatives ended up in Australia, too.

On the other side, Jews from deep within central Europe, in small mountain villages (grandma) to riverside cities (grandpa). They fled to this country just ahead of the Holocaust, and lost many other relatives to the war or the camps.

Neither side has much in the way of documentation beyond a few generations back. All we can say is our ancestors did their best to survive, and we don't know much about how law-abiding or not they might have been.

Personally, I don't believe in spitting on graves, but I do believe that we have to learn from the mistakes of our forebears, or we'll just continue to make the same mistakes. (I prefer to make new mistakes.) Removing the Confederate flags is a good first step in acknowledging that racism has an official face, and that the Confederacy was indeed based upon the need to maintain slavery. We still need to work on the microaggressions seen in every day encounters, and we can't slack off on calling out bigotry whenever we see it.

Thinking of the flags reminded me of the Charleston church. Today's Washington Post has an account from one of the survivors, describing how her dying son -- Tywanza Sanders -- crawled towards Susie Jackson, who was also dying, to touch her. That is the image I want to think of whenever someone complains about his flag not flying. Flags are cloth. People are important.

#87 ::: Mary Frances ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2015, 10:25 AM:

Carrie S. @ 84: If you can convince yourself that your ancestor's crime was only hurting The Man, you can brag about it.

Hm. That makes sense--and would explain pride over bootlegging and bank robbing ancestors, too (especially the sorts of things that see various U.S. Old West-style "outlaws" as Robin Hoods). So any crime which is committed by someone acting from a place of power becomes something more difficult to turn into something to brag about. It might also work towards explaining why people try to redefine certain types of crimes--i.e., slavery--as either ultimately beneficial to the victims, or at least neutral: no one was being hurt, so it wasn't really a crime. Crimes against power become Good, while only crimes in support of power are truly Evil--and must therefore be framed at least "victimless" and hence as not crimes at all.

I wonder how culturally defined this tendency might be? The "lone outlaw" fleeing from (or battling) the corrupt law is a U.S. trope, dovetailing nicely with our "sympathy for the underdog" thread; I know it's also present in some other cultures, particularly Western or British-based ones, but are there variations? And how far back might it go? I'm going to have to think about this . . .

#88 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2015, 11:16 AM:

My Jewish great-grandparents came to this country from eastern Europe in the early 1900s, and it's extremely unlikely that I have slaves or slave-owners in my ancestry.

I suspect that part of what made this situation more rigid is prejudice against Southerner. I'm not talking about prejudice against people who owned slaves and supported Jim Crow, I'm talking about the assumption that all southerners are stupid and low class.

#89 ::: JAFD ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2015, 12:01 PM:

ISTR a work of science fiction from a couple of decades ago, in which a citizen of the later 20th Century is visited by his time-travelling great-great-grandchildren. He loads them into his Buick for the two-dollar tour, and ...
"Wait a second. You're Actually BURNING PETROLEUM !?!"

#90 ::: OtterB ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2015, 12:02 PM:

My mother's family had a farm in the Virginia Piedmont in the early to mid 1900s when she was born, but I'm not sure how long they'd been there nor whether they were large scale enough to have been slave owners earlier. They were in Prince Edward County, whose claim to racial infamy is that it closed its public schools in 1959 rather than integrate, and supported an all-white "private" academy with tax funds until the courts denied it in 1964 and the public schools reopened - though most of the white students continued at the academy. I have a vague recollection of a conversation with my mother about that being wrong, and her saying that it was hard for people who just wanted to get along with their neighbors (speaking of my mom's sister, who was still living there and whose two children went that academy) to stand up against things.

I googled around trying to learn a little more, but my grandfather's first name was Lee, which does not make him easily distinguishable in central Virginia - thread crossing, "For it's here a Lee, there a Lee, everywhere a Lee a Lee".

Anyway. I ran across an obituary for an aunt. My mom was the youngest of 7 and I knew some of her siblings more than others. I saw this aunt a few times - I remember learning to waterski behind her boat - but I didn't know her well. I knew she had a PhD and was a professor of education, and I eventually realized that the fact she never married plus her long term "friend" meant that she was a lesbian in an era when these things were not much discussed, but I had no idea that she'd joined the Navy after Pearl Harbor and had been a lieutenant. I wish I'd known her better.

#91 ::: estelendur ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2015, 12:39 PM:

I'm directly descended from Captain John Woodliffe of the Margaret, which brought a load of English colonists to the Berkeley Hundred in Virginia two years before the Mayflower landed. So, whether or not I'm descended from one of the earliest anglophone slaveowners in the Americas, I'm certainly descended from a man who helped bring them there. The land is now Berkeley Plantation, where two presidents were born and which was occupied by the Union during the Civil War. There's a monument on the grounds to Captain Woodliffe.

It is both cool and chilling to have my family tree so deeply embedded in this country's history, and its major atrocities. But I think my family can honor our ancestor by naming our children after him (three of my immediate male relatives have the first or middle name Woodlief) while also saying, "yes, our family was complicit in terrible things. We now strive to do better." I'm a fourth-generation Unitarian (Universalist) on that side of the family. That heritage, the belief in the inherent worth of every person, I am proud of.

#92 ::: Edmund Schweppe ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2015, 01:01 PM:

I don't know of any slave owners in my background, but my mother's side of the family has been in New England since early Colonial times. I figure the odds are pretty good that at least one of my ancestors either was directly involved in the Triangle Trade, or at least indirectly supported it through things like ship's chandlery.

OTOH, I know of at least three ancestors who fought in the Union Army during the Civil War; one of them dying of wounds shortly after the battle of Kennesaw Mountain.

#93 ::: Edmund Schweppe ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2015, 01:04 PM:

Semi-on-topic poetry (inspired by

Remember, remember!
Confederate splendor,
The slaveholders' traitorous plot;
I see no reason
Confederate treason
Should ever be forgot.

#94 ::: HelenS ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2015, 01:07 PM:

I figure the odds are pretty good that at least one of my ancestors either was directly involved in the Triangle Trade, or at least indirectly supported it through things like ship's chandlery.

Same. One of the names in my family tree is Fitch, and though I'm pretty sure I'm not directly descended from Timothy Fitch, who owned the ship Phillis Wheatley was brought to the US on, I wouldn't be at all surprised if he was a cousin of one of my ancestors.

#95 ::: Theophylact ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2015, 01:09 PM:

ajay @ #82: Given Charlie's ethnic background, quite probably his European ancestors weren't slave-owners or -traders.

On the other hand, although I share that background, some of my ancestors settled in the American South before 1840, and according to family lore, my paternal grandmother's grandfather was a colonel in the Confederate Army. So I may have slaveowners in the attic. That doesn't make me respect the flag of Treason in Defense of Slavery, though.

#96 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2015, 02:01 PM:

My father's family includes both New England and Virginia, so I'd say that there were more slave-owners than the one that I'd sure of. It's just that the 17th-century ones are remote enough that I am not going to guilt over them.

And on ancestors of questionable virtue: my sister-in-law's tree includes both a woman hanged as a witch in Salem and one of her accusers. (And a Jew from Eastern Europe who made and sold opiate-free patent medicines in turn-of-the-century Sacramento.)

#97 ::: Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2015, 02:25 PM:

I have bad news for people like me who have comforted themselves with the thought that our Central and Eastern European Jewish ancestors were most certainly not slave owners--unfortunately, about a thousand years ago, Jews were heavily involved in the slave trade. They were especially noted for selling Muslims to Christians and Christians to Muslims.

This was news to me recently. I spent a horrifying afternoon reading about it.

I don't think there's much comfort to be gotten from our ancestors. The only comfort I see is the possibility that our descendants might be better than us.

#98 ::: Lady Kay ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2015, 02:39 PM:

My ancestors came to the colonies a long time ago, and to Virginia. So, yes, slave-owners and some up to the Civil War. That's the past. It informs but does not determine the present.

I think that the flag has become associated with Southern poverty--most notably in the case of the Dukes of Hazzard TV show. Even with some Southern ancestors, that is my association.

#99 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2015, 02:57 PM:

Lee #55: Chinese sweated labour produces everything, it seems.

The history of slavery is not far away from many of us. It can also take unexpected turns. I have slaveowning ancestors. They were black. My great-great grandfather was compensated for owning five slaves. From their names on the registry, it seems pretty clear that they were 'Salt-water Negroes', that is born in Africa, as opposed to Creole Negroes like himself. Old S.G. Ledgister, who marked the register with an X, was not the last illiterate in the family, so were his son, and grandsons (including my grandfather), but his relative wealth, compared to the mass of black Jamaicans of his day and afterwards, meant that his branch of the family had an edge in the struggle for survival in the post-slavery era. Do I think of him as a monster? No. I have no idea whether he treated his human property better or worse than white or mulatto slaveowners. I do think that he was operating within the rules of the system before 1834. Did his descendants inherit a tradition of anti-black racism in justification of his slaveholding? Pull the other one.

#100 ::: Fade Manley ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2015, 03:25 PM:

Anne Sheller @76: Unfortunately, I don't know. My father left Cleveland when he joined the army, but I have no idea how long the family had been there. The French ancestor I know about married a Scottish man between leaving France and arriving in the United States, and then I just don't have the information between that and my father leaving Ohio.

#101 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2015, 03:40 PM:

Just in case anyone's interested, I do freelance genealogical inquiry and research, and can (off-site; my gmail identity is 2ells2tees) talk people through learning to do it themselves or contract to look into it on your behalf.

One thing I often warn mundanes who are coming to me for research is that if I manage to get back four generations, and don't hit a brick wall or otherwise find their family hard to discover, there almost certainly will be at least one cousin marriage and at least one abandoned family (either the abandoned half or the fled-to half leading to the descent of my client).

I talk through what they'd like me to do if I find something weird, or shameful, or possibly outre while I'm looking into things. Some don't care. Some are actively interested. Some say, "If it's not in my direct descent, don't even tell me about it," because they don't want to know.

I haven't yet hit slaveholding ancestors, explicitly, but that's probably due to the specific nature of my client pool to date (and the fact that once you get back before 1810 it gets really challenging anyhow, at least to my level of skill).

I have found someone's great-uncle who apparently lived most of his life in a mental institution and was completely deleted from all family stories -- until my client went to his oldest surviving auntie and asked, "So, um, what about Victor?" and then she was reminded of a torrent of stories and remembrances.

#102 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2015, 03:44 PM:

Ajay @82: This probably says more about the defects of historical records than it does about your family. Pre-1000 or so, the slave trade in Europe was flourishing and diversified.

Yes, the historical record is very patchy. And I don't even know if my ancestors were in Europe back then. They were Jewish; Jews tended to move around. (But how far back does "Jewish" go?) Also, when you go back that far it's anyone's guess whether your ancestors were slave owners ... or slaves themselves: given the powers-of-two thing, the most likely answer is probably "a bit of both".

#103 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2015, 03:59 PM:

Elliott, I've been tracking family tree for forty years. It goes out into the in-laws and the cousins and the in-laws of cousins. (The number of cousin marriages is higher than most people would expect, but nearly all are second cousins, so not closely related. If you want closely related, you have to go to European royalty.)

#104 ::: Errolwi ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2015, 04:20 PM:

My GG-Grandfather was so embarrassingly anti-Chinese that he ran/was pushed to the far colonies (NZ) in the 1880s. He published pamphlets on the 'Yellow Peril'.
I'm sure there are other embarrassments in my ancestry, this one just left a paper trail for my genealogist Mum to find.

#105 ::: Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2015, 05:20 PM:

Mary Frances @83 ::: Actually, I've been thinking about this whole "ancestral guilt" thing from a different perspective. There are certain crimes in our family histories that--after a sufficient amount of time--become, oh, I don't know . . . legends? Something almost to brag about? Like having a horse thief or a pirate in the family tree

I'm reminded of Terry Pratchett's Going Postal in which the protagonist observes how the passage of time can convert the pirate in the family tree from a shameful embarrassment into a humorous legend. (There was also the meditation on the tendency to say "Oh, everybody does that, as you'll surely admit it if you're being honest", in order to excuse oneself of vice.)

Can't lay my hand on the paperback at the moment to quote the relevant bits, though.

#106 ::: Cally Soukup ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2015, 05:54 PM:

I've got an ancestor of whom I can proudly say he fought on the Yankee side of the Revolutionary War since very shortly after Lexington and Concord all the way to the final British surrender, being present at every major battle in New York and a bunch in New Jersey. Including the famous crossing of the Delaware. NOT so proudly, his unit was part of the Sullivan Expedition, whose orders from General Washington were:

Orders of George Washington to General John Sullivan, at Head-Quarters May 31, 1779

The Expedition you are appointed to command is to be directed against the hostile tribes of the Six Nations of Indians, with their associates and adherents. The immediate objects are the total destruction and devastation of their settlements, and the capture of as many prisoners of every age and sex as possible. It will be essential to ruin their crops now in the ground and prevent their planting more.
I would recommend, that some post in the center of the Indian Country, should be occupied with all expedition, with a sufficient quantity of provisions whence parties should be detached to lay waste all the settlements around, with instructions to do it in the most effectual manner, that the country may not be merely overrun, but destroyed.
But you will not by any means listen to any overture of peace before the total ruinment of their settlements is effected. Our future security will be in their inability to injure us and in the terror with which the severity of the chastisement they receive will inspire them.

That last paragraph is especially nasty. Can you say "war crimes"?
Basically, they swept through the Mohawk Valley in New York and into Western Pennsylvania burning every Iroquois and Mohawk village they came across and destroying all their winter stores. Right before the worst winter in years. Thousands of Iroquois starved and/or froze. They didn't end up killing or taking prisoner very many villagers only because a Big Honkin' Army is really easy to spot and run away from. Of course, the stored food and other material supplies can't run.
We don't know for sure that he personally took part, but there's no reason to believe he didn't. Family stories talk about post-Revolutionary war problems he had with "Indians", but they don't mention the Sullivan Expedition one way or the other.
So yes, ancestors are complicated. It's possible to be proud of some of the things they did, and deeply ashamed of others. One can only do one's best to make it so that future generations will find more to be proud of than ashamed of in us.

#107 ::: Xopher Halftongue ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2015, 07:24 PM:

I'm not sure about my great-grandparents. I've only even heard mention of one; she was called "Great-Gramma Richter," and that's all I know about her.

Never met either of my grandfathers, but let's just say neither of them was a paragon. I did meet my paternal grandmother, and she was racist and xenophobic and irrational and abusive. But she got her family through the Depression alive, even after her husband died. My maternal grandmother worked her Bohemian ass off to keep herself and my mother in pork and sauerkraut after her husband abandoned them; I won't hear a word against her. She was the "Grandma! Grandma!" of my childhood.

I don't think any of my ancestors ever owned African slaves. Pretty sure they were all a) poor, b) late immigrants to America, c) Yankees. In fact I don't know of any who didn't live in the Chicago area.

My point is twofold: one, everybody has some nasty ancestors, not just people whose ancestors owned slaves and two, you aren't a bad person just because some (or even all!) of your ancestors were bad people. Else there would be NO good people who came from abusive homes, would there?

Lee 44: I am SO sick of that "now is not the right time" bullshit, because all it ever represents is a stalling mechanism, waiting for things to die down again.

Hear, hear. It's the old political silencing mechanism of "you're not allowed to talk about this when people are ready to listen, because then you might win."

Edmund 93: I love it! May I quote it far and wide?

Cally 106: Reminds me of what I learned about Buffalo Bill (after playing an Indian (!) in a community theatre production of Annie Get Your Gun). Let's just say that no one can learn the facts about that evil, genocidal piece of toxic waste and think of him as a hero (except a dyed-in-the-wool unrepentant racist).

#108 ::: Spiegel ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2015, 08:25 PM:

I remember my mother arguing with my grandfather when he made racist remarks. Fast-forward 25 years and now I'm the one arguing with my mother when she makes racists remarks. I don't have children, but I'm sure that if I had, they'd be able to point out my blind spots.

#109 ::: Pfusand ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2015, 08:57 PM:

OtterB @ 90: "Anyway. I ran across an obituary for an aunt. ... I knew she had a PhD and was a professor of education, and I eventually realized that the fact she never married plus her long term "friend" meant that she was a lesbian in an era when these things were not much discussed, but I had no idea that she'd joined the Navy after Pearl Harbor and had been a lieutenant. ..."

Was her "friend"'s name Elizabeth? My oldest aunt joined the Navy after Pearl Harbor, and never married, and had a career (in psychology), and was lovingly tended through her final illness by a "friend"...

#110 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2015, 09:01 PM:

Don't know much about my father's side of the family other than Grandpa Jim immigrated at age 13 from a coal mining village in Wales. Grandma Jessie was born here, but was likely first generation.

My mother's side is from a couple of villages in the mountains north of Genoa. Might have owned slaves in Roman times, or been slaves.

We were a tolerant liberal family, but my father let loose crass jokes when he was drunk.

I have, or had, uncles and cousins who are deep embarassments. Long Island / NYC blue-collar style racism.

There are parts of Long Island, once borderline rural, that have an almost redneck vibe. But that's probably true of most places.

#111 ::: Chris ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2015, 09:04 PM:

I know for sure that I'm descended from slaveholders by more than one line of descent.

There's the line that goes back to the families that lived on both sides of what is now the Virginia-West Virginia border. This included some of the major early cattle dealers, whose slaves numbered in the double digits. It's also the branch of the family that includes the only ancestor I know of who was actively involved in the Civil War on the Confederate side. He was a surgeon.

There's also the line from the Eastern Shore of Maryland. The town of Cambridge, to be precise, so they may well have crossed paths with Harriet Tubman. I know for certain that they owned at least one slave. Her name was Rachel, and she belonged to my great-great-great grandmother Mollie in 1858. It seems likely that the family also owned more slaves, but she's the only one I know of for sure.

Most of the rest of my family traces back to New England, but even there, if you go back far enough, you find slaves. Several of my ancestors' wills provide for the disposition of their houses, their land, their livestock, and their negroes.

#112 ::: OtterB ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2015, 09:13 PM:

Pfusand @109 Was her "friend"'s name Elizabeth?

I don't think so. I'm blanking on the friend's name, but I think I'd remember if it was Elizabeth since that's a common name in my family. My aunt lived in Arkansas.

#113 ::: Rail ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2015, 10:04 PM:

Definite slaveholders on one side of my family. It's easier to trace them by property records than anything else. Probable slaveholders on the other side, too, though I don't have any actual records to prove it. They also left us an unusual heritage: how many people have someone in their family tree who was responsible for the creation of a new word?

On my husband's side, again, definite slaveholders on both lines. But he has someone on one side who completely disappears during the Civil War. I've found no record of military service or a post-war oath. We're starting to speculate that he spent the war hiding among the Unionists in the Smokey Mountains.

#114 ::: Carol Kimball ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2015, 10:06 PM:

Many women enlisted for WWII as an escape from rigid, parochial constraints. Julia Child noted that if she'd had to follow her family's plans to be an upper-class socialite she'd quickly have been bored into alcoholism.

How much less surprising that becoming a nurse (often) or a mechanic, or a flyer ferrying airplanes to the fighting was attractive to lesbians?

The military in peacetime traditionally has drawn people who needed to get away from their communities.

Few families could argue with helping stop Hitler. This may have been the primary reason for many who enlisted, but there were often other important benefits.

#115 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2015, 12:46 AM:

Megpie, I wish I could sort out my position on the issue you raise. I am also an Australian of exclusively British ancestry - well, as far back as my sister traced it, which was to the mid-18th century. And now I live on land that was the Nyoongars', and that land is mine, for most definitions of that concept.

I went to the local SF convention, and they had an Aboriginal man in to do a "welcome to country". At the last State Premier's Literature Award ceremony I attended, same thing. I wish I could avoid the reflection that both those events were held in buildings that were owned (same sense as my land) by entities that are in no doubt about the real ownership rights. What do you think their reaction would be if a group of Nyoongar people, with undeniable connection to that land, were to turn up in the lobby and carry on their traditional lifestyle and activities? I don't need to guess.

So how much meaning has this "welcome to country", or formal statements that this event, whatever, takes place on Aboriginal traditional land? We say we "acknowledge" that. What does that mean?

Me, being cynical, I think it means that we are kidding ourselves. Salving a rough place in our consciences with polite words.

My ancestors were Welsh coalminers and small tradespeople, as far back as I can tell. All four grandparents arrived in Australia between 1900 and 1925. I can't hold them responsible for what happened to the Aboriginal people at all. All I can say is that I benefit from their arrival, and from what was done to Aboriginal people, both.

So it's not a matter of spitting on anyone's grave, if that idea were ever valid, which it probably isn't. Well, not in most cases, anyway. It isn't a matter of making restitution, either. We can't. Acknowledgement? Apology? Compensation? How much?

We took everything that they had, and everything that mattered to them. Their land, their lives, their children. We can never repay that. What can we do?

I suspect that anything we do will only be to make us feel better. That may be of some useful effect, but it's hardly to the purpose.

#116 ::: Anne Sheller ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2015, 02:14 AM:

Fade, thanks for answering.

None of my ancestors owned slaves in America. My Irish great-grandfathers arrived in time to fight for the Union. One of them was reputed to have stolen a horse in Ireland, and paid for first class passage to America with the proceeds. The Hungarian side didn't move here until 1910.

Now, go back a few centuries in Europe and it's likely both slaveholders and slaves would be in my family tree somewhere, but it's probably not traceable. I can't impute any particular virtue to either side; they just weren't here long enough to get tangled with that horrible institution.

#117 ::: Ariel S. ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2015, 02:20 AM:

I like Fade's point @74 a lot; the hope that the future will be so much better that they'll judge us for our flaws resonates with me a lot.

I've got a long and tangled history with American atrocities in my family. "Your ancestors fought on both sides of the Revolutionary War" means that my ancestors were pretty definitely directly involved in taking the land away from its prior residents. They fought on both sides of the Civil War, too; and I don't get to pretend anything nice about "state's rights", I've seen copies of some of the old wills for estates with dozens of slaves. (And at least one instance of rather terrifying, if slightly hilarious at this distance in its obviousness, post-death spousal control; "To my darling wife, so sweet and wonderful, I leave all of my property; but if the ungrateful harlot marries again, all of my lands, monies, and slaves are to be immediately removed from her keeping and granted to my second cousin".... nasty sounding fellow, that.) My mother used to tell me cautionary stories about growing up in the segregated South, and they were most terrifying for how *invisible* she said it was.

(I was surprised to see someone else with family legends of how we don't join the DAR any more because of how they treated Marion Anderson, but in our case, it was an explanation for why I knew none of my grandmother's relatives. In retrospect, I wonder just how dysfunctional the family was that a disagreement over the DAR's policies led to a permanent split. Or was taking an anti-racist stance at the time an issue to disown people over? No idea.)

The one that's really been getting to me lately, though, is realizing that my sweet, gentle, unbelievably patient and kind grandfather was a prison medic in Texarkana from the 1950s through the 1970s. And the more I hear about prisons in that area and that era, the more terrifying they sound-- a slow, hidden atrocity, part and parcel of our racial dysfunction and injustice. Which means that the *best* possible scenario is that he was a good person who went to work and did his best to mitigate the bad things he saw there. But it seems more likely that he was a complicated person who tried to be good but was part of a very bad system, and just compartmentalized to keep it from affecting his self-image. He was retired by the time I met him, and I didn't find out about any of this until I read his autobiography after he died; I wish I'd known earlier, and had the courage to ask hard questions. I can't figure out if I'd regret having done so and getting the answers I expect, though. Is it better to guess, or know, that someone you love participated in horrible things? It makes me appreciate some of how hard it must be for people of my generation in Germany to engage with their grandparents. And it's awfully hard to figure out how to *fix* some of the problems your ancestors, intentionally or not, helped propagate.

#118 ::: Sica ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2015, 08:43 AM:

I have a complicated history really. I'm Icelandic which brings a number of things with it.

First of all, very very thorough and easily accessible family tree data. As in there's a free web application I can log into and trace my entire family tree very far back down.

The tree is quite populated down to the 1700s and then get sparser but some strands go all the way back to before Iceland was properly inhabited. I just had a play around and one of my great great great (lots more greats) grandmothers is Melkorka Mýrkjartansdóttir, born in 910. Irish princess who was taken as a slave so right there both a slave and slave owner in the tree. Her story

To be fair when it's traced that far back it's of dubious accuracy but it's still nice to see the chain of generations.

Most of my ancestors that I can see are a mix of poor farmers and fishermen, tracing back down to the viking age they're still mostly farmers and fishermen, but not everyone though.

#119 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2015, 09:02 AM:

Dave Luckett @115: it may feel superficial to you, but the recent Australian tendency to acknowledge the traditional elders of the pre-colonial elders of the place where the event is held has it all over the US's attitude to the same situation.

In much of the Midwest it is surprisingly hard to even determine what group of people one should be acknowledging, because they have been moved West repeatedly and given a good old college try at total extermination, and even records of former territorial boundaries are confusing and buried. If a reliable (actually based on good sources) map of the Traditional Lands of the Us exists, I haven't been able to find one.

#120 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2015, 09:13 AM:

And as a Chicagoan in particular, as an adult I realized that my childhood lessons about what-happened-to-the-Natives-around-here were deeply, deeply inadequate.

The story I was taught runs something like this:

People lived here before the white settlers, but they were tiny groups and moved around a lot. They mostly camped at the river mouth to trade with French voyageurs, and then went ... somewhere ... to do their ... very important living things, which were incredibly vaguely described and didn't apparently include anything like farming. More like 'flitted from blossom to blossom' like Shakespearian fairies.

Then Fort Dearborn was built, because some of the Natives were angry at growing white settlement. There were some fights. The white people won (here, look at a sculpture of a crying curly-haired white baby as her mother is being menaced by someone with eagle feathers in his flowing hair, it's Historical). A map was drawn. Go to Indian Boundary park and see a bronze model of the map -- south of the line, whites lived; north of it, there were Native villagers. Yes, you're standing on the border right now. Yes, it's in the middle of the city. We're not going to talk about it. There just aren't any Natives anymore and we put houses here.

Turns out, of course, it's much more complex and kind of heartbreaking than that.

In fact, Billy Caldwell (who is memorialized all over golf courses on the north side and has a street named after him), who I knew as a fairly powerful politician in early Chicago fumblings towards the clout-based feudal government we currently have, was Native. In fact, he was the leader of the folks who lived north of Indian Boundary, at that point. He managed to get together enough capital to formally buy, under white-man's rules, all their remaining traditional lands, and play the white politics game hard enough to protect them and bring some of their community to prosperousness.

Then he died.

And the lawyers descended, chopped up "his" "personal" landholdings, let a few of his direct family members inherit a house or two, granted a lot of the not-built-on parts to the Forest Preserve district, and sold off all the rest to white developers.

In other words, it was the Cherokee all over again -- even Natives who try to "play the game" by the white rules can't be allowed to actually control their destiny, lands, or lives, because as soon as white people want what they have, forget it.

I need to figure out how to tell this all to my child, because there sure as hell aren't any printed pedagogical materials that cover it. We live a long walk from Billy Caldwell Woods, and every time I see the sign it makes me want to cry in anger. Sure, put his name on it, and then tell people he was an influential white politician and landowner just like Cermak or Kinzie ...

#121 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2015, 09:13 AM:

I have a great-uncle who was "part of a bad system and doing his best in it" -- one of the co-founders of the CIA, and one of the people who slipped up badly around the Bay of Pigs debacle. A very complex man, with a strong belief in the importance of intelligence (in the technical sense of information about countries and people one is dealing with). The CIA's intelligence college is named after him (Sherman Kent, if you want to look him up). I recognize that he was a difficult man, but fascinating.

Our ancestors are not us -- their descendents are not them. It's important to remember that and live with a sense of history in the current day.

#122 ::: MaxL ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2015, 09:49 AM:

The fascination with ancestors is alien to me. Family trees, family history; my parents may have cared about those things (well, may still care), but they never did anything to make me care. A bit like religion, family lineage simply wasn't part of my life throughout my formative years and doesn't matter to me now that I'm an adult.

Which is not to suggest that there's anything wrong with caring about one's family history, of course. It's just hard for me to comprehend what it's like to care.

And yes, like Fade I hope my descendants, if any, judge the hell out of me, and current society. It's deserved!

#123 ::: cyllan ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2015, 10:26 AM:

I will say this for my schooling: we did terribly with wrestling with the slave issue, and we didn't do a great job with the whole "slaughtered the Native American population with guns, smallpox and terror" but we covered the Trail of Tears in excruciating detail.

Could you start there, Elliot Mason? It's something that seems pretty generally recognized as Outright Awful, and it's not hard to find a multitude of sources for it. Then morph the conversation to a greater treatment of the settlement of the US? (My nine year old, BTW, is totally angry at the whole Christopher Columbus thing. I got a /rant/ on Columbus day about how it was unfair and awful and anyway, he didn't discover America in the first place; there were people HERE, and even if you didn't count them -- which you should be most people didn't at the time and isn't that awful -- then he STILL wasn't the first guy here, and he sucks.) Watch the Addams Family movie where Wednesday goes to summer camp as a light introduction?

#124 ::: Diatryma ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2015, 10:55 AM:

Dave Luckett, I think that reframing your question might be useful to you. Rather than, "Isn't this all just words to make us feel better, and that doesn't help anyone," you might consider it as part of the process of asking the dispossessed what they want. The question of what to do with a horrific past has two sides, after all. If you start with, "Holy cats, this other group has been abused by my group, but long enough ago that we can't exactly put those responsible on trial, so... hey other group, what do you want to have happen?" you might find useful information. And, as we in the US have been reminded, you can't move forward with healing until the harm has stopped. So make sure the harm has stopped.

Having big groups of people involved complicates everything. It's so much easier to imagine a scenario like, I don't know, Beloved Grandpa revealing on his deathbed that the family's fortune was founded on stealing someone else's land, and that someone else's family is poor and considered trash. Then you can think about going to them and saying hey, this thing happened, how can we fix it, and even if it all ends badly there's at least a map. But with groups, there's plausible deniability on both sides-- my people weren't really responsible and your people weren't really hurt. That's what I do with Conrad Weiser and the Mohawk, after all; I say I don't think he screwed them over particularly, but I haven't looked it up and anyway, everyone else kind of did.

#125 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2015, 12:08 PM:

I've turned up several people on the various rolls in Oklahoma. (For example, one of my father's cousins married a man who's enrolled as Creek through his mother.) From what I've heard, though, the rolls aren't necessarily accurate: if you looked white enough, they'd (try to) leave you off.

The only stories about any interactions don't involve killing or even shooting; one does include a batch of bread that was ruined by being sat on.

#126 ::: Manny ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2015, 12:54 PM:

My family has never had much or done anything like leading. I don't think that exempts me from my share of the White Persons Burden of privilege and prejudice, but it means I'd be astonished to find that any one of them ever had the scratch to own slaves or an exploity business. We run more to working-class slackers and disappointments.

#127 ::: Chris ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2015, 03:12 PM:

Manny @126:
You'd be surprised at how social class can change in a few generations. Younger sons and daughters in particular would frequently marry outside of their birth family's social circle. You'd also be surprised at how little wealth someone needed to own a slave.

#128 ::: Edmund Schweppe ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2015, 04:31 PM:

Xopher Halftongue @107: Absolutely!

#129 ::: Don Fitch ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2015, 11:13 PM:

Helen S. @ 94:

I haven't come across a Timothy in my Fitch ancestry, but my impression is that just about everyone in my line was either a farmer (small farms, that is) or an articifer. At best, to the level of "properous". And yeah, Tinker or Romany connections might exist -- at least three of them directly or by marriage) were tinsmiths. But then, I haven't been able to make connections to the Vermont branch before some of them settled in what what was the Northwest Territory (soon to become Michigan).

More to the Subject -- My mother was born in Kentucky, but her father came from Switzerland, and her mother's parents from Germany just across the river/border, so no recent slave-holding there. Mom was sixteen when her mother died and she became caretaker of her father ånd two brothers. About the only racial things I got from her were "Blacks are Inferior, of course, but that's no reason not to be polite to them" and the fact that she had Strongly Insisted, back in her teens, that the two Black maids/household workers be paid more because they worked hard and did their jobs well. (And, in her senility, she was utterly terrified of the Black male nurse in the rest home, almost certainly for no good reason other than a White Sourthern Female upbringing.)

#130 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: June 27, 2015, 01:45 AM:

WRT US/Indian history, I got "lucky" in that I went to school in Boulder in the '70s. We actually covered things like Sand Creek in some detail.

At some point I may see if I can work up the nerve to tell the tale of how I figured out I am a racist (and what I try to do to keep a leash on that).

P J Evans @125: the rolls aren't necessarily accurate

It's kind of ironic that, if I understand correctly, tribal rolls are actually a thing devised by the US government to regulate who is eligibile for things like tribal benefits. (Me blithely flaunting my ignorance here, probably. I haven't the first idea about how I would go about researching that.)

#131 ::: Diatryma ::: (view all by) ::: June 27, 2015, 09:59 AM:

My understanding is that the folks in charge said, "We need more black people. One-drop rule!" and, "Too many Indians on land we want. Blood quantum!"

#132 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: June 27, 2015, 12:49 PM:

Dave Luckett #115: Are you sure that no restitution can be made to the Aboriginals for the series of wrongs inflicted on them since 1788? New Zealand has an interesting model in the Waitangi Tribunal that adjudicates disputes regarding the Treaty of Waitangi (and is a product of an act of Parliament of much more recent date than said treaty). It's done a great deal to improve the status of the Maori in recent years.

Of course, Oz and NZ are very different places, and the situations of Original Australians and Maori are very different (Maori have had citizenship and the vote since 1893, for example).

#133 ::: Errolwi ::: (view all by) ::: June 27, 2015, 06:13 PM:

Fragano Ledgister @132
Well said.
" of the reasons that NZ Settlers did not treat the Maoris as their Australian counterparts did the Aborigines was that, when they did, they got killed." James Belich, Historian.

To nitpick, Maori had _a_ vote (on a different basis than whites), but this gave them a significant political voice at times. For instance, the 4 MPs were necessary for the Government majority during WW1, and used this to get Maori soldiers treated with appropriate respect.

#134 ::: Robert Glaub ::: (view all by) ::: June 27, 2015, 09:05 PM:

When I was a little kid in school in Arkansas I caught a lot of crap because my ancestors fought gor the Union (Pennsylvania Reserve Division). But not anywhere as near as much crap as I've gotten on the Internet because my father helped liberate a Nazi concentration camp.

My late ex-stepfather was the head of the local Klan. He worked besides African-Americans on the farm during the day and went out to terrorize them at night. I remember getting the crap beaten on the sidewalk on Main Street of our local town for calling an African-American man mister.

#135 ::: Renee ::: (view all by) ::: June 28, 2015, 01:08 AM:

I got interested in genealogy during my early teens, and one of the first things I was told, by my father's mother, was that Robert E. Lee was my something-great grand-uncle.

It took decades, but I have proven this wrong. We have Lees in the family, but not those Lees. That said, for those same decades it meant I would see a Confederate flag and wonder if I should consider it a family flag, despite everyone else in the family being definitely Yankee. I never quite could -- damn Yankee, me (tho' I've always liked the design. You can hiss at me if you like.)

But ... that same grandmother is the grand-daughter of a Confederate soldier, a man who upped the day after the South seceded, and who was on the field fighting (and getting two fingers blown off) at Appomattox Courthouse, in the morning before Lee decided nope, that wasn't going to get his men out of their hopeless position, and yep, time to thrown in that towel.

She never mentioned that. She talked about him, but said he was Union, and a cavalryman. Nope; he was infantry (the Union cavalryman was my father's father's great-grandfather.) Also, an officer: also nope -- he mustered out as a corporal.

It makes me wonder about the tales we tell ourselves about ourselves -- about how the people we are related to tell us tales about ourselves. Jacque@130 mentions Sand Creek; I have not one but TWO uncles who took part in that, and in many ways, Sand Creek disgusts me more than the whole US Civil War. And it disgusts me more than my known slave-trader ancestor or any of my slave-owner ancestors (tho' the woman who said in her will that her slave woman would go to her eldest daughter, but said slave's first increase would go to the second daughter, and her second increase would go to the third ... yeah. Very close second.)

Those uncles are my grandmother's uncles, too, and two generations closer. Their sister was her great-grandmother, a woman she talked about as kind and loving -- but how would she know? Emily Letner died fifty-one years before my grandmother was born.

It's all stories, passed down verbally, sometimes, and embroidered for color or wish fulfillment or the avoidance of the ugly, or at other times passed down on paper and pieced together from hints and speculation. That Union cavalryman wasn't living with his wife, just before the war, and it looks like their daughter got adopted by her mother's mother, and their son isn't anywhere to be seen, and has NO visible connections to his father save on his death certificate ... and why was his second wife using her maiden name that day in July, 1875, when she was murdered?

I look back on those conversations with my grandmother and I think she was telling the stories the way she was because they made her feel good. I prefer the facts (even the disgusting ones), but I don't think less of my grandmother for her preferences; they're hers, and are there for her, not me. Just as all those Confederate flags and statues and historic houses are there for the people who see their own stories in those things.

And if they're shy of some of the facts that go with those things, well ... I admit that I like thinking that, as bugler for his company, the elder Letner brother didn't kill at Sand Creek, and that as a younger soldier, the younger brother was set to holding the horses, out of the fight, like many of the younger soldiers were. I like thinking it -- but I'm not going to confuse my preferences for facts, nor am I going to confuse their choices for mine.

But Sand Creek had a survivor, and he has descendants. How the hell should I feel if I ever meet one? I've done my genetics on a genealogy site, and some of the matches are African-Americans: how about them? This is where history meets the present. Is an apology enough? Should it be? Is one necessary? And is this confusion the point where apologists of all stripes get hung up?

#136 ::: Richard ::: (view all by) ::: June 28, 2015, 10:00 AM:

Renee's discovery at 153 of the exaggerations in family stories reminds me of my Confederate ancestor and the difficulty of establishing his biography.

Because he was the last veteran of the Civil War to live and die in a particular county, there is a historical marker on his grave. It tells the heroic story of how he volunteered for service although a recent immigrant and distinguished himself in the Battle of Galveston, only to be captured and spend most of the war as a prisoner.

The family story is that he left Germany to avoid conscription, only to arrive in Texas just in time to get a draft notice from the Confederacy. He ran at first, but reported for duty after hearing too many stories about draft-dodgers being shot. The one battle he saw was really no battle at all -- "just cannonballs splashing into the water" -- and the important part of the story is that he was eventually able to get back to farming.

Other relatives' genealogical research has established that he immigrated with his parents when a small child, so that's one colorful bit of the family story that can't be true. If anyone has ever tried to locate his military records, I don't know of it.

#137 ::: UrsulaV ::: (view all by) ::: June 30, 2015, 12:06 PM:

So my great-great grandfather was a literal axe murderer.

Honestly, while I feel badly for his victim (my great-great grandmother) in a detached historical way, it has little to do with my life. It's mentally filed with the great-grandfather who ran off with the trick rider from the rodeo as "interesting, but no reflection on me."

I am always a bit puzzled by someone, as in the article, who is deeply invested in the idea that their ancestors were good and decent people and that any evidence otherwise is a personal attack. Possibly because of the family history, we never had any illusions to get invested in. You go back a very little way and...well, there it is. I will cheerfully agree that my great-great grandfather was a monster. No question about it. But I'm not him, and he's a long dead anecdote.

I've noticed that there are some people who are into religion and require it and are emotionally invested in it, and then again, those that just shrug it off. (Neither, I think, is better or worse, it's just the way people seem to be wired, or nurtured, or something.) Sometimes I wonder if there's a similar thing for family history--some people have an intense emotional investment, and some just don't. And maybe it's puzzling for those of us who don't why you would care if your great-great-grandfather was horrible or not, except as a matter of vague curiosity.

I am willing to admit that I may be in the minority on that.

#138 ::: UrsulaV ::: (view all by) ::: June 30, 2015, 12:07 PM:

(And I see that @122 has already made the analogy...)

#139 ::: Xopher Halftongue ::: (view all by) ::: June 30, 2015, 09:10 PM:

UrsulaV 137: Sometimes I wonder if there's a similar thing for family history--some people have an intense emotional investment, and some just don't.

I've often suspected that people who care so much about the honor of their ancestors have, or feel they have, very little else. If you're terribly poor, and have accomplished very little because of lack of talent, lack of opportunity, or both, having famous (as opposed to infamous) ancestors may be your only source of self-worth.

I remember many years ago when there was a KKK rally in NYC, a bunch of the knuckleheads kept responding to every criticism of their behavior, intelligence, etc. with "at least we're white." They had no other claim of value. They'll be racist until the day they die, because no one wants to feel worthless.

#140 ::: Megpie71 ::: (view all by) ::: July 04, 2015, 11:06 PM:

Coming back much later...

Dave Luckett @ 115 - I tend to find "welcomes to country" to be rather problematic, because I wonder just how genuine a welcome it can be if there's no option to say "no" to the people you're "welcoming" in. If a group of elders decides, for example, that they're not going to perform welcomes at ceremonies which involve politicians who have voted in favour of the Northern Territory Intervention, will this stick? Or will the "welcome to country" be quietly dropped from the order of service, amid mutterings about how "ungrateful" said elders are, refusing this opportunity to demonstrate how magnanimous the politicians in question are about their role in the society? If a racist speaker, such as Jack Van Tongeren (to use a local example) decided they wanted to be welcomed to country, could the elders reasonably decline? (In this last situation, they're pretty much damned if they do - because they'll be seen to be endorsing the speaker and their views; or damned if they don't - because it'll be deemed to be a petty and vindictive act).

The "welcome" extended seems to be very much a flimsy thing, as valid as a one-cent-piece (for those not in the know: Australia phased out its copper - 1c and 2c - currency in the early 1990s; a 1c piece is no longer valid currency in Australia).

That said, I do think we should be working towards restitution, but I don't think it has to be an "all at once" thing. In fact, I believe we really need to take as long about making up to the Indigenous peoples for the mess being made as we did to create the mess in the first place. Since the mess started in about 1777, when Cook first "discovered" the east coast of the continent, and suggested it as a potential location for colonisation, we have at least 238 years to be working in. Although, to be honest, I think the clock on restitution shouldn't be started until the Northern Territory Intervention has been thoroughly dismantled, to say the very least.

#141 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: July 05, 2015, 11:37 AM:

Some very personal thoughts on ancestry:

Placing emotional weight on ancestry and genealogy has always been a puzzle to me. My family's Jewish. I don't know where I come from because in the family stories we were always leaving it, usually one step ahead of the Cossaks, or someone like them. My paternal great-grandfather, or possibly my grandfather, changed the family name from something Russian or Polish to something very Anglo when he immigrated from Russia? Poland? to NYC. On my maternal side I was told that I have ancestors in Germany and/or France, from around Strasbourg. I find this mildly interesting and am a bit sad now that I didn't ask more questions of my parents to nail some of this down, but it also strikes me as basically unimportant. I assume my ancestors were much like most people's ancestors: they did some good and some bad things, they lived hard lives as best they could, and most of them died early. The idea that I might measure my self-worth by who they were and what they did -- even if I knew who they were and what they did -- seems ridiculous to me. I don't criticize those who do feel this way, though I might look askance at the unintended consequences of how those emotions play out in the real world. But I find those feelings puzzling. Just me, I guess.

#142 ::: oldster ::: (view all by) ::: July 05, 2015, 02:54 PM:

Socrates describes the philosopher's reaction to claims of noble ancestry:

"And when people sing the praises of lineage and say someone is of noble birth, because he can show seven wealthy ancestors, he thinks that such praises betray an altogether dull and narrow vision on the part of those who utter them; because of lack of education they cannot keep their eyes fixed upon the whole and are unable to calculate that every man has had countless thousands of ancestors and progenitors, among whom have been in any instance rich and poor, kings and slaves, barbarians and Greeks. And when people pride themselves on a list of twenty-five ancestors and trace their pedigree back to Heracles, the son of Amphitryon, the pettiness of their ideas seems absurd to him; he laughs at them because they cannot free their silly minds of vanity by calculating that Amphitryon's twenty-fifth ancestor was such as fortune happened to make him, and the fiftieth for that matter."

Theaetetus 174-175

#143 ::: Steve Wright ::: (view all by) ::: July 05, 2015, 03:30 PM:

I'm reminded of the remark attributed to Tiberius, when he gave the low-born Curtius Rufus an important appointment, and people commented on his lack of noble ancestry: "Yes, but Curtius Rufus is his own illustrious ancestor."

#144 ::: Naomi Parkhurst ::: (view all by) ::: July 05, 2015, 03:36 PM:

My family has a lot of interesting family stories (not all of them positive, either). I find them interesting not because of any sort of reflected glory, though I do have ancestors and distant cousins who did inspiring things (a paleontologist in the fossil wars, a suffragist, someone in the OSS who outfitted spies in WWII, someone who helped bring down Tammany Hall, someone who helped fight a smallpox epidemic in New Haven and arranged for inoculations, a revolutionary war soldier who played tricks on the British, family members who moved to Kansas because they were abolitionists and didn't want it to be a slave state...)

What I love about the stories is the connection to history and the past - they are first and foremost stories. But the personal connection adds an extra emotional dimension somehow and helps bring the stories home. Others of the stories help undercut modern myths about history - my great-great-great grandmother met her husband-to-be when she was working as a newspaper typesetter. This in a time period when many modern people assume that a woman wouldn't have had a job like that because of our assumptions about the past.

Many of the stories (including the negative ones) help explain certain family dysfunctions and may point to histories of particular conditions. It helps me know where certain family traits come from and help avoid particular pitfalls. (Like a medical history, but for behavior.)

But I am neither proud of my ancestors' behavior nor ashamed of it. The same man who fought the smallpox epidemic seems to have learned human skeletal anatomy by digging up an Indian graveyard. One distant relative embezzled money, fled the country, then returned to face trial. His wife left him (without benefit of divorce), and when his son went to his funeral, he discovered that his father had remarried.

These are all things that probably happened, some are documented in print by non-family members, and I think they're interesting things to know.

But my self-worth is defined by what I think of my own behavior. My ancestors might inspire me or provide cautionary tales (I stopped being a picky eater in part because of my great-great-uncle and the German nobleman), but that is all.

#145 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: July 05, 2015, 04:35 PM:

Lizzy L @141: the real benefit of pervasive welcome-to-country is that Australian children growing up in a time that includes them, canNOT fail to know that they are living on stolen land.

This is widely glossed over in the US, to the point that in some cases it requires extensive, on-paper research to even discover whose land a given spot used to be. The US has widely decided that the white settlers were the first people to be here, and that's our national narrative. The Native peoples, in all their vibrant vitality, are continually and still a footnote, a technicality, ignored far more often than included.

Even a politician whose policies comprehensively harm the existing, living Australian native peoples now feels required to speak an acknowledgement of their former sovereignty, and that changes the norms that white Aussie children are growing up with.

#146 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: July 05, 2015, 06:35 PM:

Elliot Mason at 145, I am not sure how my comment at 141 -- which was a comment about my own family history and my emotional relationship to it -- connects to political acknowledgement of the theft of land and heritage in Australia, or in the U.S. I did not intend to imply that people should not want to learn about their family history or ethnic heritage, and I am aware that the dominant narrative is, to say the least, unreliable.

#147 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: July 06, 2015, 12:57 AM:

Lizzy L: I'm wondering if Elliott Mason's @145 is actually aimed at Megpie71's @140, and somehow the scope slipped?

#148 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: July 06, 2015, 08:50 AM:

I wonder how much of the feeling of collective pride and guilt are related. Do people who are inclined to feel pride for the accomplishments of their race/nation/ancestors/religion also inclined to feel guilt for their misdeeds?

Personally, I have a hard time understanding feeling great pride or guilt at others' actions, even when the others have or had a conection to me--same race/nation/family/religion/whatever. But I will freely admit that I'm probably an outlier.

#149 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: July 06, 2015, 11:37 AM:

Argh, Lizzy L -- I was replying to 140 and missed in my attributions.

I would say "I shouldn't post in the middle of the night when sleepless," but then I wouldn't get to read much Making Light at all, so, um.

#150 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: July 06, 2015, 01:02 PM:

albatross, #148: Based on what I see online when this kind of discussion comes up, I'd say it's exactly the opposite. The people who take the most personal pride in the accomplishments of their ancestors are also the least likely to feel guilty about the bad things said ancestors did, and the most likely to take umbrage when someone else mentions said bad things. Nor should this be especially surprising; it's a self-identification thing.

#151 ::: UrsulaV ::: (view all by) ::: July 14, 2015, 11:19 PM:

@ 145 - Tell me about it. It was brutally hard to track down anything about who used to live in my tiny chunk of North Carolina, let me tell you. Eno, Shakori, and Sissipahaw, as near as the records can tell me--all words that survive in place names, but the people themselves are gone. We don't even know if they were separate groups or all bands of the same tribe, or an alliance of necessity against the powerful Tuscarora. (The Eno definitely joined up with the Catawba in 1715, but there they fade away.)

We know that they lived in wigwam-like structures, with a plastered outer layer rather than a bark one, that they moved a great deal, grew beans and corn, and pressed acorns for oil. They're one of the few Eastern outliers for the Siouan language group, but the language itself is extinct. We know that they experienced internal political strife over whether to trade with whites or not, but were eventually part of the fur and skin trade. We know the name of one chief.

But this is literally all I know, and all the internet can tell me. I'd have to go hunting primary sources and I don't even know where to start looking.

And I wouldn't even have gotten that far if I wasn't an obsessive gardener, and had been researching what the ecosystem was like before European settlement. (Fire controlled oak-savannah--but the smallpox epidemic stopped people setting the controlled burns, and it reverts to forest at a terrifying speed around here.) And we've got no records at all of what it was like before the plague, when populations would have been much bigger. There were frickin' forest bison here, for god's sake! But the records are so poor and so fragmentary and the languages are lost and nobody cares enough to make this as important as I feel like it ought to be.

#152 ::: Ginger ::: (view all by) ::: July 15, 2015, 09:51 AM:

UrsulaV @ 151: If you have any interest in looking for primary sources, I'd suggest you start by connecting with Virginia DeMarce -- she was a professor of history who then worked for the Dept. of the Interior on researching tribal histories (for tribes who want official recognition, that sort of thing). She's retired now, but I have seen her show up on Facebook, and she was part of the 1632 fandom. I'm not saying she has the answers, only that she may well know where to point you at primary sources of reliable information. She might remember my name, as we met a few times at gatherings in the DC area.

#153 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: July 16, 2015, 07:13 AM:

"I'm reminded of the remark attributed to Tiberius, when he gave the low-born Curtius Rufus an important appointment, and people commented on his lack of noble ancestry: "Yes, but Curtius Rufus is his own illustrious ancestor.""

Similar anecdote about a low-born Byzantine general meeting a descendant of the great Belisarius and remarking "The difference between us is that your great family ends with you and mine starts with me."

#154 ::: Shawn Crowley ::: (view all by) ::: July 17, 2015, 01:28 AM:

My father was Air Force. I was born in South Carolina and lived in the rural south for much of my childhood. The military was integrated and somewhat isolated from the often overt racism in surrounding civilian life. I'm old enough to recall seeing "whites only" signs and heard the word nigger on a daily basis. It was clear to me as a child that this was wrong and I don't accept the excuse that "it was just the way we were raised and couldn't know any better." Racism suited a lot of people just fine and still does.

Not all Southerners are lazy or stupid or ignorant. But the South has clung to ignorance and viciousness, not limited to racial issues, enshrining it as heritage. Nobody is responsible for their ancestors. They are responsible for themselves.

#155 ::: Bravo Lima Poppa 3 ::: (view all by) ::: July 17, 2015, 04:53 PM:

Ursula V @ 151: Have you read 1491 by Charles Mann? An amazing book in its portrayal of what the pre-Columbian Americas were like. I found it really thought provoking and periodically reread it.

#156 ::: Kay Tei ::: (view all by) ::: August 09, 2015, 02:34 PM:


Following up a little late to say: Not such an outlier but I increasingly think it is also a reflection of the local culture. I grew up on stories of "Brave Cousin George" (Armstrong Custer). As a California girl, no one around me felt any ambiguity - it was a pretty shameful connection. But in the South, where everyone has a Shameful Uncle George? It gets real normalized and not something anyone feels awkward about. And hell, if everyone has that big a skeleton in their closet, a whole entire lot of other things can look mild and excusable by comparison, especially if everyone thinks their interests are aligned with avoiding finger pointing...

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Making Light copyright 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020 by Patrick & Teresa Nielsen Hayden. All rights reserved.