Friday, May 01, 2009

The "Dark" Side of My Family History

Several years ago as part of a workshop on Family Systems, I did an extensive history on my family of origin. With the help of an aunt on my Dad’s side, and an uncle on my Mom’s side, I was able to pull together a rather impressive history of the various strains of the Boyd and Mullins families from which I come. A few years after that, at a Boyd family reunion, I presented a booklet to all the members of my extended family with the history all written out. While the history is mostly complete, there have always been some gaps in the story that I have wanted to research more fully and try to fill.

However, recently I have begun to think that there probably is huge gap in my family history that I, like most white Americans, not only have missed, but have purposely ignored. This “dark” side of my history came to my attention through the reading of two books. The first book, The Hidden Wound, is an extended essay by Wendell Berry written first in 1969 and then updated in 1989. In this reflective piece Berry describes his childhood experiences on his grandfather’s Kentucky farm where there lived and worked an older African-American man named Nick Watkins, and his common law wife Aunt Georgie. Berry recalls the closeness he felt to Nick, even while his white family members urged him not to get to close to “the good nigger,” as he was called. Writing nearly 20 years later, Berry returns to those childhood memories to reflect on the nature of racial relations in his native Kentucky, as well as in the United States as a whole. Only upon reflection does Berry realize how unaware he was of the strict lines of separation between black and white during his 1940’s childhood and how his destiny and Nick’s were predetermined by the racial apartheid of that era.

The second book, Slaves in My Family by Edward Ball, is even a more intriguing look at family history vis-à-vis the legacy of slavery. Ball’s story begins at a family reunion in Charleston, SC, where his forbears had been wealthy plantation owners from the 1600’s to the early 1900’s. While the family myth indicated that the Ball ancestors were wealthy slave owners, the myth also said that “they treated their slaves well.” Edward Ball wanted to find out if that was true, and went on a quest to retrace the family histories of the slaves that worked in the rice patties of his ancestors’ plantations. In the course of his study, Ball not only found many cases of white brutality and slave rebellion, but also was able to discover cousins whose line traced back to the illicit and forced sexual relations between the white master and his female slaves. Along the course of his journey, Ball encounters anger and resistance from both white and black, who neither know nor want to know that sordid side of their history.

Now on the surface of it, my family and the families of Wendell Berry and Edward Ball, have little in common. They both hail from the segregated South, whereas my forbears came from England, Scotland, and Ireland by way of Massachusetts, Connecticut, Ohio and Delaware. There is not hint of slave-owning in any of my background, and the ones who settled furthest south in Delaware were Quakers, who were the earliest religious groups to become abolitionists. There is even some evidence that one side of the Ohio family may have participated in the Underground Railroad. So why the concern?

Through my re-reading of US social history, I have become increasingly aware of not-so-veiled prejudice against African-Americans that existed in the North. Moreover the settlers in New England were well-known and proudly so, for their removal of Native American tribes from the whole region. The North regarded African slaves and America’s indigenous people as sub-human and thereby justified their violent treatment of them. While I was quite aware of this history, until reading Berry’s and Ball’s reflections on their own families, I had not thought to personalize this social history and see the degree to which my family might also have a sordid side that I and my ancestors had conveniently overlooked and ignored.

In reflecting on his own history, Berry writes of his “hidden wound,” the legacy of racism that has divided him from his African-American friends. He writes: “I knew well that racism had caused pain to black people, but I knew too that it been a cause of pain to white people – it been a cause of pain to me – and not just because of guilt. I knew that for white people it had involved loss and spiritual disfigurement” (pp. 110-111). While I would never suggest that the loss and pain of white people can even begin to approach that inexorable suffering of the ancestors of my African-American and Native American colleagues, I can attest to the sense of spiritual disfigurement and loss of identity cause by the history of racism of which Berry speaks.

W.E.B Dubois, the brilliant thinker and founder of the NAACP of the last century, wrote about the double-consciousness that all people of color have to master in this society. In Souls of Black Folk, he writes: “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. [The black person] ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” In my own way, I have realized I too have had to develop a double-consciousness of my own. On the one had I go through my days seeing myself in light my “official” history that points me out as a white person with a legacy of white privilege and power. On the other hand, while acknowledging that history I am actively trying to re-imagine myself and live a life where I don’t rely on the racial power, status and privilege my skin color and social class afford me. This second part of my double-consciousness challenges me each day as I realize how consistently and subtlely I am afforded advantages simply because I am a white, middle class male. Like most white people, I am hesitant to look too deeply into my family history for fear that I will discover what I intuitively already know: that the “success” of my family was bought and paid thru the suffering of others, a suffering my family directly or indirectly inflicted.

Despite my hesitation, I am now also curious to revisit my family history, and like Wendell Berry and Edward Ball, try to see that history in the larger socio-economic context of its day. No doubt in that search, I may find a dark side of my family history that has been ignored and forgotten.

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