Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Made in America.

Here's a commercial that I've wanted to post about for awhile. It's promoting the website ancestry.com. The sound quality is not the greatest, because for some reason ancestry.com doesn't have this commerical on their official youtube channel. So this is just a video of someone recording the commerical off of their tv.

If you couldn't hear it, the man is saying how he was "afraid" of what he might find on the website, yet turned out to be pleasantly surprised that his relative, "was born a slave, but died a businessman."

Now, I have written before about how I feel about the word "but".
What if this guy's great-grandfather had been born a slave and died a slave? He makes it seem like the fact that his ancestor became a businessman is some sort of saving grace. Which begs the question: is there supposed to be some shame associated with being the descendant of slaves?

On a semi-tangent, one of my favorite quotes as a teenager was, It is better to die on your feet, than to live on your knees. I first heard it in a Star Trek movie. I'm not sure why I liked the quote, probably because it was all about being courageous and standing up for yourself, both things I like to try to do my own life. However, I think on some level that even at that young age, I was equating it with the black struggle for freedom.

Then I read this really thought provoking book called Sellout: The Politics of Racial Betrayal. In it, Randall Kennedy makes a really worthwhile argument about the idea of rebellion and why some blacks might have chosen not to participate, or even to inform white slave owners about plans for uprisings.

Kennedy points out that those people, (that many would call sellouts,) could have been motivated by the fact that slave uprisings were rarely successful, and often resulted in many other slaves that weren't actively participating in the uprising being severely punished. So the informant would tell in an attempt to serve what he/she saw as the greater good.

I am not saying whether that is the right or wrong way to look at the situation, just that I can understand that point of view. I suppose I am also saying that in this instance, there isn't necessarily a right or wrong side of the issue--just a lot of murky, unpleasant shades of grey.

So if we go back to my quote, we should remember that black people weren't freed from slavery because of some uprising. They were set free because of the proclamation of a white vampire hunter.

Addtitonally, if one of my ancestors had decided to die on his/her feet instead of live as a slave, I wouldn't be sitting here on the world's most comfortable couch writing this blog post--because I wouldn't exist.

As I wrote that last sentence, I started to get emotional thinking about my ancestors, whoever they might have been. I just want them to know that I appreciate what they went through, whether they died as slaves, or businessmen, or maids, or warriors, or nurses, or alcoholics, or whatever. They were all people trying to make the best out of their lives, with the resources they had available to them. And there is honor in that.

And now it's question time, dear readers...

What do you know (or not know) about your own family history? Where did you learn this information?
How do you think you would feel if you knew you descended from slaves?
How do you think you would feel if you knew you had descended from slave owners?
What (if anything,) do we learn about ourselves when we learn about our distant relatives?

Feel free to answer these questions, or tell me anything else you'd like to share by leaving me a comment.


  1. Chunk Hotzumomo3:18 PM

    Ancestry is a very perplexing idea for me. I think we all get a bit emotional when we think of our ancestors. It is certainly very common for cultures to worship them. However, I always wonder, how important are they really? The number of ancestors increases exponentially as we trace back, at the same time, the world population decreases exponentially. There is a point where these two curves cross, and you are related to everyone in the world. I just did the calculation and it is about 1150 AD. That might sound like a long time ago, but its only 29 generations. At just 7 generations, we can go back to the time of slavery (1830), and we are now talking about 1200 ancestors. If all of these ancestors were sitting in one big room, would I feel a compelling connection to them all? Would there be something I can learn about myself by getting to know all 1200 life stories? Maybe. But that is a lot of people. I would guess the themes of their stories would be much the same themes of any large group of people's stories. Be honest, love your neighbor, dont be greedy, etc. I am just not sure the concept of ancestry has anything more to tell us than the concept of being human.

    Of course, if a good deal of the 1200 people are slaves, that is quite a bit different than a good portion of the 1200 being slave owners. Not so much in the life lessons learned, but more in the socioeconomic sense. I would guess the 1200 slaves would have a lot more wisdom to pass down due to the greater hardship. In that way, being descended from salves might mean one is from a wiser cultural background. That might be okay for me to say because it is positive, but it also seems racish since I am attributing a value to a group a people who are black. Ancestry and race seem to very intimately tied, if not the same thing.

  2. Anonymous10:53 PM

    I haven't given much thought to ancestry. I don't feel I have much to learn from someone I didn't know.

    To answer your questions:

    - I do know that it is very likely that my ancestors were slaves, although I don't know much about my family history.
    - What I do know was passed down to me from living relatives as opposed to a money-making website.
    - I do feel a degree of shame knowing that I probably have ancestors who were slaves. It's kind of inexplicable; I wish I had a heritage that would make me feel proud. I think to allow yourself to be dominated by another person is shameful, but I know the reality is they didn't "allow" anything. On the other hand, there are probably some white people out there who feel ashamed their ancestors were slave owners.
    - I believe we learn not to allow history to repeat itself, and to act early and decisively as a group to prevent that from happening. Change is slow, but some change is better than no change.

    I'm gonna stop here before it gets too long to read.

  3. Anonymous9:30 AM

    1) I know that my ancestors were vampire hunters.

    2) I learned that from my dad.

    3) This is a really tough one to answer as a white man. I think a lot of white people have these moments where they wish they were black (I know I have) so they could not always be seen as the over dog and the cause for other peoples' problems. It seems nice to think about being part of a struggle and taking down the system. If I am being honest with myself I could probably boil these thoughts of struggle down to "I wish I had an excuse for all this shit going on in my life". It does not make me proud to write that but it's probably closer to the truth. Even if I really was infatuated with the struggle for equality of being black it's still a weird way to look at things. I'm sure there are not many homosexual men who say "I'm really not that into men but I love the way all of these politicians single me out and these homophoves want to beat the shit out of me because I exist". No, you're gay because that the way you are and the struggle is an unfortunate part of the package.
    I guess if I were descended from slaves I would accept that as part of who I am and not be proud or ashamed instead see my ancestry as an unfortunate truth that humans still have some evolving to do.

    4) I wouldn't bring it up at parties.

    5) I honestly don't know, I have never taken an interest in my ancestry. Maybe that comes when people get older.

  4. I don't know anything about my family history on my father's side beyond his mother. My paternal grandfather died when my father was one. I don't know anything about my family history on my mother's side beyond my grandmother's mother.

    I don't think I'd really feel anything in particular to learn that I descended from slaves or slave owners. It just be.

  5. Anonymous1:46 AM

    To 5280tech: You wrote: "If I am being honest with myself I could probably boil these thoughts of struggle down to "I wish I had an excuse for all this shit going on in my life". It does not make me proud to write that but it's probably closer to the truth."

    You'd be surprised how common your thoughts are.

    ...and LUIPOM (laughing until I pee on myself) about #4

  6. I love history and reading other peoples' family history. Too bad that my family weren't good record keepers. My mother's family has lived in this part of the country longer than anyone can remember. There is Cherokee blood, but not formally documented. I wish I had asked my father more while he was alive. He said his ancestors were among the settlers of Cape May, NJ, and the women had a reputation for being "blue stockings"(an early indicator of the bookishness than runs in the family), and that his father was a coal miner in Colorado in the time of Mother Jones. One of our family keepsakes is an old, horribly tattered set of the works of Shakespeare that belonged to him. It is fascinating to me how much he must have loved books to have owned these as an impoverished miner in that time.

    My husband's family were much better historians. We have a copy of a huge book telling the history of his mother's mother's family from the time three French Huguenot brothers immigrated in the mid 1600's, a booklet his mother compiled about her father's family, and a handwritten book by his paternal grandmother about the history of the family in Ireland.

    I don't know why anyone would feel shame that some of their ancestors were slaves. I'd be more likely to feel pride that my lineage survived, in spite of slavery. We can't take credit for our forebears accomplishments, or be held accountable for their failures. What was, was. History is only interesting if it is truthful. The big book about my mother-in-law's family includes lots of old documents, including household inventories that included a few slaves. If the writer had buried this information, it would have compromised the integrity of the history.

  7. When I became a mother I realized that I cared a lot more about my family history because I feel such an interest in my children and I will definitely want to live my life so they have better lives and also look after them after I die. Does that sound creepy or what? I think that our ancestors care a lot more about us than we may about them. The truth is that they are part of who we are and what exactly we are doing in our lives now. I have always been horrified at the thought that I would have slave owning ancestors. My mother recently found out that we had an ancestor who owned 1 slave. We were really sad and who knows what it was really like, but it is a part of history that makes me super sad. :( I guess we don't understand everything.

    Also, Lane (my 7 year old) and I just finished listening to "Addy" the American girl doll's story. Have you read that? I would be fascinated to know what you thought! It was pretty real. So real, I wondered if it would affect they way Lane saw herself. I read in "The Tipping Point" that if you don't tell your children about racism that they are more likely to be racist and so I have always told her about what happened in the past and how sad and horrible that was. Interestingly she saw no relationship to the mean, white slave owner. In fact, she went out and played "slave" in the back yard and gathered firewood. She was the slave. She related to Addy much more than the "white people." I feel the same way!

  8. For most of my life I didn't know anything about my heritage. I started digging around a bit over the past year, and haven't been able to find much. But I did have a laugh.

    I found a book that showed people how to handle finding unsavory characters in their family tree. That made me realize I have the opposite problem! I'm assuming my entire family tree is rotten, and would be delighted if anything good came tumbling out.

    But no one in the genealogy world seems to have written a book yet to help me "adjust" to finding positive ancestors. :-)

    I have learned that I have Irish ancestors on my mom's side. But there's overall complications, hints of violence. And it's shady. My dad's dad has two dates of birth listed with social security. My people are driving me to dead ends, and I'm still in the immediate circles!

    You know, my dad's side of the family is shady enough that I figured they owned slaves. But my girlfriend says they might have been too poor for it. Who knows..and I'm not sure how it will make me feel till I get there.

    I'm not sure what I'm hoping to find or learn about myself by going on this quest. Maybe part of it is just to get back at my dad's side for all the elementary school family tree assignments they embarrassed me on by refusing to tell me anything other than "We're American".

  9. I would like to know more about my ancestors. Beyond my mom's mom, my relatives were not good at story-telling.

    I don't think my ancestors were slaveowners because they were all yankees, but I imagine it would be hard to deal with if that were the case.

    I did go through ancestry.com with my grandparents 3 years ago, and it was really interesting. We discovered that someone on the site claimed to be the illegitimate child of my grandma's uncle and she was very shocked . . . gotta be careful when digging for dirt!