Theft of Ancestors

A thing I find really infuriating and heartbreaking is when black people contact me about something I’ve written about that relates to their family because this is the first they’ve heard of someone who knows something about their relatives.

They’ve been told that there’s basically nothing. And there is next to nothing, but not nothing. There are places to dig, things to know. And even when we don’t have specific stories about particular people, we certainly know enough about the circumstances in which people were enslaved to make broad generalizations.

This morning, I was contacted by a black Douglas. I could tell her that, if she wanted to come to Middle Tennessee, she could certainly still see the things her people did–the churches they built, the roads they cleared, the houses, the city.

Denying that to people… it is genocidal. I don’t say that lightly, but stripping people of their ancestors, denying them the stories–for better or for worse–of their people is an ongoing attempt to destroy them.

I don’t think this mess can ever be fixed. I’m a little jealous of people who think we just need to tear everything down and start over, because there is no clean slate. As long as there are people, there’s people, you know? Revolutions presuppose that we can somehow escape that.

But we can’t. There are no fresh starts. Not really. This is what we have. There’s no escaping it.

One thought on “Theft of Ancestors

  1. Theft of ancestors is a good way to put it.

    I’ve told colleagues from China the story of the Flying Tigers and how a vast network of ordinary Chinese citizens, including women, children, and the very old, were able to watch the skies and pass information so fast that a tiny group of pilots and planes could take on the bombers of Imperial Japan, at its most terrifying, over the vast landscapes of China…and never be defeated in combat. And every time, they’ve been astonished — they haven’t heard this story of the incredible work of their antecedents not even all that long ago. “Theft of ancestors” is how a lot of them feel about how government policies have deprived them of their own history, even recent history.

    An unbroken cultural narrative isn’t something we think about much, is it? It’s something you can easily have and take for grated even if you don’t know that much about your own specific direct ancestors. I went to museums with Chinese friends, and in certain rooms they’d ask me how I was able to tell them so much that wasn’t written on the placards about certain artifacts or what certain elements of paintings meant. And then they were surprised that I was surprised by the question — the paintings I was narrating were biblical scenes mainly, plus depictions of famous Greek myths or historical events, so for a moment I couldn’t come up with an answer better than, “I just grew up knowing these things.” And that was something they didn’t have — an unbroken link of the stories down the centuries so that they could simply glance at a centuries-old painting and know what it was all about. Or an unbroken line to the spirituality of their ancestors and the stories that went with it.

    My Irish dance teacher when I was a teen made me learn some things I thought were a bit odd, but she said I had to know where they came from, since they were about trying to keep the secrets of a hidden culture alive while a genocidal power tried to stamp out every trace of that culture. Because there were too many questions she had to answer with, “No one knows.”

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