One of the things I did a lot, growing up in a village and seeing the unending generations stretching back — some in the village, in various houses, some in the nearby cemetery — was to think about ancestry.
Oh, not in the sense of eugenics, though that too a bit, as anyone who grew up in farm country. But in the sense of “who was here before me?”
I still think that way a lot, hence the interest in historic fiction/non fiction, and in alternate history.
As far as I can tell we live in the world in slices of time. The world I live in is not the world my grandmother lived in. This also worries me a little, because I am one of those who believes the soul goes on, and I’d like to see grandma some day, but I’m not sure we’ll have any points of contact left, when we meet. Not that it matters. I could sell years of life just to sit in grandma’s kitchen and have tea out of the good cups just once more (after I was about about twelve she insisted on bringing them out for me and the good “bought” cookies too. Sometimes Ferrero Rocher chocolates, since we both had a weakness for hazelnuts.) But I also realize it’s probably like a two year old worrying about what he’ll do for a living. I think on the other side of eternity things are so different they’re unimaginable to us, here on this side.
So, concerning ourselves with this side, which we know we have, we live in slices in time. They overlap a little, and the physical circumstances make you think it’s all the same, but it’s not. I suspect even people who died in the mid twentieth century, were they brought forward now, would find our world hard to understand.
Anyway, when you live surrounded by the leavings of other generations: Roman mines, medieval ruins; when your walks in the woods take you into abandoned farmhouses and millhouses, it’s impossible not to think in terms of ‘where I came from’.
And when you get to meet a lot of your ancestors, either in person (we’re a long-lived family. For the much younger child of a younger child, I still got to meet one of my great grandmothers.) or in others’ stories (grandma was as close to her grandma as I was to mine, and apparently the chain goes on, ad infinitum, and so do the stories. It took me some time to realize stories of the napoleonic wars weren’t her grandmother’s but probably her granmother’s grandmother’s, though making sure of that would necessitate actually doing genealogy and I can’t be bothered.
But there was also talk about people in the village that went back generations. How do I put this? My mom’s grandmother for good and sufficient reason took off for Brazil with her husband’s best friend. Not only were all her daughters carefully studied for evidence of flightiness, but her granddaughters had to prove they were extremely pious and well behaved (yeah, mom failed that so badly. I’m a pale copy compared to mom. Mom … well, mom is mom. And if G-d in his infinite wisdom hadn’t had her be born a girl in poverty in Portugal, she’d probably be supreme leader of the world by now) or they were tarred with their grandmother’s offense. In fact the only reason I wasn’t (and I probably was a little. Only that explains the village thinking my geeky, solitary self was juggling foreign boyfriends and local ones too) is because mom moved to dad’s village, and I wasn’t in her neighborhood to be pointed out as “so and so’s granddaughter.” It helps too that unlike mom’s family which tends to the small and lythe (at least until middle age) I took after dad’s family, which tend to be tall, ungainly and of elephantine proportions. So I was more Almeida than anything else. Bookish, depressive, large, with a gift for words and just enough of mom’s nervous creative energy to run me into writing for good or ill.
You see that above? I thought of people in terms of heredity. Not unbreakable heredity as the crazy eugenicists, no. Just heredity. Because mom’s family (not unusual for their genetic origin) throws out both morons and geniuses (though I think the morons were nutritional or probably disease. But I might be wrong.) And dad’s hovers from normal to genius and back again to normal and I’m not sure why. And let’s not forget the village family that was low-normal (at best) until the farmer’s daughter met the proverbial city slicker. Her child was a prodigy. Was it his father? No one remembered him as that brilliant. Sometimes thing meet and spark in a different way. Genes, most of all. Hybrid vigor and all that.
I also grew up with a sneering disdain for the entire idea of races as separate entities, because even in the village I’d seen people who married black people from the colonies, and three generations later you couldn’t tell, and in three more it would be forgotten.
Recently I was shocked to find that your great grandkids might be only marginally related to you. Two percent or so, at a level that is barely above other people in highly genetically connected regions, like the one I came from. And my 23 and me report at the fourth level includes a lot of English, French and German people who aren’t aware of and don’t test for any Portuguese/Iberian ancestry. (Sure, ggggggggdaddy was a traveling man. Probably. Whoever the sod was. Like I know.)
It shocked me, because, as I said, in the village you thought in families. In fact, if the village still existed and hadn’t long since been subsumed into a suburb of Porto, overwhelmed with stack a prol apartments filled with “foreigners” (anyone from more than ten miles away) my kids could walk down the main street without introduction or explanation and be pointed to the family houses because “they’re Almeida right enough.” (Curiously, other than being a lot taller, they also have the same characteristics as my husband’s family. Since he recently got 2% Portuguese on his 23 and me test, I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop and determinedly staying out of “your relatives” page. Because. Look, that’s the other thing you know, growing up in a village. Everyone is cousins, it’s the degree that matters.)
Of course, your descendants can also have a lot more of your DNA. The shuffle is kind of random, and we’re in the early days of figuring out what is what, and where heredity fits in.
All this to say that it doesn’t matter.
Because, you know what? Even if you’re as close to an ancestor as to be them come again (sometimes with a sex change. If older son hadn’t been born while grandma was still alive, and got to meet her, I’d be a convert to the idea of reincarnation. In the same way, my younger son is as much my dad as someone can be while being a different person. If he’s seen dad for more than a cumulative two months (maybe) over his lifetime, I’d say he’d just modeled himself on dad. As is, nothing explains it except very odd genetics.) you live in a very different world.
Perhaps the world is more different for my kids and my parents than it would be normal, because immigration came in in the middle, as well as tech innovation. Maybe. But I think my world is that much different than grandma’s, and always was even before I came here. Look, grandma had gone to the city 20 minutes away by train a total of five or six times by the time I was in my teens. And I lived there except for sleeping. Yes, she read a lot, but it in her day it was “books suitable for young ladies” not the kind of thing I read… No judgement, just completely different.
So, even allowing heredity a lot of influence, even in the fifty some years between grandma’s birth and mine, the world had changed a lot. And the way it changed allowed me a range of options (college!) a village girl of grandma’s time never had. It closed others too, by societal disapproval. My parents would have been rather miffed if I had the grades for college prep and chose to marry in the village and work with my hands.
Our starting ideas, our options, the food we ate, everything we learned at that age before we’re fully conscious of learning, was different. Even if you grant the exact same innate interests and abilities (I don’t, I knew grandma. We were similar, but not anywhere near the same) the result would be very different. And not just in opinion but in impulse and the basic way of processing the world. (I got a good dose of mom’s temper.)
Which means, while I was very aware of my ancestors, and it amused me to find a resemblance in a portrait, or to be told I was just like paternal grandad’s mom (not the flighty one, the terrifying one, who could knit an entire sweater in an evening and kept her daughters in law in fear and awe) I knew whatever characteristics of her I had, I wasn’t her. She was in the cemetery, in a very handsome family tomb, before I was even a gleam in daddy’s eye.
There is no doubt, if you read history, that people in the past treated other people very badly. We still do, too, but I guess it’s much more awful when society is not quite so affluent and when being on the bottom can mean starving to death. It is impossible to read history, particularly primary sources, and not to be horrified.
But part of that is that we’re imposing our values on the past. Look, history is looked at backwards, while we live forward. Take slavery (I don’t want it.) Yes, it was a horrible institution. It was also pervasive in human history, and as far as we can tell pre-history, world without end. Hell, still is in well, considerably less of the world than it was, but in Africa it’s pretty much still a thing, and not just in Arab countries.
Romans had complex rules to deal with it, and lived in fear of slave revolts.
It required mental gymnastics, because it was obvious to anyone that slaves were as human as their masters, and so a complex set of rules and philosophical separations were instituted and once any idea of the equality of man (or that man ought to be equal before the law (and G-d) the whole thing was doomed, sooner or later.
Americans tend to have a bizarre idea that slavery was always by race. I blame public school. I don’t know if it’s deliberately obscured, to emphasize the specialness of racial victimhood, or just because race and slavery are so associated in American history that it overshadows everything else. (Yes, again, is it malice or stupidity? Perhaps we should formulate an axiom that sufficiently advanced stupidity is indistinguishable from malice.)
Men and women of all colors were enslaved throughout history. Heck, in the peninsula, in the long centuries in which it was a frontier between Christian and Moor, the slaving went on both ways. One of my favorite medieval “songs” starts with “To war, to war oh moors, I want a Christian slave.” The person speaking is a Christian “queen” married to a moorish “king” (whatever that meant at the time) who doesn’t trust her moorish slaves not to poison her, and so wants a Christian slave. (Yes, the story goes on to have her sister be captured and enslaved. Never mind.)
Roman slaves were often blond, and the citizens often of African origin. But even there, it wasn’t tied to race. (Though celts were apparently in general fairly cheap, from what I can figure.)
So. All of us have slave ancestors. ALL OF US. All of us have slave owners in our ancestry.
Even in the US — though rare — there were black slave owners. And if you’re going to parse quadroons and octaroons who might very well be slaves, you’re going to assume race is one-drop but only for non-white races.
Again, reparations. In the twentieth century. For evils done to people who looked vaguely like people alive today and who might or might not be their ancestors.
No? Then what? Are we going to institute a policy that everyone has to prove they have a slave ancestor? No, not every black person in the US does. Obama, for instance, mostly has slave owners in his ancestry (probably having nothing to do with his attraction to Marxism, but permit me an amused smirk.)
And there were a lot of black immigrants, too, in the last almost century. Who had no slave ancestors in the US.
Only the left who thinks in tribes (because it’s easier to make tribes into client groups, than to make individuals into serfs) could think “reparations” makes any sense.
Do black people in America as a whole suffer from the after-effects of slavery?
What? Compared to what and to whom?
Only a philosophy who thinks of people as widgets can think it’s possible for everyone to start out tabula rasa and that those of us who aren’t VISIBLY minority (well, I read minority, but that’s a whole other story having to do with the government breaking people into categories) have some kind of advantage at the get go.
We’re all individuals. What advantage did I have coming in, away from family, friends and all possible connections and at a time it was a pain to even get my education certified? Or for that matter, what advantage did I have, when most people have truly bizarre ideas about Portugal, (including but not limited to thinking it’s a country in South America.)
What advantage did my husband have, setting out into math and computer programing? His parents were not particularly interested in any of his interests. He had no head start.
Sure, a lot of people do start out ahead, with inheritance, but weirdly that doesn’t tend to help in the long run (Heinlein’s dictum about making your children’s life too easy would seem to apply.) And a lot of people start out with nothing and either climb, or more likely, stay at nothing.
None of which, in this year of our Lord 2019 seems to have anything to do with the color of your skin, or at least not in America.
If reparations made any sense, as in compensating you for the psychological wounds done to your ancestors that still hamper your progress/ability to thrive (okay, it’s unlikely but possible. Families as well as countries have cultures, and it influences you very early on) how far would they have to go. Does the baneful influence of past enslaving/oppression vanish? when does it vanish? How many generations? Should I demand the people who happen to live in Rome compensate me for some long-distant enslaved Celtic or Greek ancestor? No? How about I present a bill to Saudi Arabia for the enslaving of my ancestors? Do people now living in Portugal but descended from slaves get to present me a bill for the enslaving of their ancestors, presuming one of my ancestors was a slaver captain (maybe. I don’t know of any, and we weren’t at the societal level where we’d have a lot of slaves. But according to some accounts of 18th century Portugal even beggars had slaves), or do I get to present some other Portuguese people the bill for presumed slave ancestors?
Or how about, given the mating habits of slave owners, just pass money from one pocket to the other and pat ourselves on the back?
It is time we say enough is enough. Yes, America as founded had slavery. Yes, it was an awful thing. Yes, people bled and died to end the institution. Are we going to let the guilt mongers destroy the best thing on Earth in the name of that long ago — and expiated — sin?
Or are we going to tell them shove it, and take a long walk off a short pier?
Black, white, yellow and possibly pink pokadotted, Americans are Americans. Isn’t it enough to stop all the crazy obsession with race and the past, and instead now — at least four generations after anyone was enslaved — look at people as people? How about we yes admit that the past had horrible things in it, but also consider so does the present. We’re all human and tainted by the fact that we’re living forward and we can’t see injustices the future might find glaring.
Instead of standing in judgement of our ancestors, let’s absolve them. They were just human, doing the best they could. Sure, some were outright villains, but they’re gone now.
Our sins are ours alone, and we can only account for those.
What sense does it make to hold people whose ancestors weren’t even here back at that time for the sins of other people who looked vaguely like them? Or to consider people perpetual victims because they look like people who were victimized in the past.
I will gladly pay reparations to any slave I’ve ever owned.
I will demand no reparations for things done to my ancestors who were not me. And while I feel great sympathy for the great grandmother who took off for Brazil (her husband was a loon and inordinately fond of axes and menacing) I am not her. Her oppression and the terrible decision she made were not mine. All she contributed to me, besides a little bit of genetic material at the maybe 4th cousin level, is she might have given the village reason to get really creative with gossip about me. Which in the end harmed me not at all and provided some minutes of amusement every time it was brought up.
I am not my ancestors. Nor are you. Ancestral guilt is a lie used by would-be rulers to keep the serfs in line. It is they who ought to feel ashamed and guilty of trying to bind free men and women with the shackles of heredity, of a past they had no say upon, of a skin color they did not choose.
They, these would be masters of our fate, are in fact the same old evil in a new shiny package. (And again, it’s probably just coincidence that so many are descended of slave owners, but I’m allowed to smirk.)
We owe them nothing, except a “Leave me alone.” Nothing. They have no power over any of us, whatever our skin color.
We are Americans and therefore inheritors to freedom. They can take all those shackles and shove them where the sun don’t shine.
The shackles don’t fit. They never will.