Family Secrets

I’ve had slavery on the brain a lot lately for some reason, and then today I found myself reading this article about the slave holding past of relatives of George Bush, although other prominent politicians were mentioned as well. I struggle with this issue, because I think that owning slaves is reprehensible, but I’m not so certain that generations of descendants should be held responsible. This is not to say that owning slaves is or ever was ok, that dragging native people from their land and breeding them to pick cotton was ok, but just that I think George Bush is not personally responsible for the fact that his ancestors were dicks.

I do think that it is important to acknowledge our slave holding past, as a nation, and that the roots of our society are based on a slave owning culture. Which is something deeply disturbing to me…and also something that I forget a lot, as odd as that sounds. I was writing an article today about the history of the cakewalk, a slave performance engineered by slave owners, and I found myself feeling faintly disgusted. “During the slave era in the United States,” I wrote, remembering that yes, there was a “slave era” and that people really did order other people around in humiliating dances for their pleasure.

The truth of the matter is that, given human nature, all of us have slave owners somewhere in our past, although my slave holding ancestors may have owned slaves thousands of years ago, rather than in 1833. It’s a sad thing to look at the people around me and wonder if my ancestors subjugated their ancestors…but their ancestors may have subjugated mine, too. Can I be held responsible for that? Should I be angry at my roommate because once upon a time someone distantly related to her might have enslaved someone distantly related to me?

I feel like that’s kind of unproductive. It’s better to make friends and work as a network now, to recognize the past and say “never again”.

An African American friend of mine is excited about a potential offer of citizenship in African nations being put forward by the African Union. On the one hand, I think it is kind of a neat idea…but on the other, I kind of disapprove. Her roots are here now. Granted, her roots are here because old dead white people captured her relatives and sold them, which is pretty fucked up, but she is American, not African. I always feel odd using the term “African American,” because it seems rather alienating to me, as though I am setting her apart from me.

Hell, her relatives were here long before most of mine…if anybody has a right to be called American, it’s her, not me.

Perhaps I’m just a naive hippie, but I feel like being colorblind is less racist than emphasizing our differences. It’s one thing to celebrate your past and culture…and another to snoop around people’s family trees for information about who owned slaves and when, or to yearn for a country that you have never been to. Hell, even Barack Obama’s family owned slaves. Should he pay reparations to himself?