Reflections: Genealogy and Hybridity
Context is important
Over 50 years ago, long before the current wave of popularity in genealogy, an uncle from the Caribbean undertook a project to document the European ancestry of our family. At the time black consciousness in North America was in its ascendancy and after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in April 1968, the accumulated injuries from more than 250 years of the many atrocities of Black slavery and of the century of post emancipation exploitation and repression would culminate in a variety of expressions of discontent and anger.
Violence flared in many cities in the U.S.A. International awareness about the marginalization of blacks throughout the institutions in the U.S.A. was elicited from the salute to black power on the podium at the Olympic games in Mexico City in October 1968 by medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos.
Given the political ambiance of the times, the project of ferreting out the caucasian ancestry in our genealogy was difficult to understand. My uncle was quite obviously non-caucasian. It was hard to understand how he could make abstraction of one part of his mixed ancestry and celebrate that culture whose values had led to the exploitation, suppression and enslavement of the other part. If not profoundly offensive to our sense of the appropriate at that time, his genealogical passion was that of one who did not quite get the fact that context is important.
Many in our family were curious, in a detached sort of way, to see what this uncle had unearthed in his single minded search in the rural villages of Scotland where the family records of some of our European ancestors were stored. What we were not willing nor able to express is a troubling sentiment that, like it or not, we are the inheritors of very uncomfortable conflicts within ourselves. Although these conflicts have their origins in history, specifically in slavery, we must relive the conflict through the ambivalence which we bring to everyday decisions. It is quite possible, for example, that some of our European ancestors were advocates of slavery, although we know that our nineteenth century Scottish ancestors were quite inclusive. They did not restrict the transmission of their DNA to the caucasian population; a “Jamaica Girl” made her colourful and dramatic appearance, disturbing some of the leaves on some branches of the family tree soon after the arrival in 1825 of John Girvan from South Ayrshire, Scotland.
Mixed blood ancestry points out the absurdity of setting up binary categories where the existence of one element automatically excludes the other element of the binary. Black ancestry does not exclude white: white ancestry does not exclude black. In genealogical terms hybrids simply point out an obvious element of the human condition as it relates to the institution of black slavery in the Americas: we are both the oppressors and the oppressed; we are both the tyrant and the victims of tyranny. Hybrids in the Americas cannot ignore their European ancestry. In a very real way there are unbroken lines from our European past to the present expressions of who we are wherever we are in the Western world. Those unbroken lines, less obvious than our hybrid Afro-European or Amerindian genetics, are nonetheless pervasive, for it is through the filters of all the traditions of western thought transmitted and inculcated in our families and in our institutions, especially schools and churches, as well as through our racial duality that we lead our lives, assert our moral and ethical values and make perceptions about the world.
More Matters of Perspective
Call it synchronicity, call it serendipity, but the recent discovery of some of the descendants of my Mother’s American family and some of my Father’s family coincided with the PBS presentation of Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s production of The African-Americans, Many Rivers to Cross which also coincided with the Massey Lectures on CBC (The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) presentation of Blood:The Stuff of Life with Lawrence Hill, author of a recent bestseller, The Book of Negroes. Something was in the air these last few weeks. But then again, something is always in the air if your antennae are sensitive enough to detect its vibrations.
In both media presentations I found myself pulled back to the 1950s when I first emigrated from the Caribbean to Canada. I found that some images are powerful enough to reopen old psychological wounds and graphic enough to bring back situations which had been covered over with the patina of 60 years of mundane but normal living. Watching the Henry Louis Gates Jr production I was once again forcefully brought to the realization that psychological wounds go deep, very deep: composed of a tsunami of tears shed by multitudes of people, over many generations; How deep? ask how deep of any Aboriginal anywhere, ask any suppressed and marginalized people. Deep… deep and durable.
The American Experience production on PBS, shows those quintessential scenes of brutality: the KKK, black bodies hanging from trees, a mob in attendance, with fearful, rabidly angry people invested in sending, through the savagery of their actions, a message about enforcing the servility that they had assigned to others. Some scenes reveal aspects of a kind of grim community event, a macabre football tail gate party at some rural crossroads in the U.S. South before the bowl game pitting the Saints, lily white and free of taint, against the tainted, tinted Redskins or the Brownskins or the Blackskins.
Later in the battles to retain segregation in schools in the South, the Gates production shows angry young, presumably decent white women with babes in their arms and their five year old kindergarten children hanging on to their skirts: mothers, the paragons of maternal devotion, sheltering their infants from the little, braided coloured aliens invading their elementary school accompanied by armed Federal Marshals.
What good is a thought if no one hears it?
(From the mouth of Dune Macdonald, my 12 year old Grandson)
- About these issues of race and injustice, just thinking some things and leaving them unsaid is simply to allow an endless status quo: saying nothing is to remain stuck in an endless loop of unresolved concerns. Time does not heal all wounds; some wounds are exacerbated over time. Letting sleeping dogs lie does little to resolve some of the intractable psychological roadblocks which stand in the way of full and healthy participation of individuals in the life of their communities. Through the PBS American Experience Production; The African American; Many Rivers to Cross, I learned that some manifestations of the American experience reveal that the Uncle Sam of history on some counts can be called what his current Islamic enemies call him “The Great Satan” whereas, in Uncle Sam’s claims of “American exceptionalism”, he has defined himself as “The Great White Hope” for humanity. Somewhere in between those two polarities, human beings, their societies and institutions reveal themselves, not in black and white, but in a variable palette of nuances: fifty shades of brown.
- Slaves were emancipated in 1833 in the Colonies of the British West Indies. Slaves were emancipated in the United States in 1863 after a wrenching internal struggle, the Civil War, an event of seismic proportions whose aftershocks were still reverberating more then a century after emancipation. The U.S.A. was late coming to the party for freedom in the nineteenth century and even towards the end of the twentieth century the “Land of the Free” was still more rhetoric than reality. Did the election of Barack Obama signal a beginning of the end to the aftershocks?