Family Crest from South Ayrshire
While compiling and editing the research of John Thom McKinley Girvan for the booklet Girvanopedia early in the decade of the 1990s, there was some concern that our hybrid ancestry would not be accurately represented since, whereas European records could produce evidence of our Scottish forebears, documentation about our African ancestors does not seem to exist to enable us to distinguish from among the multitudes of African slaves brought to Jamaica, the anonymous individuals who have added their resilience, abilities, talents and their physical diversity to our DNA.
To acknowledge this fact, two voices from the collectivity wrote opinions with the objective of presenting a balanced approach to our nineteenth century lineage. Here are excerpts from these two longer opinion pieces:
Matters of Perspectives: 1
We do better when we know better
(Paraphrasis of Maya Angelou)
Opinion by Garry G
In the decades of the 1960s and 1970s many chuckled at a project undertaken by John Thom McKinley Girvan. The project, to document the European ancestry of his family seemed to more than a few, myself included to be pretentious and politically incorrect. At the time the civil rights movement was in full force in North America. Some wondered how a man, obviously non-caucasian, could make absraction of one part of his mixed ancestry and celebrate the other part whose values had led to the subjugation, exploitation suppression and enslavement of the other.
At the time we were all curious, in a detached kind of way, to see what John was unearthing in his single minded search among the villages of rural Scotland in the South Ayrshire region. What we were not willing nor able to express at that time was the troubling sentiment that, like it or not, we are the inheritors of very uncomfortable conflicts within ourselves. These internal conflicts have their origins in the specifics of history: that is, in our case, slavery in the New World. It is quite likely, for example, that some of our nineteenth century European ancestors were advocates of slavery. Some may even have been slave owners. Such is the human condition. Through our humanity, we are both the oppressors and the oppressed: the tyrant and the victims of tyranny. But despite our genetic duality, in a very real way there are many unbroken lines from our European past to the present expression of who we are, wherever we may be. Those lines, less obvious than our hybrid Afro-European genetics, are nonetheless pervasive for it is through the dual filters of human and spiritual values transmitted by European inculcation and our racial duality that we make perceptions about the world and lead our lives.
To tell the story of our lives is to satisfy a deep yearning in the human psyche. To find an audience interested enough in what ordinary people have to recount is increasingly difficult in our fragmented world where families are composed of small, dispersed and disembodied units, so transitory, self-absorbed and busy at survival as to rule out the possibility of the expression of our most important contribution to each other, the telling of our story. Emigration, geography, the nuclear family structure and less durable relationships have reshaped the old notion of family and made virtual strangers of us. We can, perhaps briefly, rekindle the fire and experience the warmth borrowed from our Afro-Caribbean forebears while we follow the stories first of our Scottish ancestors in the Caribbean and and then of our Caribbean ancestors to other parts of the New World.
Matters of Perspectives: 2
Opinion by Norman G.
It is important to begin by acknowledging the African connection and ancestry in the Jamaican Girvans as fully as we do for the Scottish. One of the problems I had with Uncle John’s genealogical efforts was its exclusive preoccupation with our Scottish origins. To me it smacked too much with the traditional obsession of the Jamaican browns with emphasizing white/England/Europe and denying black/Africa…It is as much a sociological and psychological phenomenon which has been much written about in the West Indies, which is why I am so sensitized about it.
In my own black power days, I was actually embarrassed and ashamed of having a name which could be traced back to to white ancestors. I see this now as going to the other extreme. I’m told that when I spent time in Senegal in the 1970s some relatives joked and said that “John is looking for his Scottish ancestors and Norman is looking for his African (ancestors).” But …we have to come to terms with who we are/were and for me the starting point is a clear and unambiguous acceptance of the two principal strains which went to make up the Jamaican Girvans.
The big question mark in our family tree is the identity of the of John Girvan the First’s children, the woman who is referred to in Inga’s family tree as “Jamaica Girl”, and does not figure at all, as far as I am aware, in Uncle John’s research. This is the missing link in that part of the chain which takes us back to Africa, and forward to the establishment of a Jamaica family with a remarkable sense of extended family and of connectedness to Jamaica.
Migration is another important question. From the 1950s to the 1980s (and beyond) there was a wave of migration principally to Canada but also to Panama, the U.K, the U.S. and even to China and Japan. Earlier in the century, the descendants of Mary Ann and Thomas had returned to Scotland then migrated to Australia. The really wonderful thing is that the extended family ties have remained strong and have even been recemented by Inga’s (in Australia) discovery of us. I believe that this comes from the strong sense of family that David and Josephine passed on to their children. We now have a challenge to pass this on to our offspring without the advantage of living in the same place. So we have to create a spiritual (place). The project is important for that reason, because with each succeeding generation memory fades and documentation becomes important.
Matters of Perspective 3
Opinion of Henry Louis Gates,
The enemy of individuality is groupthink, Gates says, and here he holds everyone accountable. Recently, he has enraged many of his colleagues in the African-American studies field—especially those campaigning for government reparations for slavery—by insistently reminding them, as he did in a New York Times op-ed last year, that the folks who captured and sold blacks into slavery in the first place were also Africans, working for profit. “People wanted to kill me, man”, Gates says of the reaction to that op-ed. “Black people were so angry at me. But we need to get some distance from the binary opposition we were raised in: evil white people and good black people. The world just isn’t like that.”
The Gift of Hybridity
A Gratuitous Remark
Our hybridity presents us with the salutary ambiguity of nuance. A tribe of many nuances of colour, we should develop understanding of humanity by examining the many nuances of context: the circumstances, the settings of a time, of place, of era, the situations that determine movements and events. The easy reductionism of racial binary inherited from the era of segregation in the U.S. has a by- product of narrowing the mind and suggesting a fundamentalist approach, assigning opposing moral attributes to each side of the binary: black and white, good and evil, cowboys and Indians, winners and losers. Reductionism also leads to inclusion and exclusion on the basis of preconceived ideas, transmitted, received and accepted without examination.