I recently did a DNA test with ancestry.com. I have always wondered what my ancestry was, what my ancestors were like. Who my great-great-great-great-great grandpappy was and what he did for a living. When did my family arrive here and why did we leave where we came from? How did I end up in Oregon of all places? I know that is not where my family started, through what little education I did have I always knew that there was no way my family ended up on Oregon just by happenstance. I always wondered about the why, the how, the ins and outs of my family’s adventure to the United States.
I also always wondered, growing up, why all of the kids in my class knew exactly where they came from. Well, most of them anyway. Most of them knew exactly where they came from and why, most of them knew their roots and what their family did historically. But I found myself with a background that was, in all honesty, completely erased from history, at least to my young mind growing up. For some reason, we just never talked about where we came from, who we were before I was born and my nuclear family came into existence.
To be fair, my Mom tried hard to run from her past. I knew that the LDS side of my family tracked genealogy and lineages because, I dunno, they were into proving their close ties to people like Brigham Young and Joseph Smith. Mom, however, was abused growing up, horribly. Tortured by today’s standards. She found herself rejecting and running from all of the LDS tradition, not only because of the abuse but because of the rejection of her “lifestyle” (she is in a committed relationship with a woman and has been since 1994). So she ran. My mom used that, and my estranged relationship with my father, as reasons why she did not really know much about our family tree, let alone our ancestry and lineage. All I could really say is that I was white. And that the classmates of mine who didn’t really know where they came from were also white. For some reason, at least to my young mind, the people who came from Mexico (I live in a partially agricultural region of the Willamette Valley in Oregon, where I live we get a lot of seasonal migrant workers from Mexico whose children attended school with me), knew where they came from, what their family did, their lineages and ancestry.
It made a family tree project in 5th grade relatively awkward, if I am telling the truth. Standing up in front of a classroom of 30 students, in the halcyon homophobic days of 90s Marion Co, Oregon explaining to the class why I didn’t know much about my family tree because my mother and her partner were totally estranged from both my maternal and paternal grandparents. It was a hard, embarrassing assignment, to say the least. In sixth grade, I didn’t fair much better on an ancestry assignment. I did my best based on hearsay from my mother, but given my recent ancestry.com results…it was incredibly inaccurate, to say the least. Again, most kids in my class, it seemed to me at the time, flew past with stories about how they came from this region Spain, their great grandmother was a native of Mexico in this region. Some of the white kids also knew where they came from, but my observation from earlier held true. For the most part, the kids who “looked like me” had nary an idea about where they came from, where their family had been, who their great-great-grandparents were. What their great Uncle did at one time in the 1950s. It was as if history up to about one or two generations was completely erased for, what, half the class, maybe more. Like I said, there were plenty of children who were white passing who knew, generally, where they came from, but it was nowhere near as detailed, ingrained or apparent as it was for the children who were not white passing in our class.
I often wondered why that was. Why was it that people who looked like me did not know their own histories? It sort of remained a mystery until I started putting it all together when I got my DNA test results back.
My mom always said that she thought I was a third french, a third german and a third unknown. That turned out to be the most laughably false thing, pretty much ever. I don’t fault my mom, her childhood was awful she didn’t have time to learn or give a goddamned where Sven McHingerding fell in our family tree or whether or not we were from Germany or Britain. In her world, it didn’t matter. What mattered was seeking safety, shelter, food, warmth and love. She didn’t have time to be preoccupied with our genealogy and so she could never pass it down. My father, when he was in the picture, also had a bad childhood and was in much the same situation as my mom. So I can’t fault either of them for honestly not knowing and being wrong about our ancestry. Here is the actual breakdown of my ancestry, according to my DNA:
So, I mean, laughably wrong, right? After this little revelation about just how wrong I was about my own ancestry and bloodline, I started to think about the reasons why myself, my mom, my dad, the “white kids” in my class did not know where they came from. It brought a flood of memories back about the projects in 5th and 6th grade where I simply did not know the answer to many of the questions my teachers were asking. The C grades I attained on the project. The green tag board I used for a cute little pie chart showing “1/3 french, 1/3 german, 1/3 unknown”. The kind of inherent dread I felt even having to ask my mom about this, knowing her history of trauma even at that young age.
But it lead to questions (yes, even in my 30s I believe shit my Momma told me, sue me I love her!) about what other things my mom could have possibly been wrong about. A memory unlocked of my mother talking about race in the 90s that kind of resonated with me today. I remember she said “Son, we don’t see race in this house. Everyone is judged on their own merits, equally. We live with people of all colors and backgrounds, and everyone gets along just fine. Besides, our family came over here from Europe in like the 1900s and were poor, there is no way they owned slaves or did anything to anyone”
I gotta say, when I was young and learning about stuff like American slavery and the trail of tears, it was a comforting thought: I ain’t responsible, how the hell could I be? Besides being a kid (which was true), we were poor dirt farmers who came here in the 19 somethings, we didn’t own slaves or kill native americans or chase people around. It was almost as if that thought became my history, that we, that is, my poor dirt farming European french and germanic family couldn’t afford shoe laces let alone slaves, they were too busy farming potatoes to be part of stuff like the KKK. It made me relieved to be honest.
It was a lie, though.
Here is what ancestry.com says about my one of my family groups in the 1700s
The highlighted portion says:
These moves encroached on lands populated by Native peoples, including the Shawnee and Cherokee, lands that were seized through violent raids, treaties and questionable deals.
Sorry Mom, I love ya, but that doesn’t sound like dirt farming nobodies. That sounds like back then, we were involved in some heinous shit. And it gets worse from there. Another of my migrant groups was the Southern Backcountry to Oklahoma and Texas Settlers. They were slavers, native American murderers, confederates, land grabbers and tyrants. The other migration group I belong to isn’t much better. Same types of atrocities, a group of European settlers migrates here sometime in the 17 or 1800s, fleeing from famine, war, came over because they themselves were indentured servants, but within a generation or two became slobbering racist, xenophobic murderers on the scale of some of the worst humans in history.
Then it dawned on me: that is why we don’t know our own history. When my family came here, they were forced to assimilate, that is, become more white. Within a generation, maybe two, whiteness is conferred upon my family because they come from white, English speaking countries. But in that deal is a faustian bargain: in order to become accepted into club white, that is become “assimilated”, you must forget the old ways, the old traditions, religions, customs, and most importantly, the generational oppression that you have historically experienced. You must forget where you came from, the atrocities you’ve suffered, the famine, the powerlessness, the relocation over and over and over again. Because, in order to claim that dominion over someone else, generational empathy, generational experience has to be erased (you can’t dominate if you actually feel empathy for people of color, based on the experiences of your families past). Assimilation, while necessary (because who the hell wants to be beaten every day for being a limey or an Irishman), became a deal with the devil. My family became that which they despise, the oppressors they sought to escape, and the cycle of American racism and convenient memory loss began. And it started with the initial deal: power for your story. Power for your history. Power for your lineage. You wanna be white? You can’t retain any of that icky European “victimhood”, not if you’re gonna be part of the “master race”!
We sold our histories in order to be in the in-group. In order to be the ones with power instead of the ones without. We did it to be “us” not “them”. And in that deal we lost something very precious. Not just the ability to recite percentages of blood, or this dude begot this dude begot this dude begot this dude, but the ability to remember the struggle of our families. The ability to remember our histories.
And this carried forward to the atrocities we committed. Hell, we so easily forgot our own roots, it would be easy to commit horrible racist acts like displacing or killing native Americans or owning a slave or participating in Jim Crow style southern apartheid because all of a sudden we are “white” not a poor British person, or Irish person, or Welsh person fleeing persecution in their native land. White isn’t a race, it’s a claim. A claim on power. A claim on domination. Thats why so many of us can’t remember, because the story was never told. And the story was never told to keep the whiteness myth intact. So you never feel a connection to another human being who is going through famine or strife or slavery, because you can’t remember a time beyond that claim of whiteness. Because you gave it all up to be assimilated.
If you can walk around pretending like your hands are clean, like your family never did anything and you can’t remember anything bad you will never actually learn anything from your predecessors mistakes. The point of erasing our histories and replacing it with “whiteness” is to kick off the lie, to start the memory erasure, to make it easier to commit crimes and atrocities generation after generation.