Genealogy and Social Justice

I was a little nervous when I decided to start publishing identifying information about my slave-owning ancestors. I considered giving my brother a heads up to see if he had any feelings about me outing our forebears. Then I thought, f*$%$ that. The dead, especially the ancient dead, are fair game. I know their abhorrent behavior does not reflect on me. I also know that by being white I have massive privilege, and that the black people whose labor was stolen to build this country are to be held up and regarded with awe. Their value was so immense that the 100 year old nation had a horrible, bloody protracted war over control of it. And their power was so feared that Jim Crow was invented. I could go on.

For a time I dug into the ugliness of the past just because I felt compelled to, but it remained mostly a matter of, “omg can you believe this garbage?” Recently I stumbled onto the concept of Reparational Genealogy through this podcast. Carolyn ni Lochlainn lays the idea out with a thoroughness I won’t attempt here. Basically, because researching enslaved ancestors is difficult to say the least (white privilege again) we descendants of enslavers can contribute the information we have. The pre-Civil War record keeping that genealogists use was invented for white people and is about white people – censuses, wills, taxes, plantation records, runaway slave notices from newspapers etc.. Identifying enslavers and their exact locations along with whatever records there are of the enslaved – first names, or even just the tally marks made to count up males and females in each age group – can help people make vital connections. Descendants of enslaved people are just as entitled to know their family history as anyone else and I might have access to part of the information someone needs to put their puzzle together.

Downton Abbey taught us that “family” is not just the folks living upstairs. When we allow historical narratives to continue to stubbornly ignore with a wink the team of people that grew the tobacco, built those doggone big houses and had to stand quietly in the corner pulling the rope that worked the dining room ceiling fan, it is dishonest and brutal. I like digging into the nasty business of my slaveowners, domestic abusers and bootleggers simply because I’m not meant to see it. I don’t mean to do anything that would hurt anyone still alive, but when a historical narrative doesn’t match up with the facts or I find a pocket of time and place that is very, very silent I want to investigate. Everyone deserves the opportunity to see the whole picture and put together a meaningful narrative.

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