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.

I took a DNA test turns out I am 100% yrmama


In 1989 yrmama lived in St. Louis and someone left a message on her answering machine about doing genealogical research on the Clopton family in that area. As a heedless youth, she didn’t call him back, but she sure would now. In those olden days people had to do things like call all the Cloptons in the St. Louis phone book to find anything out. I did know from working with school field trip groups in my job at the science museum that there was a Clopton school somewhere nearby, which was surprising, and that all the teachers and students were black, also surprising. I thought Clopton meant Iowa and we all know that is likely to mean white. Then I did other things for about thirty years.

It turns out that there are a whole lot of Cloptons who don’t live in Iowa and who are not white. My father was Edwin Clopton, as was his father who went by Bill. From there on back is a long string of Williams, Johns, and Roberts and Davids. Most of them were named William and I’m not even kidding. Maybe that’s why Grandpa was Bill. Going backwards there are five generations in Iowa, a couple in Hart County, Kentucky, then Virginia. Virginia tobacco plantations all the way back to Jamestown in the early 1600’s.

I’m now obsessively compiling information about my enslaving Clopton forebears and the folks they enslaved. Thank you, internet. I’m not sure exactly why, but I want to know which ancestor in my direct paternal line was the last to own slaves. I believe it had to either be John Robert Clopton (1760-1830), or his son David Clopton (1794-1865). Both of them were born in tobaccoplatationland, New Kent County, Virginia and moved westward during their lives. John Robert settled in Hart County, Kentucky, a slave state, but with a different flavor, I think. Young David moved on from Kentucky into Missouri, into Iowa about 1850, and then retired and died back across the Mason Dixon line in Missouri. One of David’s sons, Robert Clopton (1823-1865?) even fought for the North in the Civil War and died in combat in southern Illinois. That’s quite an expanse of reality for David although I don’t know what he thought of any of it.

So David. John Robert. Which of you pulled the plug? I want to know why. Why did you give up that evil gravy train? Was it economics? Was it downward mobility? Did the overwhelming westward ho mood inspire you to liquidate and put all your capital in expansionist adventure? Did you suddenly turn into an abolitionist? What the heck were you thinking? Did you have any idea that the next five+ generations of your lineage would pat the too-inquisitive on their tow heads and say, “we don’t talk about that”?

What’s a good look for the day after an impeachment?

source: Terribly Cute

I’m not even kidding, but the sun came out. Everything in the world feels more relaxed. I had the House impeachment debate on in the background all day yesterday because it just seemed like the kind of event I should acknowledge. But today we can move on. And I’m still burnt out on politics. But will watch the stupid debate tonight anyway.

So the look for today is navy blue cotton leggings (Kohls 2016), a very thin navy blue striped sweater (Goodwill clearance) and a spectacular pair of robin’s egg blue boots.


When one’s feet look this good, what else does one need? yrmama has always been all about having fun getting dressed, but the combo of these magical boots and my polished wood cane led the mind beyond.

Last summer at an Ehler’s Danlos syndrome conference there were a bunch of wheelchair riders, brace wearers and cane walkers. The more assistive equipment one had – a scooter, oxygen tank, iv pole – the more aggressively cute the personal style. Bright red lipstick that said, “I know you just want to talk to my service dog but hey, I’m the person here and you have to look at my face.” A pink wig that said, “I know you want to stare and think it’s awkward that I’m using a chair, but goddamit, look me in the eye.” Same for fantastic shoes, or a beautiful vintage dress with crinolines. An effective way to get people to stop fixating quite so much on your unusual circumstance is to draw even more attention to yourself. “If you’re going to look, I’ll give you something to look at.” Or maybe, “This light is going to shine so bright that the glare in your eyes will make you forget everything but me.”

Burnout is real

I’m am exceptionally disillusioned with politics right now – this thing is taking sooooo long and the UK just gave old Boris a big wet smooch. I mean, we didn’t think Donald could win, but he did. We’re counting on him losing again, but maybe it’s more likely he won’t. And whoever wins, half of us will be flipping out and having a huge panic attack as if it’s not our fault. We are a species not very good at looking at the big picture, after all.

But here’s what I never get burned out on. My torch. I get to use it to pop bubbles in the epoxy resin I pour over my crazy little assemblages of ephemera.

This Sucrets tin has an initial layer of resin curing around a Shrinky Dink lady smoking in her mid-century magazine living room. I’m not sure yet where we’re going with that. But lotsa smokers sucked on Sucrets back in the day.
This battered Belmont Household Nail Box features two models presenting a painting of some mountains in China above a layered pool of jewelry fragments and glitter. The final layer of resin covers some tissue paper scraps that help the glitter not be too shiny. You know, keep your light under that barrel.

You might fairly ask, “but yrmama, what kind of passtime is this nonsense for an over-educated white lady like you? Can’t you get a job? Or play golf?” And yrmama will calmly remind you, “ars longa, vita brevis, bitch,” even though she can’t really speak Latin. Because no one can you ding-dong.

Play on, dreamers

yrmama and JM biked to brunch. Identical meals – hardened, folded-over egg lay on our plates, inside the fold was chilly pico de gallo, rubbery once-melted cheese and a TON of big ‘ol cubes of pork belly (aka bacon). No home fries. No toast. So what did we do with those repulsive “omelets?” We cleaned our plates and paid. Then outside we said, “omg, that was so bad!” I still feel sick when I think of what I ate that day.

Maryland Science Center

Now you might say, “But yrmama, surely you noticed the omelet was not your cup of tea before you ate the WHOLE THING.” And I would reply, “We were talking about Pete! Maybe I didn’t notice.” Then you might say, “yes, but this was egregiously bad food. You still feel sick from it.”

Fine, but JM and I were taught to clean our plates NO MATTER WHAT by genuine Great Depression survivors, including congealing disgusting meat bits. If there’s a little mold, trim it off. Sure the texture may have gotten strange, but there’s still flavor in it. JM so terrorized our own children with this ethic that I still regularly find thimble-sized plastic containers holding one or two bites of long ago dinners stashed in the refrigerator for “later.” These are bites they have no intention of eating but are afraid to scrape directly into the compost bucket.

Now with my dotage on the far horizon a crazy idea has dawned: when there is a decision to be made or a plate to clean I can ask myself, “what is in my best interest right now?” I fell out laughing when I first tried that question on for size. Ludicrous! What’s best for me? Without considering all of you? The interesting thing is that my own best interest in any given moment leads to pretty good decisions.

I know you are shocked by this. yrmama is so full of good advice. She appears oddly youthful and shiny. She is beyond reproach, omniscient and omnipotent. How can she have been walking around for decades with such a log in her eye? She doesn’t seem like a doormat.

It’s hard to know how to prepare for life as a human. Is yrmama a ruse? Are we in a waking dream? Could we pretend to be as well as we wish to be? Play on, dreamers. Onward and upward.

Amy, the Young Boomer

The other day a dear friend of yrmama’s turned 84, not 64, 84. Before we spent his entire birthday dinner talking about Pete, he told me he’d like yrmama to say more about Amy.

Well, Amy has the best of all the campaign colors – bright green – hopeful, down to earth, intense and yrmama’s favorite color.

Star Tribune

Amy has a robust Angela Merkel vibe, and a bit of Jimmy Carter.

Amy looks like yrmama and that’s a very good thing. The first time I saw her in person she walked right up to me as she entered the room, even though I was sitting in a stupid folding chair, shook my hand and introduced herself. 10 points!

Amy has the upper midwestern pragmatic, no-frills, nails for breakfast approach to politics layered over formidable intelligence, experience and leadership that any politician would pay a bundle for if they could sit down in a salon chair and say, “just give me an Amy.”

I would be thrilled to have Amy as president, but I think better yet, as Pete’s vice president for eight years and then president.

Amy’s commendable youthfulness is worth another 20 points. She was born in in 1960, which keeps her from being one of the “old yelling white guys” that has dominated our country for too long.

Our friend Elizabeth (1949) totally counts as an “old yelling white guy.” She jogs down the runway to the stage, pumping her gloved fists in the air to demonstrate her vigor and focus on fighting. I love Elizabeth, but if she won even she would be the oldest president ever elected to office. And she’s an old yelling white guy and it’s time to be done with that.

Joe, six years older than Elizabeth, also jogs around the stage bouncing as though he’s entered a boxing ring. He pauses to do wave-and-points into the crowd, as if he could see that far.

Donald, W, and Bill were all born in 1946. Barack (1961) gave us a tantalizing taste of generational change, but with Donald’s electoral-college-only victory we were back to the 1946ers. They are old enough to be Amy’s father. They are old enough to be Pete’s grandfathers. I think the old guard boomers have had their turn and we are ready for leadership that looks into the future. Beating Donald isn’t enough if we don’t want to just swing back to another 1946er in another four years and we shouldn’t settle for that. We need leadership that will help us start building out what comes next.


The Shallow Truth About Depth

It’s kind of nobody’s business how anyone does their makeup, and it’s a super duper shallow thing to comment on. There is nothing remotely Quaker about it. At the same time, since it is so fundamentally shallow, does it really matter if yrmama has something to say about it? She was going to compare the appearance of Nancy’s eyes to Donald’s but that’s dumb so instead we will will focus on her own:

As a white person ages the hair and skin all even out into a sad, dull beige. The flesh that has not melted into bloated blobbishness creases, leaving one with the face one deserves, based on the accumulated ratio of smiling to sneering or lip-pursing.

You might say, “But yrmama, that is a remarkably fresh, plump and colorful eye socket-region there in that photo. What the heck are you talking about? Certainly not personal experience.”

Aha. This is a photographic record of my eye-socket region as an art project. In my youth I had visible eye lids. I had honey-kissed tresses. Were you to see the before shot you would register a nice chunk of silly-putty with a blue circle in the center, very one-dimensional, and a colorless, straw-like fringe of “hair” above.

The rich hue of yrmama’s hair is now from henna. That’s easy. But the three-dimensional eye-socket area shown above required a Google how-to and a shopping trip. This effortless, natural appearance involved deft application of primer (not even kidding), three shades of brown eye-shadow, brown mascara, brown liquid eyeliner and “moonbeam” colored highlighter.

When I was teaching myself how to paint faces with oils I marveled at the way I could sculpt something that appeared three-dimensional on a flat surface with color alone. Then I began to notice the eye-socket areas of ladies on television when they blinked – it looked like there was a dark line drawn in an arch between the crease of the eye and the eyebrow, like a drawn on second eyebrow. I also read that studies have found that humans find faces of other humans most attractive when there is a lot of contrast between the features and the more featureless expanses of skin. These revelations led to today’s art project.

Now it’s your turn. Was it worth it? Is makeup a sign of spiritual bankruptcy?

yes, there was granola at Woodstock

yrmama “watched” the debate last night from the floor, right under the television. As I let gravity try to coax my wonky joints into alignment I closed my eyes and allowed the sweet, smart voices to swirl around my head and mix in with the deep breaths intended to aid gravity and perhaps alleviate the ongoing pain of an upper spine made of corn flakes and Elmers glue.

Observed: Corey and Pete’s voices are a lot alike. And Amy, oh Amy, her accent just sounds like home to me.

While I would still be happy for any of them to serve in the white house (ugh. Joe.) I have a new vision. Amy and Pete. Pete and Amy. Arguably the two smartest candidates on the stage who both make me feel safe and secure. Lets see what it’s like for the country to be led by the idealistic pragmatism that typifies what I love about the upper midwest! What if the president and/or the vice president (talking about Amy here) looked and sounded that much like yrmama? Wouldn’t that be something?

Everyone pushing 80 needs to go home and sign up for a Silver Sneakers exercise class and I’m not even kidding. They think they’re all that, but they have to get over their arrogance about being young in the 1960’s or whatever it is. There’s nothing wrong with that, but they aren’t the only worthwhile humans.

Unicorns and Outlaws

yrmama nearly captured a unicorn today. A nice young man spoke of Donald in an unexpectedly admiring way, betraying himself with a bit of scoff at “the progressives.” I was slow though, I should have pounced on the opportunity with a casual, “Oh, you like Donald? What do you like about him?” Don’t know when we’ll have another chance like that. So rare around here.

Domechino 1602

Back to outlaws. I’ve been thinking a lot about what distinguishes an “outlaw” from someone who breaks the law for evil/greedy purposes. Or, as I remember my Grandma saying, “there are the in-laws and then there are the out-laws.”

I needed only re-consult Still Life With Woodpecker : Tom Robbins (via the Woodpecker, Bernard Mickey Wrangle) says the difference between an outlaw and a criminal is that an outlaw is never a victim. Outlaws obey no rules and they don’t turn around and impose rules of their own. They exist and operate on a rarified plane beyond the law. Tom says that love is the ultimate outlaw. It never plays by the rules.

I think victimhood is something that happens in your head. It’s like suffering – there is an important difference between acknowledging pain and suffering pain. You can acknowledge pain’s existence and respond appropriately without making it part of your identity. Someone can tie a dead chicken around your neck in an attempt to humiliate you, but you can say, “Hey, I hate having this dead chicken on my neck,” without lying down and saying “oooo I’m a victim”

Donald complains about being a victim all the time. And not to get all Christian and heavy-handed on you because that is not yrmama’s brand, Jesus never complained about being victimized.

So yes, I think we can retain our admiration for the outlaws – John Brown, my great great grandfather Samuel McCollough, Robin Hood, Mohandas Ghandi, Harriet Tubman, Jesus, Rosa Parks etc etc without completely exonerating them of any concomitant assholery. It’s not about being and asshole or not or about the breaking of laws, it’s about purity of intention, even in narrow instances.

Kinda Loud

A youthful and markedly reserved household member today shared, “yrmama. Three signs might be too much. It’s kind of loud. I’m not really a sign dude.” To which yrmama replied, “Dude. I know. If it was entirely up to me I might have no signs at all.” It feels very flamboyant, three of them out there, stretched along a long curve in the road. But for Pete’s sake (see what I did there?), here on the verdant left edge of academic suburbia no one will get too riled. This is a demonstration of a strong marriage, of bending ourselves to make up for each other’s eccentricities. The youth of America need to see how that works.

I’m mostly sobered and worried by Don, and have cut my news consumption by a lot in the past couple of weeks and am not thinking about the campaign all that much either. Since that vertiginous morning three years ago I have been taking the news straight up in large quantities, trying to crack the Code of Donald before my liver gives out. And now, with the end in sight one way or another I am losing the heart to watch us crash and burn in slo-mo.

Yet another household member remarked, “I watched a ‘what does he eat in a day video’ about Donny. He cracks a pop first thing in the morning and then drinks them all day. Plus he’s old and fat and eats a lot of steak.” The subtext being – Bernie is also an old white guy with rage issues too and he had a heart attack. Why is any of this okay?

Why is it okay to have a lower limit on presidential age but not an upper limit? Why do we need an age limit at all? Shouldn’t the right to vote and the right to run for office go together? Are not the youth of America and the aged of America not all inherently wise enough to probably not elect a ninety-nine year old on a ventilator or a gangly high school senior who cannot yet have a glass of champagne to celebrate their victory? Yet we elected Donald and now have to lie in that rancid bed of well-buttered bread. Are there any laws we could make up that would make any of this okay?