John's Question:

I struggle some days with how to think about my ancestors. On the one hand, without them and the risks, hard work, and wisdom they had, I'd not be here to wonder about them. They did many wonderful things, and, without question, did the very best they could.

All that said, my ancestors at least were colonizers, part of the English and Scottish settlers who colonized North America, and participated, directly or indirectly, in the Native American genocide and the slave trade.

So how to hold them -- with gratitude? With sadness and a sense of guilt? Or...?

So the question is: How do we think about and honor (if we do) our ancestors? Who do we consider our ancestors to be, i.e., how far back do we go? What have they given us personally, and to what extent, if any, do we hold them to account for the harms they committed or at least allowed?

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Objects in the rear view mirror are closer than they appear


Objects in the rear view mirror may appear closer than they are

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So here we are, going forward but looking back. Are the Ancestors gaining on us, or falling further behind? How are we to think about now-departed generations, the worlds they inhabited, the choices they made, the actions in which they were implicated or were directly responsible for? We owe "our DNA" to them, and perhaps we OWE it to them to cut some slack, to not embroil them in the contention of our present lives, especially with information as scanty and error-prone as what has come down to us.
Was my paternal grandfather (who died in 1936) a philanderer? Or is that just my inference from fragments of evidence?

Did my maternal grandfather disown my mother because she had an appendectomy (at age 14 or so) that contravened his alleged Christian Science beliefs?

Fact is, I don't KNOW and anyone who did KNOW the truth of the stories is gone. In any case, the truth is complicated and really doesn't matter. I surely have no responsibility for their actions, though I can trace the consequences in the broader sagas of my extended family, in a probabilistic analytical narrative that is fun to construct, but is a fabrication.

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I have three different perspectives on Ancestors:

  1. My own forebears, explored in Exploring Franklin Blackmer's family photo archive (pdf)

  2. My Bluenose Physiognomy (pdf), Abandoned Ancestors project, and Liberty Tool Flickr Album

  3. My Remembered: A graveyard book (pdf), and Cemeteries Flickr Album (and Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology reflects some of the same sensibilities)

I have no hesitation in identifying all of those as my ancestors, in the sense that I have collected and curated them, and spent many happy hours exploring the tales they have to tell. Their lives were (just like ours) what THEY made of them, by the lights of their times.

So I fall to wondering what resources and points of view would be helpful in deepening our understanding of the now-vanished worlds of our forebears. Essentially they come down to revisionist histories that challenge and amend the received versions of what-happened-and-why, to replace the Just So stories with more complexed and nuanced narratives. Over the last 50 or so years we've seen a continuous re-visioning. rarely exculpatory and often read as assigning blame for what are now seen as ...mistakes, misunderstandings, and willful blindnesses of the past.

For example: how should we understand the plight of Ireland, or Scotland? Where does BLAME lie for what happened to Celtic peoples? And what good is it now to go through the litany of wrongs done by Tudors and their successors? Or re-fighting Culloden, or the Highland Clearances, or the Black & Tans, or the IRA...
It's all STORIES, with versions that vary in the minds and voices of the tellers, and that morph over time. Often, we're sure that we know the true stories, but the realities are always much more complicated than the simple 4-legs-good-2-legs-bad chorused by the sheep in Animal Farm. Lots of things really can't be justified, but are to be understood as process, as consequence. Thus, slavery and genocide we'd surely agree are BAD and shouldn't happen, but they did, and they do. What are their roots, how do they become something that happens? How should responsibility be distributed?

Surely we can and should be responsible for our own actions, individually and collectively. But we can't assume the same responsibility for the actions of people in the past, though we can acknowledge how things unrolled in the past, and we can seek to plumb the complexities. But looking for simple explanations, especially to expiate guilt we've taken on for past injustices, is primarily aimed at making us feel better, and (as they say) butters no parsnips. Seems to me the Question comes down to: is YOUR heart pure, and the task is to keep checking on that, and adjusting what you do and how you think.

This week's Question harks back to the Tribes Question of March 2024, the Community Question of July 2023, and the Gettin' Above Your Raisin' Question of January 2024. One is born into a Heritage of ideas and behaviors, and may escape by choice or by chance, or may remain bound by that Heritage's fetters and blinders and fardels.

For an interesting case study/ethnography of escapees in North American society, consult the several volumes of Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City via text and video.

So much more to say...