This whole Confederate statue nonsense has got me thinking about a question that has crossed my mind before: why do we need to feel proud of our ancestors? Hang out at any genealogy conference, read a genealogy blog or book and you’ll eventually hear somebody comment on how proud they are of their ancestors. Judy over at the Legal Genealogist blog wrote a thoughtful commentary on her feelings about her Southern ancestors, but I must say I was disheartened and disappointed by most (though not all) of the commentators to her thoughtful post. More on that another day.
Anyway, feeling “proud” of our ancestors is almost a reflex, how quickly that word pops up. That made me think about my own life and whether my descendants would reflexively say the same thing about me. Have I done anything especially praiseworthy?
There is the easy reason some give that if our ancestors had not lived, we wouldn’t be here. That seems like a pretty low bar. Even Klansmen had descendants. And I get that working a job and raising a family seems praiseworthy these days, but I’m not sure if even that should be. We’re supposed to do those things, after all. Aren’t we?
There are certainly a lot of things about life in previous generations that were harder from a physical perspective. As much as I complain about my cubicle job, I don’t think I’d want to trade places with the farmers in the past, those doing the 13-hour-a-day backbreaking work of farming (especially before mechanized tools). All of that hard work that could be erased with the wrong bug infestation or the whims of the weather or if your mule decided to up and die.
I certainly know the women and wives of yesteryear had lives just as difficult. Without the conveniences of refrigerators and washing machines and electric ovens and microwaves, taking care of a family must have been tough, tough work. Cooking and cleaning alone must have consumed most of the day. And don’t let me even get started on birthing 6, 10, 14 children without epidurals! I had ONE baby and the thought of that alone sends chills through my body.
But still—none of each gets to choose the decade or times we were born into. I’m sure our descendants in the year 3000 (if we haven’t destroyed the planet by then) will talk about how we, here in 2017, had it tough. I know all I have to do today is to tell a 20-something year old that I grew up without cell phones and the Internet and their eyes gloss over and look at me as if they are seeing a dinosaur.
So it can’t be that.
This is where I am now: if a person did something extraordinary, that is what calls true pride to my mind. It doesn’t have to have been something financially lucrative but something that had an impact on others. They started a school or a local business. They built a church. They bought land when that was rare and sometimes even dangerous for Southern blacks. They migrated outside their home community in order to provide a better life for the family. They donated land for a school or cemetery. It’s completely subjective, I know.
Obviously, the African-American experience in this country offers plenty of opportunities for praiseworthy behavior. Collectively, I have immense pride in enslaved people who resisted, who ran away, who fought back, who bought their freedom. How while enslaved they fought to have some semblance of family and to create small spaces where they could know their own humanity. Those who ran away and became Union soldiers; and those who died doing that. The abolitionists (white and black) who fought against slavery; those who started abolitionist newspapers.
After emancipation, the very idea that—locked out of almost everything—people would build lives, institutions, schools, churches and instill in their children the opposite message that their society sought to get them to believe leaves me in awe. The hundreds of blacks during Reconstruction who ran for county clerk, sheriff, state or county representative in Southern states, again putting their lives at risk.
The heroic adults, children, teenagers and white citizens who battled during the Civil Rights movement who fought for what was right all at great risk to their lives. Many ultimately lost their lives. I imagine that there are similar experiences for all immigrant communities, those who came here with nothing and built something against great odds. Let’s not exclude the extraordinary acts of Native Americans communities amidst their suffering.
I mean really. How did they do all that?
This is what I know for sure: this research has taken me far and wide and I have met people and uncovered stories I could have never imagined. I have learned so much about American history that wasn’t taught in schools. I have uncovered interesting stories with twists and turns including a few family mysteries thrown in for good measure.
However, I suspect most of my ancestors were just like me. Everyday, average, regular people. Maybe I’m being too harsh but I know I’m not the only one who has oral history about a family member who was remembered primarily for being mean as hell. Not sure if I will include those facts in my family history;)
I now reserve a special pride in the individuals who went above and beyond the norms of their times, along with the collective pride of African-American achievement and struggle. It’s like all the advice people give to new parents about toddlers: don’t praise every single thing they do. “Yey! Lucy drew a line!” “Yey! Lucy knows the color yellow!” Save the praise for the bigger things like going #2 on the potty.
I truly believe that once we are freed from the need to exalt people just because we are descended from them, we can see them as they really were: flawed people doing the best they could with the circumstances of their lives. Just like all of us. The best gift this research has given me is the understanding that we are all too human, all too imperfect and that is what connects us all. That’s where my conscious has been raised—it’s all about connection. I don’t need to feel automatically proud of all of my ancestors to have been greatly enriched by this journey.
Although I will throw in that I’m really proud of the dogged research I have done to uncover them all! But that’s for me and for myself and I think that’s allowed;)
Anyway, family, I’m curious to hear from you about your thoughts on “automatic” pride in our ancestors. Are there a few ancestors that specifically come to your mind? Do you reserve it for the few or for them all? What about your own life?