What if your ancestors suck?
Ancestor worship is a common theme in African lore, particulary in the traditional arts. So while people are singing the praises of their dead relatives, I always wanted to ask what to do if my ancestors were horrible people?
I was recently speaking with some people whose parents were refugees from Romania, ostensibly people who were fleeing life under the dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu, a forgotten piece of Stalinist work who made the lives of Romanians miserable for decades. While Ceaușescu and his government were vile, the people who came to the US were refugees and likely middle class families decended from peasants back home.
The contrast with my and many Americans’ heritage is stark. I am decended from a family of Mitchells, a distinguished Scottish family of wealthy means who decided to take a gamble and invest in agricultural ventures in the Southern United States. The first to come was a man named Thomas Mitchell, my maternal great x 10 grandfather, who arrived in US, fought in the Revolutionary War and set subsequently set up shop for the family business in Georgia.
Thomas, like many Scots who came to the Southern United States, came to profit not only off land and agricultural products that could be exported to Europe, but also off the promise of cheap, forced labor from Africa. Thomas Mitchell was a slaver.
From slave based agriculature, the Mitchell family became extremely wealthy in the South, producing numerous politicians, lawyers, administrators and academics. There is still a county named for the Mitchell family in Georgia.
In 1836, the Mitchell family expanded their land holdings by assembling a militia of 75 men and committing a genocide against the Native American residents of their land “in which all the Indians except five were killed, their arms, campage, etc. falling into the hands of the whites.”
There are others, but the point is, does it make sense to venerate one’s ancestors when they were clearly committing crimes against humanity? The Romanians I spoke with probably have terrible members of their family, but likely have not had their lives shaped by a horrible past.
I am not unique. Just about any white person in the South whose family was their during the 18th and 19th centuries was involved in the buying, selling and use of humans. If they have money now, it is a direct result of slavery and the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans in the South. We should never forget, because that’s how we got here, the past that shapes our present. Our current lives were made possible by terrible people doing reprehensible things to other people.
So no, not going to sing any praise songs to my ancestors any time soon. Maybe I’ll do the opposite instead.