Black Lives Matter demonstrations and conversations call into question America’s commitment to its values. They speak to the continuing oppression of important people in my life, including my son Gabe. So much has been written about this and so expertly, I couldn’t possibly do better.
But I do have a story that seems especially relevant right now.
A couple of years ago, I learned that my ancestors owned slaves in the State of North Carolina. This came as a shock to me. My family is not like that! Which of course has nothing to do with it. I was also in shock that this fact had been kept from me for so long.
I suspect my parents kept this from me because they thought it would hurt me. Parents are like that. On this one, however, I would have preferred hard truth to secrecy, partly because I believe in genetic memory. To the extent genetic memory exists, I inherited the pain of the inhumanity perpetrated by my ancestors. Of course, the people descended from slaves, probably my own son, would have an even more profound genetic connection to that inhumanity.
When I learned about how my ancestors enslaved people, my first instinct was to connect with the people whose ancestors were tormented by them. Unsure of my motives, I hired a young friend to find the living descendants of the people my family enslaved. It’s not such a difficult task if you have the right kind of information about your white family. What I had, however, wasn’t enough, so my friend didn’t find much.
Coincidentally, at about the same time, I took a DNA test. When I got the results, there were surprises. For example, I learned I am not half Scottish and half Armenian, as everyone in my family had always assumed. Instead of being half Scottish, I am half English. Maybe this explains why my family hates haggis. Instead of being half Armenian, I am 1/4 Armenian and 1/4 Italian. This surely explains why my family loves pasta.
But there were three other surprises that were more interesting. When I surveyed the ancestry site, I found three 5th cousins in my family who are black. A 5th cousin is someone who is connected through an ancestor born in the mid-19th century, that is, before the end of slavery. Since I don’t have any (modern) African DNA, that can only mean one thing.
I contacted my new 5th cousins. Two responded, but they didn’t seem interested in being my friend. At first, this confused me. Why don’t they want to be my friend? But then, I thought, maybe I should consider what was motivating my investigation. My guilt? My curiosity? My need to reconcile my family’s past? Guessing my 5th cousins have their own issues to deal with.
From there, I realized it doesn’t matter whether I know the descendants of the people my family enslaved because, ultimately, we are all related. Genetically. Culturally. As part of one big world. What matters is working to dismantle whatever parts of the system deny so many people access to peace, safety, and justice.
This can only happen when we stop “othering,” — treating people like “them.” When I hear someone say police reform or ending mass incarceration is “important to the black community,” I know we have a long way to go. What is important to “the black community” is important to all of us. We shouldn’t accept a world that is the miserable child of our ancestors’ world. Oppression poisons all of us, as individuals and as a community.
“Ubuntu” is the Bantu word for the universal bond that connects humanity. More literally, it means “I am because we are.” Imagine what it would be like to live this.
“A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.”
— Archbishop Desmond Tutu.