Wednesday, July 26, 2006

The Dark Side of Genealogy

Many years ago, in my mis-spent youth, I worked at the front desk at a big San Francisco hotel. One evening, a very cute black man checked in, whose last name was Ward. "Hey," I said, semi-flirtatiously, "that's my last name, too." He smiled and said, "Yeah, it's that southern thing." Ugh. Stopped me cold. Maybe he thought that somewhere back in time, some of my ancestors owned his ancestors. Which is surely not true, since,
1. My Ward surname came from my mom's step-dad, so I wasn't descended from him by blood; and,
2. Our Ward family was poor Irish in Oklahoma, and surely never had the kind of money it took to own slaves. Who knows, they may have still been in Ireland at the time of the Civil War.

I was thinking about this yesterday, because while I was walking Genevieve in the hot morning sun (108 yesterday, they keep saying it's going to cool off, but 108 doesn't feel cool to me), I was listening to "To the Best of Our Knowledge" on my beloved iPod. This episode centered on the topic of regrets. One of the interviewees was a man named Cary Sudler, and his regret was that his ancestors owned slaves, and had contributed to the racial issues and divisiveness in our country. He made an extremely good point, one that I have often considered as well. When his white friends tell him that he wasn't there, it's not his fault nor any connection of his, he replies that if we are going to associate ourselves with our ancestors, if we are to take pride in their accomplishments and their strengths, then in order to be honest, we must recognize their wrong doings as well.

Some might dismiss this as liberal "white guilt", and complain that it is somewhat condescending. And perhaps at some level it is. But I don't think it is easily dismissed. For me to have advantages in our society based solely on my skin color, while others must overcome theirs, that is a burden that rightfully carries guilt, and should also bring a desire with it to atone for these wrongs.

I grew up with stories of how our southern ancestors, the Herndons (and surely many of the families into which they married) owned slaves. These stories are always about how benevolent we were, that the slaves were brought into the house to be tended when they were sick or very old. That doesn't really make me feel any better, especially since with a glass of wine in her, my grandmother will tell me that she just feels that deep down, black people are "different", and there's nothing that I can say that will change her mind. The truth is, we owned people, bought and sold them, and took advantage of the fruits of their labor. We separated families and thought of them as inferior. There is only shame in this for me.

Cary Sudler, the man being interviewed, decided to make what restitution he could. He tracked down some descendents of his ancestors' slaves, pulled together his courage, and he apologized to them. It was amazing. You should go listen.

For now, to all of the descendents of the slaves of my Herndon ancestors, I would like to apologize. I would like to quote Mr. Sudler's apology, which was made via phone to a black man who shared his last name. I think he got it right, though he's a bit clumsy.

I just want to apologize for any difficulty that life is as far as racism and the rest of it, and I want you to know that you have somebody with the same last name who's interested in having a level playing field for everybody.

I want to let you know that it does not continue, even in silence.
He ends the interview with this:

I really don't know what you say to somebody...but I carry my family's name, and I carry what it's done, both good and bad. What do you do in life? You just try and do the next right thing, even if you don't understand it.

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