At My Grandfather's Knee...(Ancestry Reflections)
With a bi-racial American President currently in office, the discussion of race in American life has continued to be of interest in the news and, of course, in the political world.
The other day, I happened to be listening to one of those "political" radio stations where the commentator was harping about a politician who had apparently claimed to have had a bit of Native American ancestry way back in her family, and who had also supposedly identified herself as being other than "White" on some form somewhere. The premise of the commentator's point, seemingly, was that the woman might have once used a part of her ethnicity in order to be "favored" in some way. How different that type of thinking is from the days of our not-so-far-back past, when so many minority Americans experienced very different reactions regarding their racial make-up.
Why the racial question even mattered with that commentator made no sense at all, at least to me. If we do the math (that is, each of us having two parents, four grandparents, and so on), then at least theoretically (if we went back a couple of dozen generations) we would all probably be related to each other in some way, and many of us would probably be "multi-racial" too, or at least "multi-cultural," depending on how one defined either "racial" or "cultural."
You might think, for example, that your mother was Italian, but Italy did not even become a unified nation until the 19th century. So was your ancestry really Florentine? Venetian? Sicilian? Neapolitan? Or perhaps Roman? As you can see, that's where ancestry gets really interesting. If your heritage was English, you'd better get into a study of Normans and Saxons, Celts, and even those Romans again. Are you Irish? Then you'd be looking at Celtic, Danish, Norwegian, and possibly even Spanish heritage, since many Viking sailors landed on Irish shores, plus those Spanish sailors too, who washed ashore from their storm-botched 1588 invasion attempt on England. Many different kinds of people have proverbially washed ashore on the beaches of our own country as well.
We human beings do get around, you know, and (to the constant worry of population specialists) we've been quite good at (over)populating this planet of ours without regard to race, creed, or national origin.
So, hey cousin! How's it going?
My own genealogy is probably all over the map, as I suspect your own would be--if we only knew for certain. My Pennsylvania grandfather once told me that I was part Native American, and the old sepia-toned photograph accompanying this column would seem to bear that out. Granddad is fishing out on a lake with his mother, who looks all the world like the Seneca I believe she was. When I was a child at his knee, Grandfather told me never to tell anyone I was part Native American, because he was concerned about the implications that might have for me in modern-day America. In those days, there was often great tension between races, and mixed-race people particularly sometimes had it rough in life. When I became involved with Native American issues here in the Cleveland area many years ago, I also learned that there was a great division, and no little amount of tension at times between those Native Americans whose families had registered with the government and those whose ancestors had quietly assimilated into the "White" world after the Federal Indian Removal Act of 1830 forced their former tribes onto reservations.
Thinking about it, where indeed did the "Native Americans" come from anyway? There's a great deal of controversy with that research as well. A predominant opinion seems to be that American tribes were possibly of Asian or Polynesian origin, but others have suggested there may have even been European roots for some Native Americans, and so the research and studies go on. Even those studies have been embroiled in controversy, as many institutions around the country have held Native American remains taken from burial grounds, and the various tribal groups have demanded their return for re-burial, rather than being studied for research.
Once, one of my own family's relatives quietly told my dad that we also had Black blood in our family. That information hit me like a ton of bricks when I remembered that my own struggles for the rights of the disabled had closely paralleled the Civil Rights struggles of Blacks in the 1960's. As a blond-haired, blue-eyed boy, my own issues concerned getting people to understand my so-called "handicaps" rather than my skin color; but in truth, prejudice, bigotry, and discrimination can appear anywhere, and for any reason.
Those of you who have read my columns over the years know very well of my positions regarding human rights and dignity, and now, perhaps you might know a little more of the reasons behind my taking those positions. We all come from different frames of reference, and it would be from those personal reference points that we develop those opinions that mold and shape our lives.
Sometimes, those experiences can be quite dramatic. I once had an older relative whose attitude towards other races was, shall we say charitably, in need of improvement. He had little time for inter-racial understanding, and wanted nothing whatsoever to do with people having a skin color different than his own...That is, until his daughter, rather unexpectedly, delivered a Black child! (Although her husband was White.) How could that have happened? Well, the best explanation anyone could come up at the time was that there had been some hidden genetic reason, but bottom line? That relative of mine finally changed his thinking, and loved his grandchild until the day he died. Sometimes, nature indeed takes a hand with the prejudices that people have.
These days, I am told that a DNA test could tell us many things about ourselves, including our own ancestors' racial past. I've thought about getting one of those tests, but at the same time, I'm very comfortable with the colorful oral traditions of my family, and the knowledge that, at the last, we are indeed all probably related to one another anyway, if we went back far enough in our bloodlines.
On those categorized forms, as far as race goes, I really wish that there was a box marked "all," or maybe just "human." That's the box I'd really like to check. Of course I've always liked to think "outside" of those boxes anyway. I suppose that's why I wrote this column.