This Christmas my sister and brother-in-law received a subscription to Ancestry.com. My sister has been filling me in as she goes deeper and deeper into our family’s past. It has been fascinating. And fun.
Until I opened this email:
Learned today that we have slave owners on Mother's side. I found the record that actually listed all of them by name and age. Also learned that we have a Captain in the Confederate Army in our past. We found a letter from Mimi that said that we had someone in our past who was there when Lee surrendered at Appomattox. Maybe that was the same guy. All the Rylees in the history of the country are all relatives of ours.
When we are done, I will send you the entire tree.
My ancestors enslaved and exploited the labor of other human beings. There it was. I couldn’t put the possibility out of my consciousness any longer. I’ve known that a part of my family was from the South. I knew I had ancestors who fought on both sides of the Civil War. But something inside me refused to make the connection that my family might have been culpable, complicit, a participant in such a great wrong. We were probably too poor for that, I told myself.
Learned today that we have slave owners on Mother's side. I found the record that actually listed all of them by name and age.
This makes me sick. I feel heartache and revulsion at my connection to such cruelty and injustice.
On a day when our nation honors the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, I am sitting with the knowledge of my family’s complicity in a system of deeply entrenched power and violence that tainted this country from its inception and from which we have not recovered. As long as we don’t want to face the truth of it and the reality of its persistent consequences, we perpetuate its evil.
I am mightily sick of people who begin by saying “Martin Luther King, Jr was a great man but...”
But when you speak the truth about race I will call you divisive.
But when you ask me to make the world more just for others I will question your motives.
But when Dr. King’s message makes me uncomfortable I will deny it.
Throughout our nation, the work is not done, the Dream is not fulfilled. Here in Howard County, we continue to struggle with facing the truth of racism and realizing that the truth means action. Racist incidents in our schools, the controversy over redistricting, and the upcoming race for County Executive shine a spotlight on who we are.
“I’m a good person. I didn’t do anything wrong!” We want to say.
Ah, but did we do anything right?
My family. My family. My family did this. I can’t change that. I can change who I am right now, in the present. I will stumble and fall. A lot. But I hope that, when I do, you’ll lend me a hand and remind me why I’m on this road.