Where did we travel from? We all came from somewhere else to America, and before too long we felt we were entitled, we assumed we belonged. The indigenous peoples of this land knew they belonged – it was in their bodies and their connection to this land. We, on the other hand, assumed.
When I travel to different cultures I often think about how we are connected, how we’re all humans on the earth just trying to survive. Our skin color is different, but path is the same. I like this sense of fluidity. And I feel sad that many cannot see this.
My family’s ancestors came from England, Ireland, and France, and they settled in the Eastern part of this country, establishing communities of righteousness. They had a hunger for freedom from the tyranny of the British, and then … They became those who tyrannized others.
My grandmother’s ancestors lived in South Carolina, one of the most important states of the Confederacy. Slavery became the backbone of their society economically, and a horrific war was fought because there were two opposing views about how to have a Union, and how to treat the issue of slavery. I can’t imagine a life where others are enslaved, treated and cruelly mistreated as property. If I were to talk to Grandmother now, I’d imagine she would say it is morally wrong to own slaves, that she couldn’t in good conscience condone this, even though she came from a landscape where this was the norm. I believe she was aware that this was perpetrated by many in her ancestors, and that her great great great grandfather, Christopher Gadsden, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, was a slave owner. Most Southern men of privilege were. Does this mean they were to be condemned for being immoral and cruel? Does playing one’s part in the social structure (owning slaves if you’re well off) change your character as a human? Thomas Jefferson, an advanced thinker, humanitarian and politician of his time, had slaves. And he penned the lyrical and courageous document called the Declaration of Independence.
Can you reconcile the social/political choices a person makes from who he or she is in his heart and mind? I talked about this with a fellow writer recently – she said she couldn’t enjoy the art of Pablo Picasso because he was such a misogynist, because he demeaned women all his life. That he was an extraordinary painter who transformed minds and hearts throughout his career made no matter to her, because he had succumbed to chauvinism. Should you conclude that Jefferson’s contributions to our early history should be discounted because he had slaves? And should I feel uncomfortable because this long ago ancestor of my grandmother’s was a slave owner and also a patriot? This is an interesting, disturbing question. I confess that I never allowed myself to accept the brilliance of Hemingway as a writer because I was repelled by how he treated and characterized women. What I took for a certain immorality took precedence over any notion of learning from his extraordinary craft.
Immigration ... I return to this again, haunted by the poetic book Exit West by Moshin Hamid, a writer from Pakistan who is also preoccupied with the concept of humans in transit. We all have come from somewhere, we are all immigrating through different territories of our lives, and like mosaics, in a way, we carry a mix of ethnicity, personality, and vision. Though we are mosaic-like, we reflect the culture where we live and work. When we move on, if we do, we leave something(s) behind, as though shedding part of our skin. Is this now dead to us?
How much did my grandmother think about her ancestor as a slave-owner, and how would that have made her feel? While Christopher did not migrate away from his native South, she did, and in doing so she was able to leave behind that which was too hard to carry. She may have known the truth of her past, but she was able to break free, so she could continue to grow into a complex and different woman.
When I think of the Civil War and its dark inhumanity, I realize we may not be as far away from that divisive thinking as we’d like to believe. These times we inhabit at the outset of the 21st century are terribly fractured and polarized, and they are colored by an escalation of emotions that is scary. It occurs to me that I may not see the resolution of this rift in our culture or the discovery of a shared humanity, and all I can do with the despair and frustration is continue to reflect on this phenomenon of migration and the truth of our human sameness. This reassures me somehow, and reminds me to continue to hold some hope for my future ancestors, and for all beings.