i sent this to my mom, and she replied with her version…
the fad of looking up your ancestors seems like the most innocent thing in the world. someone wants to know more about their family, so they look up some historical records and find out some new information. but there are some problematic patterns in how a lot of us white folks are doing genealogy right now, and i’m interested in thinking about alternatives.
my biological grandfather on my mother’s side (i have many other grandfathers) got into genealogy ten years ago. he gave us a lot of information about his dad’s dad’s dad, and many other men going back hundreds of years. nothing about women, and nothing about my grandmother’s side. she had died years earlier, and he had married someone new. there was nothing about the native americans who were mentioned now and then, or the african american slave who my mom said was mentioned in a very disturbingly brief and casual way. did my ancestors own slaves? i have no idea. but whether they did or not, slavery contributed directly to my opportunities as a white person, to the job i have now, and the spare time my comfortably retired grandfather uses to do genealogy research.
i am aware that white folks sometimes say we are related to native people and use that story to benefit us. i’m aware that i don’t know very much about who my biological ancestors were, and that my grandfather made choices to avoid difficult conversations.
but i think some genealogy can be really awesome. for people who have been historically oppressed it is a huge deal to reclaim the history that was stolen from them. i saw an amazing documentary years ago (forgot the name, wish i remembered it) made by a lesbian daughter about her dad and other queer ancestors. she had to do so much research to uncover their queerness.
i’m thinking now about my great aunt j., whose partner was a woman. i met her a few times when i was little and i remember she was a fashionista and she had a great smile.
and what about the hidden ancestors? the ones who were incarcerated and stigmatized, mentioned quickly or not at all?
b., my grandpa’s sister, was a strong, rebellious woman who was stigmatized and cut out of the family because she “slept around.” i stand with her in her rebellion and claim her as my ancestor, maybe closer to me than my grandfather, even though i never met her.
my dad’s dad fled the pogroms in balin, ukraine in 1913. he was four years old. i emailed my dad today about our cousin s., who was incarcerated since he was a teenager. our other cousin a. used to visit him once a year.
my genealogy would be about the difficult conversations, but also the reclamation and queering of family. the concepts of heritage and blood have done so much damage. it’s like genealogy is a tool for congratulating ourselves and erasing the atrocities.
to the radical genealogists out there: i’d love to join together in an anti-genealogy that shows how i am connected to you and holds our feet to the fire in the right way. the information we find will be resources for being the big queerfamilies we want to be.
and then my mom wrote:
Sounds good. Actually Dad went to North Carolina to find out about this female slave, last name Dee, we are related to. It was a few years ago, and I half remember a conversation with him where I was happy we had genetic diversity in the family, but he corrected me, I didnt get it. She was a slave, not a pretty picture he said. Also, another obliterated person is a murderer apparently, someone in our family is that, I do not know who. Family ties. I do not speak to my Dad now, not over this, just because he tends to yell and harass me when we talk. I don’t have the gift of turning it aside without paying a price. I don’t speak to my brother who sexually abused my younger sister, because he won’t admit to it and say sorry. Also for his attempt on me, which didnt work because I was bigger. I dont speak to the second brother whose drinking gets in the way. It’s not a statement “I won’t speak with you” but just not speaking because I don’t want the ancient pointless tapes to play in my head and waste my life. I would like to know more about the murderer though. I am betting it was a man, and that drinking had something to do with it. So I don’t know about “big" queer families, my personal family has shrunk. But maybe it is big in another way.
I go to work on a dark day, and in marches my brother-like colleague, “dont go away until I talk with you” he sings out. and tells me the best his mind has worked on, several new books to think about and a plan for a new major to hatch. Connects me with an interesting person to talk to later in the day. My genetic sister I am taking a break from as she seems to attack me just for stress relief but a younger woman from works brings me a mango smoothie, beautiful and orange and almost frozen, its sweet ice calms the hot edges of my temporarily broken heart. With a sister’s caring hand she delivers the unexpected gift. And about that heart.
I tried to build a new extension of my family with a new husband. Somehow my heritage made me blind to the fact he refused to share expenses with me, that he was not honest about other women, but worst of all was a drag on my attempts to use my wings to fly. Family building skills. With this man, my skills were damaged. He would love to keep the connection with me: why not? I pay for everything, and do not hold him accountable. I am sure from hisfamily background, this is th ideal wife. His dad by the way keeps dvds of Nazi’s and plays them at top volume to make a point. What is the point? Who is he attacking by his loud tv bouts? Any way I have pruned back my familytree, the hundreds of thousands of hours spent in this context, a bushel of sick shit most families have. Maybe families are about money, now days. A lot of my students have majors they don’t want and wont be good at because their parents “love” them and since they are paying the bills, the child has to do what they say, because if you get the good salary that’s all that families will recognize as important.
Day before yesterday my Dad came to town for cancer tests in the hospital where I had my mastectomy. I did not offer him a place to stay or even talk to him. He didn’t talk to me when I was going through stuff. maybe neither of us learned how quickly enough to make it work. It only works when I bleed out all love for him, and he shits on me, so I won’t do it any more. Even if i am a woman and I am supposed to give love. But I am a woman and I can shut off the flow too. Its my love to give or to keep.
Just some more thoughts for you. Love, Mom