Ethnically Perplexed by Sume
Years ago my father sent me a folder containing a family tree that stretched back to 1776, an old newspaper article about one of his ancestors and a picture of the family crest. He is a proud Southerner, and his pride naturally extends to his European ancestry that he’d traced all the way back to Wales. Throughout my childhood, he’d never failed to impress upon me the importance of heritage.
Even as a little girl, I remember him taking my brother and I to an old family graveyard in Louisiana. Many of the graves had deteriorated to little more than piles of stones, and the names were no longer readable. None of this mattered to my father. He told my brother and I to stand next to them so that he could record our pilgrimage to the old family plot.
He often boasted about his grandmother’s strength of character which he attributed to her French-Canadian/Cajun roots. During our visits, his ears would perk up as he heard her and his father speaking Cajun, a language he never learned to speak.
I vaguely remember him urging me to ask my great-grandmother to see a sword she supposedly owned that had been passed down from the Civil War. Being a proud Southerner, he impressed the significance of the Confederate flag upon me at an early age. As a teenager, I proudly displayed it in the corner my room.
Rebel Yelling by Sume
I don’t remember my father ever associating the flag with racism. For him, it symbolized his Southern roots and nothing more. I might have had no problem with that except for the fact that my father was racist. He still is – and this is the part where I get really uncomfortable.
Writing about my family’s racism is always painful for many reasons. I am ashamed and ashamed of being ashamed. He is my father, the only one I’ve ever known. Some part of my conscience kicks me in the back of the head every time I mention my father’s racial prejudice. I feel the urge to apologize for him and even cover it up, but I’m tired of covering for my family, exhausted from carrying the burden of their deceptions. No matter how good their intentions, it’s not mine to carry. Furthermore, as I slowly re-align my perspective to one of a woman of color rather than a white woman, my brain must reject much of my father’s view of the world as unacceptable.
He has mellowed out some over the years, but it’s still there and manifests itself in more – and still occasionally less – subtle ways. He’s not the only one, but most of my family is less obvious about it. It always surprised and filled me with such shame and anger when I’d hear members of my family say “nigger” as if there were nothing wrong with it – even more so when I’d confront them about it. Sometimes I’d get arguments and excuses. Sometimes, they’d just look at me as if I were crazy. Except for my father, I’ve since learned to avoid those particular family members.
There was a time when I tried to compartmentalize Dad from his racism just as he seemed to compartmentalize racism from the Confederate South. Yes, I’ve read the debates, but cannot escape the fact that the South and part of its history included slavery. It’s not that I buy into the idea that the North was absent of racism and exploitation of people of color, but just as with my father, there are things to be proud of and things of which to be terribly ashamed.
Ironically, the only photo he seemed to be able to find of one of his early ancestors was that of a Union soldier (see first photo). On it, he’d written: Don’t claim no kin to this one.
On the inside of the folder, my father wrote:
Forget not from Whence
The lineage in your Vein
Was born of Suffering and Pain
In abeyance of Life’s Penance!
The infuriating thing is that all the while he was impressing upon me the importance of his heritage, he was contributing to the erasure of mine with his lies. Well intentions be damned. One does NOT compensate for another. One does NOT trump the other. Because there were so many pieces missing, the few remaining fragments became all the more valuable – and irreplaceable.
Despite any wish he might have had to ensure I felt a part of the family, a true sense of belonging is only true when you don’t have to work too hard at it. The burden of proof felt more put upon me than upon him. All he had to do was lie, but the responsibility for maintaining the illusion was mostly mine.
And I refuse.