To Honor the Dishonorable

There is a problem I have been wrestling with for many years. One of the refrains I hear over and over among people working for racial reconciliation is the necessity of honoring the ancestors and the insistence that the ancestors are helping us in our work, especially in the unraveling the intricacies of enslavement and its genetic and cultural legacy.

Well, let me tell you a little about my ancestors. The earliest any of them arrived in the New World was 1609, when a young ship’s carpenter’s apprentice named John Powell arrived in Jamestown aboard the Swallow. Thus began my mother’s family history. The first Collier, Isaac Collier, arrived in York County, Virginia about 1655, and just about the first thing he did was to establish a plantation. His grandson, Charles Collier, purchased 350 acres nearby in what is now part of Langley/NASA and established his own plantation there. I am directly descended from this Charles Collier.

The Colliers enslaved Africans and African Americans from the very beginning until Emancipation in 1865, and my grandfather’s cousin was actively involved in Jim Crow activity in the 1920s. As far as I can tell for sure, the Powells did not hold anyone in slavery until the late 18th or early 19th century. Benjamin Powell, my 4th great grandfather willed several enslaved people to his son, George Cader Powell, in 1833. And somewhere along this line, some Sub-Saharan genes entered my gene pool.

The legacy of this slaveholding is a line of racism running through my family. The most virulent post-Emancipation racists that I have actually encountered were my paternal grandmother and an uncle by marriage, but I have no reason to believe that the others, all of whom benefitted from both slavery and Jim Crow laws and practices, did not share some degree of this racism. The first people who I am sure fought against it were my parents. Yet, of course, they had an enormous uphill battle and never completely overcame the racism they grew up with.

And here is my problem. My ancestors were not honorable people. One was so cruel that his enslaved people rose up and murdered him, slowly to insure that he suffered. So how do I honor these dishonorable ancestors, these ancestors whom I see as undeserving of honor? How does one honor the dishonorable?

Last night a solution to the problem occurred to me. Anne and I were watching the film “Amistad” for about the third time. Shortly before the hearing before the Supreme Court, Cinque speaks eloquently about his ancestors, and says that the line of his ancestors all the way back will stand with him and help as they can because he is the culmination of their line. They act in history through him, and they are honored by his honorable actions and life.

And there is my answer. My ancestors’ crimes against humanity (and what else is slavery but a crime against humanity?) cry out for redress, for atonement, for being set to rest. When I was very young and she was very old, I met that last living person to have been enslaved by my family. She died in 1961 “about 100 years old”. And so neither my ancestors nor the people they enslaved are still living. So how can these crimes be atoned for? And by whom?

By me. The task falls to me, and this why I am called so powerfully to work for racial reconciliation. My ancestors call out from beyond the grave for me to atone for their crimes, and I honor them by confessing my family’s sins and working to repair the damage they inflicted on so many people. I think again of my racist grandmother whose hatred was so deep that I am sure she did not even acknowledge the humanity of people of color. How can I forgive her for the racism she planted in my heart? I forgive her by working to erase the very racism she embraced.

When I talk about my family’s slaveholding history, I can count on being told that it’s not my fault or my responsibility because I am not responsible for what my ancestors did. So I should get over my guilt trip. My response is that this misses the point entirely. Of course I am not responsible for what my ancestors did. But I am responsible to my descendants and to my culture to extinguish the legacy of despair and racist hatred that my ancestors handed on to me. And now I realize that I am also responsible to my ancestors to expiate the guilt and shame their actions created.

I know that I will not be able to erase the hatred of racism entirely, and that realization can be a temptation to freeze and do nothing. But if I give in to that temptation, then I dishonor my own ancestors, and I dishonor those they enslaved and their descendants. And I dishonor my own children and grandchildren and their children and grandchildren. I dare not do that, for then I take on my own guilt. I cannot do it all, but I commit myself to do whatever it is that I can do. For to do nothing would be a crime before God and against humanity.

26 thoughts on “To Honor the Dishonorable”

  1. 2/7/17
    Our Ancestors were neighbors! I have been deciphering the genealogies of the Ironmonger & James families, who emigrated from England to the Tidewater, Va, in the 1650’s. They enthusiastically bought land, Africans and African-Americans to work that land.

    From one of the 100’s of posts that I recieve daily via CTTT, suggested that the term “Prisoner of War” (POW) is more appropriate than “Slave,” to describe who my ancestors bought, bred & sold for over 200 years.

    The further I delve into it, anger with a pinch of pity has crumbled honor in my attitude toward the12 generations of my racist ancestors. I realized that Hannah Arendt’s description of Eichmann’s “banality of evil” is more fitting than the “fake news” & “alternatve truths” of Rebel flags and the re-enslavement by the old and new Jim Crow Eras.

    Every documentation of my blood kin owning another human being, generates my enragement. I would like to discover the means by which I could enlighten my bigoted cousins. Rght now, I must concentrate on disinterrng the heritage of my African-American & Native-American cousins as best as I can.

    Thank you fo sharing.
    Jon Hayes Knapp Carlsten, 13th Generation Descendant of the James & Ironmonger families., 404-857-5561.

  2. A personal thank you for this beautiful post, Ken. It perfectly expresses a painful dilemma I’ve felt and talked about with my dear friend and “Best Linked Descendant ” Pam Smith. While she feels her ancestors are present, guiding and sustaining her, I feel torn about mine. You got it right, How can we honor the dishonorable?

    Like you, I had a racist paternal grandmother who played a big role in my early years. Along with lovingly teaching me to read and write, she did her best to pass on white supremacy. Today, as I go further and further back into the generations — not just on her side but on that of two other grandparents — I find out just how many of my ancestors, whom I often come to feel I “get to know,” based their lives on the enslavement of other human beings. And I’m overwhelmed by the enormity of the hateful and shameful legacy they left all the rest of us.

    I agree; the best way to honor them is to atone for them, to do whatever we can to “repair the damage they inflicted on so many people.”

  3. I have such respect for your spiritual and psychological struggle over your heritage, Ken. I know that at times it was hard to see a way through, and it was painful to feel and know yourself to be a man of honor descended from families whose lives were stained with dishonor. You stayed with the pain, leaned into it, let others know about it so they would not feel alone with their struggles, and have found a way through.

    I hope that, for readers whose ancestors were enslaved and have felt anger, revulsion or discomfort about the people who enslaved, I hope your story will provide more insight about how at least one descendant of enslavers feels about that legacy.

  4. Thank you, Ken. Your words are accurate, open, and show deep reflection and questions that you’ve struggled with. I so identify with what you write and am comforted in reading this as it’s part of my journey too.

  5. It must take great courage and strength to walk the path you’re on. And perhaps those qualities also came from somewhere in your lineage. As you say, you’re doing the healing work your ancestors did not do. For a reason beyond the quality of understanding that’s available with the mind, your soul chose to be born into your lineage and accept life with all that is included with your family legacy. You belong to, and are also transcending, the loyalty of the family’s identity. Your sharing will surely touch others who need strength to face what has been buried. Thank you for helping to show the way. Many blessings for you and all your ancestors.

  6. Ken, I remember hearing something of your story when we first met in Jackson, Ms., but you have now crafted it in such a “bittersweet” and unforgettable way. Thank you, friend.

  7. Such a thoughtful reflection on truth and reconciliation! Thank you. I struggle with my feelings toward ancestors too. No one in America can truthfully say the stain of racism doesn’t travel with us throughout generations, outright or disguised. However, I recognize persistent unwelcome voice that refuses to go away, even when I will it to. It asks a question about my ancestors – “Were they kind?” I know the answer – of course they weren’t. And yet because I loved the family I knew, and knew them to be honorable, I struggle to see the line that separates them from their parents and grandparents, who held slaves and lived under the impression that they were the “Kind” kind.

  8. Thank you, Ken, for your powerful and honest testimony. Your call to “extinguish the legacy of despair and racist hatred that my ancestors handed on to me” should be a summons to all of us who share in this difficult ancestry.

  9. I too am descended from enslavers on both sides of my family in South Carolina and was taught as a child that African American people were inferior to whites. Although most of my family/cousins are not racists, they do not have the identity of shame that I carry; the fact of our families’ connection to slavery and support of the Jim Crow system doesn’t seem to engender a sense of responsibility in them–of setting things right or of at least being ardent to the task of telling the truth–the mission that I have taken on. It’s lonely. But I feel my responsibility is to my neices and nephews (I decided not to perpetuate the genetic material of our peculiar history) and their progeny, that they might remember that one person in the family recognized the depth of the atrocity that they benefit from. One day they may remember that someone they were related to told the story of the families’ shame and laid a foundation for telling the truth.

    1. I honor you for holding the light of truth, and making a place for it in the family system. Even if you don’t change the hearts and minds of everyone in the older generation, you are planting that seed in the system. Another truth-teller will come along and be influenced and inspired by what you do. Maybe the healing can come, not by changing what happened, but by more in the family acknowledging the truth of it and eventually coming to more peace with the burdens of the ancestors- which are only part of your inheritance. Just as having been enslaved is only part of the inheritance of the descendants of African-Americans.

  10. Thank you for this, Felicia. Your sense of mission in telling the truth about the shameful heritage your ancestors left is evident in all the work you are doing. I also share the loneliness of not having other close family members walking beside me.

    1. Thanks, Ann. Yeah, I wish I had family on board. However, my mother was very supportive of the work I did on the film, Shared History, before she died. She loved being able to talk about her experiences at the plantation with the African American families. Although she was the most committed in her views of white superiority, she finally cracked and began speaking and acting differently around African Americans. She would say there was mutual respect between the black and white families at the plantation, because we needed them and they needed us. I believe that’s called paternalism! One more thing. One time she said to me, “Was there anything good that came out of slavery.” I shook my head no. “Not even our introduction to them of Christianity?, she pleaded. I shook my head no. She was speechless. I think at that moment she began to finally feel the moral wrongness of the institution. This had taken a lifetime to understand.

  11. I once made the mistake of mentioning to a family member, a cousin who had been helpful in understanding the genealogy, why I was interested in all this. I never heard from him again.

  12. I found this post while searching for some history around the family name we chose for our son-Cader. We have a Cader Powell in our family history, and I have done minimal exploration of that family history-after we selected this name, I researched enough to find a historical document that charged a Cader Powell with beating another man’s slave. I assume, of course, that the crime was destruction of property, not assault of a human being.

    I don’t know if this Cader was one of my ancestors, but I have to assume so. Your piece has put so beautifully my struggle to hold accountable my ancestors, to acknowledge the privilege I still have in some ways because of their crimes, and to think of how to move forward.

  13. First, thank you for your kind words. Second, do you know where this Cader Power lived? We could be related. Third, the word “Cader” is a Welsh word that means “seat” in the sense of “place”, as in Washington DC is the seat of our government.

  14. This is very beautifully written. I am currently in this profound struggle of shame and deep obligation to atone for my enslaver ancestors. It is difficult not to absorb the shame and disgust I feel only discovering this in the past year. It is very helpful to know that other people are experiencing this as well. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and heart. Very impactful.

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